When planning a trip to Hawaiʻi, you’ll spend a lot of time reading about all there is to see and do. But don’t let your reading be only about trip planning – be sure to sprinkle in some inspirational reading as well.
There are many books about Hawaiʻi that dive into its landscapes, people, culture, and history. Some may prefer to consume it in non-fiction form; others may enjoy a novel set in Hawaiʻi. Either way, reading about the destination in narrative form will add to your perspective and get you excited to explore the islands.
Below, we highlight some of our favorite books about Hawaiʻi by breaking them down into different categories, including fiction, non-fiction, and children’s books.
Table of contents
Table of Contents
- Amazon.com vs. Bookshop.org
- Novels set in Hawaii
- Books about Hawaiian history
- Books about Hawaii’s natural environment and local culture
- Children’s books about Hawaii
- Works by local authors
But first: why do we suggest both the Amazon and Bookshop websites?
You will see below that we give you the option to see the books we recommend both on the Amazon.com website and on the Bookshop.org website. We do this to give you a choice between convenience (Amazon) and the possibility to more directly support local bookstores (Bookshop).
- Bookshop.org is an online bookstore with a mission to financially support local, independent bookstores. they give away over 75% of their profit margin to stores, publications, authors and others who make up the thriving, inspirational culture around books. One downside of using Bookshop is that they don’t ship orders to Canada or Internationally (yet). Audiobooks and ebooks are also available on the Bookshop website, and their prizes are similar or occasionally slightly higher than those on Amazon. read more about Bookshop.org here.
- Amazon.com doesn’t need an introduction and is the go-to online storefront for many people. If you already have an Amazon account using Amazon is more convenient. Additionally if you don’t live in the United States Amazon is a better choice for you because Bookshop.org does not ship internationally.
Disclosure: Love Big Island is an affiliate of both Bookshop.org and an Amazon associate, and earn a commission if you click through and make a qualifying purchase.
Novels set in Hawaiʻi
Reading these Hawaiʻi-based novels will introduce you to the sights and sounds of the islands.
Print length: 937 pages | Aggregate rating: 4.6/5
Arguably the most famous book focusing on the islands, Hawaiʻi by James Michener was published in 1959 and remains as ever-popular today. If you only read one book before coming to Hawaiʻi, this would be the one to help you get an overview – albeit in fictional format – of the islands’ long and storied history.
It captures the entire history of Hawaiʻi, first as an untouched volcanic island chain that sprang up from the ocean, to the arrival of the first Polynesian settlers, forward to the modern-era, when American missionaries and business owners forever changed the trajectory of the islands. After reading, you will have a greater understanding and appreciation for what has transpired on this tiny island chain in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Print length: 400 pages | Aggregate rating: 4.6/5
Molokaʻi has always been somewhat of a mystery to visitors, given its low-profile and, at times, indifferent attitude towards tourism. Those who visit the island are always captivated, however, by the story of Kalaupapa, the leper colony on the island’s north shore. It remains active today with a handful of patients; though its “heyday” was in the 1860s, when it was created to prevent the spread of leprosy throughout the islands. Many saintly types, including Father Damien, rushed to help care for the patients, but ultimately, more than 8,000 people died at Kalaupapa from the disease, making its story one of the most heartbreaking in all of Hawaiian history.
Molokaʻi, the book, aims to tell this story through a fictional account of a young girl who is sent to Kalaupapa after contracting the disease. We recommend it for everyone visiting Molokaʻi, but also anyone interested in Hawaiʻi’s history before it became part of the United States. Today, Kalaupapa is a National Historic Park.
Print length: 352 pages | Aggregate rating: 4.4/5
Print length: 320 pages | Aggregate rating: 4.5/5
Now a major motion picture starring George Clooney, its possible you already know the story of The Descendants. However, as the saying goes, the book is better – or, at least, it provides a lot more context and detail and presents an interesting perspective on the idea of Hawaiʻi as an island paradise.
Indeed, one of the major disconnects between a traveler and a resident, all over the world but especially in Hawaiʻi, is the temptation to view a place as a pleasure-filled paradise when visiting for a few days, ignoring the realities of life for local residents. Rest assured people who live in Hawaiʻi have problems, too.
The Descendants puts this theme center stage as it mixes tragedy, growth, and humor with its story that follows a husband’s quest to find and inform his wife’s lover of her impending death (she’s in a coma). Add in two daughters in tow, and its safe to say it’s a sticky situation that’s sometimes sad and sometimes funny. The story is set on Kauaʻi and also touches on local issues, like ancestral lands. While it may not get you “excited” to visit the islands, it’s a nice one to read during your visit – a good beach book, if you will.
Books about Hawaiian history
These books dive into Hawaiʻi’s rich history and mythology, which will help you gain perspective of modern-day Hawaiʻi and understand its past.
