Updated July 2, 2021.
I don’t know about you, but I love to read about a place I plan to visit! It gets me excited and helps me understand so much about the culture I’m about to get myself into. As you know if you’ve been following our travels for very long, we go to Hawaii for our anniversary every May (with the exception of 2020—the year of quarantine!), and every year I try to find new books set on the island we plan to visit, or just Hawaii in general. So I’ve compiled some of my favorites, some of the most useful, and some for the biggest history nerds like me! Here’s my ultimate list of books to read before you visit the Hawaiian islands!
Some of these books are my favorites that I’ve read, while others are highly recommended and are making their way to the top of my “to-read” list on Good Reads! *All the links below are Amazon affiliate links, meaning that when you click the links to shop with me, you’re supporting my small business at no additional cost to you!
I’m a sucker for well-researched historical fiction. I really didn’t know anything about Hawaiian history before I started reading up in anticipation of my first trip! Now, I love history as much as anyone, but reading a straight-up historical account is not always engaging or fun to read. If you’re the same way, here are some historical fiction novels that might help you out as much as they helped me!
Molokai, Alan Brennert
This is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I’m usually not one for an “epic,” but this beautiful, heart-breaking story following one woman from childhood through adulthood is engaging the whole way though. A lesser-known fact about Hawaii is that in 1865 King Kamehameha V banished all people in the islands—Hawaiian, Asian, haole, etc.—with leprosy to the isolated Kalaupapa Peninsula on the island of Molokai. They were told they would receive medical care there, but in reality they were left to die.
But of course, the people there built a community anyway, and many of them lived long lives while their families thought they had died. The story of this woman’s life was incredibly eye-opening, from arriving as a child to growing up, getting married, seeing and hearing the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, and finally seeing a potential cure for the disease that had banished her. I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in Hawaii, history, leprosy, or other medical interests.
Daughter of Molokai, Alan Brennert
This companion to Molokai came out the same year that my husband Steve and I visited the island of Molokai, and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it! It follows the daughter’s story of the main character in Molokai. I won’t divulge any spoilers, but Japanese internment camps in the United States make an appearance in this novel, which is another lesser-known part of United States history. If you read Molokai, you will definitely want to read this one, too!
Honolulu, Alan Brennert
I know, I know, I’m totally in the Alan Brennert fan club! But truly, this is another one of those eye-opening books that helped me understand Hawaii. Asian cultures are so widely represented in the Hawaiian islands, and I didn’t quite understand to what extent until I read a little more about it. In this book, a young Korean girl is sent to Hawaii as a “picture bride” (like a “mail-order bride” in the Western United States in the 19th century). The man she marries is not who he said he was and does not make good on the promises he made to convince her family to send her.
The story follows this young woman and shows how she and others like her make a life for themselves during the early 20th century in Hawaii. This book also gives interesting insight into how Honolulu became the city it is today, so if O’ahu or Honolulu are on your itinerary, this is a must-read!
The Last Aloha, Gaellen Quinn
This is an excellent book for people who want to know about the history of Hawaii, from kingdom to statehood, without getting bogged down in the nitty-gritty. This book tells the story of a young woman who loses everything in an 1886 San Francisco earthquake and goes to live with relatives who are missionaries in Hawaii. She not only befriends Hawaiians, she starts to work for the royal family and sees them for who they are, not who her family thinks they should be. The book does a great job of explaining the hostile takeover of Hawaii by missionaries-turned-businessmen in a very factual way, without any harsh political angles, which I appreciated. It’s based on true events!
Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers, Sara Ackerman
Interestingly, this book is a World War II-era Hawaii novel set on the Big Island, not O’ahu, where Pearl Harbor is located! I appreciated the bit of a different perspective. It’s part historical fiction and part murder mystery. If you’re planning a trip to the Big Island, I highly recommend reading this book before you go or on the beach while you’re there!
Diamond Head, Cecily Wong
We hear a lot about Japan in relation to Hawaii, but not so much with China. This book follows a wealthy Chinese family through a few generatons spanning the Boxer Rebellion in China, their escape to Hawaii, Pearl Harbor, and beyond. The book includes secrets, traditions, and murder, making it an excellent choice for history lovers, people who love learning about different cultures, those with a Chinese background, and mystery lovers, too!
Shark Dialogues, Kiana Davenport
This one is on my “to-read” list as another epic novel. I’ve seen it on several Hawaii-related book lists because of its descriptions of Hawaii, Hawaiian history, and Polynesian traditions. The book spans over 150 years and seven generations, and much of the book is set on O’ahu, Molokai, Maui, and the Big Island.
The Lieutenant’s Nurse, Sara Ackerman
Another one by Sara Ackerman, this one is also on my to-read list! It begins on a ship to Honolulu in November 1941, so you already know where this is headed. I’m very intrigued by books set in the weeks and months right before the attack on Pearl Harbor because it’s such a part of our culture and perhaps the best-known and most-researched incident in American history besides the Revolutionary War, and I think we often don’t think about how completely caught off-guard everyone was when it happened. I can’t wait to start this book! Will you be reading with me?
Hawaii: A Novel, James A. Michener
This novel about Hawaii’s people and the islands’ history is considered a classic, and it’s a great way to get acquainted with Hawaii, Hawaiians, traditions, history, and more in a narrative. Well-researched historical fiction will always have my heart, just like Hawaii!
I read a lot in anticipation of my trips to Hawaii, but I also really enjoy having a fluffy beach read while I’m on the beach in Hawaii! These are also fiction, but set closer to present day and are easy to follow so you don’t have to think so hard on vacation. You know how it is.
Here Today, Gone to Maui, Carol Snow
This one kept me guessing! It’s a mystery, which is not what I was expecting, even after reading the book jacket! Between identity theft, mistaken identity, a romantic vacation, and descriptions of gorgeous Maui, this book held my attention! It’s a little graphic (but not the way you’re thinking), but overall, this was a quick read and perfect for a day at the beach!
The Hawaiian Quilt, Wanda Brunstetter
Full disclosure: I have read a lot of Amish fiction in my life because it has fascinated me for years, but Wanda Brunstetter is not my favorite author! That said, this was an interesting book from a cross-culture perspective. There’s Hawaiian culture, American culture, and Amish culture all combined, and it takes place on my favorite island: Kauai!
The main character is an Amish girl who is ready to take her rumspringa before she decides whether or not to officially join the Amish community. She decides to take a cruise to Hawaii, but she misses the boat as its leaves one of the stops, forcing her to stay in Hawaii a while longer. I loved the way the aloha spirit of Hawaii was so beautifully exemplified in this book, and how the different cultures found a commonality in traditional quilting.
The Aloha Quilt, Jennifer Chiaverini
Did anyone else not know Hawaiian quilts were a thing? Just me? Okay! It’s true: Hawaiians have their own way of quilting! This is not an Amish book, but it is part of a series. I didn’t have any trouble following along or feel left out reading this, however, even though I haven’t read any of the others in the series.
This book is about a recently-divorced woman and her decision to visit a friend on Maui and help get her friend’s inn and quilting studio open for visitors. Everything’s great until her soon-to-be-ex shows up and threatens her entire future. It was a quick read and much more entertaining than you might think a quilt book could possibly be!
Paradise Lost and Found, written by Yours Truly!
This is my first ever published book! And it’s set on gorgeous Kauai, Hawaii!
Sadie Taylor has never taken a