Shoal of Time
Print length: 512 pages | Aggregate rating: 4.5/5
If you want to consume your Hawaiian history in non-fiction form, Shoal of Time is a great place to start. It relays scenes from Captain Cook’s first discovery of the islands to Hawaiʻi’s recognition of statehood in 1959, introducing readers to the Hawaiian monarchy and the slow but sure way that western business and influence began to change the islands forever.
If you’ve not read much about Hawaiian history, this book will give you a broad overview of its timeline, major periods, and significant events. It’s a good starting point and other books will allow you to dive deeper into individual time periods.
Print length: 464 pages | Aggregate rating: 4.5/5
Another option for non-fiction history is Captive Paradise. It does give a broad overview when all said and done, but it does so by focusing mainly on the way Hawaiʻi has been changed by outside influences. It highlights how western ideas of business and religion pushed out Native Hawaiian practices and beliefs. The tone of the book is one of oppression and struggle, which, while not unfair, isn’t exactly uplifting material.
But, it’s an important read for those interested in learning about the real Hawaiʻi and its historic struggle. It’s also important because Native Hawaiian culture has undergone a renaissance in the islands, leading to many conversations about the its past, present, and future. Shrewd travelers will want to understand this perspective when moving about the islands.
Hawaiʻi’s Story by Hawaiʻi’s Queen
Print length: 174 pages | Aggregate rating: 4.6/5
If the story of how Hawaiʻi came to be a U.S. State intrigues you, Hawaiʻi’s Story by Hawaiʻi’s Queen provides a unique account. It was written by Queen Liliʻuokalani, the last queen of Hawaiʻi. She was the queen that was captured and forced to sign control of Hawaiʻi over to the U.S. government following an insurrection.
The book introduces readers to her childhood and journey to becoming queen, the events leading up to the “overthrow,” and the process of appeals that took place afterwards. Because it was written by the Queen herself, the perspective comes from an entirely Hawaiian point of view, which is not often the case in historical books.
Print length: 256 pages | Aggregate rating: 4.4/5
Of all the countries the United States invaded or colonized in 1898, Sarah Vowell considers the story of the Americanization of Hawaii to be the most intriguing. From the arrival of the New England missionaries in 1820, who came to Christianize the local heathens, to the coup d’état led by the missionaries’ sons in 1893, overthrowing the Hawaiian queen, the events leading up to American annexation feature a cast of beguiling, if often appalling or tragic, characters. Whalers who fire cannons at the Bible-thumpers denying them their god-given right to whores; an incestuous princess pulled between her new god and her brother-husband; sugar barons, con men, Theodore Roosevelt, and the last Hawaiian queen, a songwriter whose sentimental ode “Aloha ‘Oe” serenaded the first Hawaiian-born president of the United States during his 2009 inaugural parade.
With her trademark wry insights and reporting, Vowell sets out to discover the odd, emblematic, and exceptional history of the fiftieth state. In examining the place where Manifest Destiny got a sunburn, she finds America again, warts and all.
Books about Hawaiʻi’s natural environment and local culture
These books will introduce you to the natural world and different aspects of Hawaiian culture.
Wind, Wings, and Waves
Print length: 384 pages | Aggregate rating: 4.6/5
If you’re looking to get to know Hawaiʻi’s natural landscape, both on land and in the ocean, this is the book for you. It touches on just about everything: the coral reefs, the volcanoes, the night sky, and its flora and fauna, complete with color illustrations.
Another thing the book does well is provide context to certain aspects of Hawaiʻi’s natural environment. For example, it goes into detail about how and why Hawaiʻi became a hub of astronomy, how plants and animals arrived on the island, which reefs to visit, and the lifecycle of a volcano, among other topics.
Hawaiki Rising: Hōkūle‘a, Nainoa Thompson, and the Hawaiian Renaissance
Print length: 344 pages | Aggregate rating: 4.8/5
Polynesians arrived in Hawaiʻi close to 2,000 years ago. A voyaging society, they traveled and navigated by the stars, an ability that was a staple of Hawaiian culture for centuries. However, somewhere along the way, that expertise was lost, and the ability to navigate using the night stars gave way to modern technology.
Hawaiki Rising is the uplifting story of how this indigenous skill was reprised in modern Hawaiʻi, culminating with the successful circumnavigation of the globe using only star navigation in 1975 by the Hōkūleʻa, a replica of an ancient Hawaiian outrigger canoe.
The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaiʻi’s Culinary Heritage
Print length: 296 pages | Aggregate rating: 4.4/5
Foodies will love this book because it combines tangible recipes (150 of them) with an explanation and investigation into Hawaiʻiʻs local cultures and the cuisine that has come from their intermixing.
Rather than focusing on the “Pacific Rim” cuisine offered in upscale hotels or sticking to a traditional cookbook format, the book takes the reader to markets and vendors who serve food eaten by local residents on a daily basis. After reading, one will have a good overview of how dishes came to be popular in Hawaiʻi, what to try while there, and ideas to try to recreate at home.
Children’s books about Hawaiʻi
Read these books with your children in the days leading up to your trip.
ʻOhana Means Family
Reading age: 4-8 years | Aggregate rating: 4.7/5
If your kids have seen Lilo and Stitch, they probably already known the word ʻohana, which translates to “family.” This adorable book will introduce them further to the concept of familial togetherness in Hawaiʻi as the story follows the preparation of poi for a lūʻau.
ʻOhana is one of the most important concepts in Hawaiʻi, and this book will inspire them to think about their own family in much the same way. It will also get them excited to experience a lūʻau.
Honey Girl: The Hawaiian Monk Seal
Reading age: 5-8 years | Aggregate rating: 4.8/5
If your kids love animals – and we’re sure they do – this is a good one to read before coming to the islands to introduce them to one of our most-beloved creatures, the Hawaiian monk seal.
They are sadly endangered, but are seen more than you would think lounging about the beaches. This book will introduce them to monk seals and Hawaiʻi’s oceans. It will get them excited to see one during your visit – perhaps even motivating a day of beach hopping.
Hawai’i (A True Book: My United States)
Reading age: 8-10 years | Aggregate rating: 5/5
Curious children (grade 3-5) who love fun facts will eat up this book that breaks down what makes Hawaiʻi unique. Part of a series that dives into each state and highlights its makeup, Hawaiʻi provides a wonderful introduction to the islands and its people.
If your kid is at the stage where they question everything, allow them to dig into the history, environment, and culture of Hawaiʻi – including surfing and lūʻas – as well as what residents do for work and what wildlife lives on the islands. After reading, your child will know everything about how Hawaiʻi works and will probably be able to educate you on a couple things.
Maui Hooks the Islands
Reading age: 3-5 years | Aggregate rating: 4.8/5
The story of the demi-god Maui is one of the most-told folklores in Hawaiʻi, and many children were introduced to it in the Disney movie Moana. If they liked that, let them try this book, which builds on Maui’s story.
Maui Hooks the Islands explains how Maui “fished” the islands out of the sea. More importantly, it introduces visiting keiki (kids) to a Hawaiian legend/bedtime story that local children grow up hearing.
KINO and the KING
Reading age: 10-18 years | Aggregate rating: 4.5/5
Kino is chased by bullies into the Hawaiian Hall at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu where she ducks into the ancient grass hut display. With a flash of bright light, she is transported to 1825 where she meets 11-year-old Kauikeaouli, just weeks before he becomes Kamehameha III, Hawaiʻi’s longest reigning monarch.
Enjoy the journey around Oʻahu before all the concrete and traffic, and get a glimpse of a unique friendship between a modern day girl and an important aliʻi, on their quest to break and ancient curse and change Kino’s future from the past.
Works by local authors
Looking for something local? Try these books, written by Hawaiʻi’s residents.
Detours: A Decolonial Guide to Hawai’i
Print length: 448 pages | Aggregate rating: 4.6/5
Most guides to Hawaiʻi present the islands from a tourism point of view, categorizing them through a variety of activities or stereotypes, like hula girls, lūʻas, and sunny beach days. Detours hopes to turn this idea on its head with a guide to Hawaiʻi that will “redirect readers from the fantasy of Hawaiʻi as a tropical paradise and tourist destination toward a multilayered and holistic engagement with Hawaiʻi’s culture and complex history.”
Filled with itineraries, maps, and essays, the book will introduce you to authentic things to see and do, and will allow you to separate myth from reality when it comes to the way of life in the islands.
Print length: 516 pages | Aggregate rating: 4.4/5
If you enjoy long books with lots of poetic writing, try Shark Dialogues by Kiana Davenport. It combines mythology and history to relay the rich, complicated history of local families as Hawaiʻi has evolved over the centuries.
“Though written as fiction, Shark Dialogues is a chronicle of my family history told to me by my elders through the years, dating back to the early 1800s when a white whaler fell in love with my ancestor, Kelonikoa Awa’Awa, a chieftain’s daughter from Tahiti,” the author writes. “Going farther back it tells of the first settling of Hawaiʻi almost 2,000 years ago by canoe-voyaging Polynesians from the islands of Tahiti and the Tuamotu’s. Finally, Shark Dialogue is a love story, love for my islands, love for my people, and is written from the heart.”
This is Paradise
Print length: 240 pages | Aggregate rating: 4.4/5
This collection of stories by Kristiana Kahakauwila highlights different stories of individuals living in Hawaiʻi and dives into the mixing of locals, tourists, and the two entirely different views that each group has of the islands. For example, the book’s first story, also called This is Paradise, follows a group of housekeepers in Waikīkī.
But it’s not just about pitting locals and tourists against each other. The five other stories deal with humanistic struggles that we can all relate to as fellow beings. If you enjoy reading short stories, this is a nice choice from a local author.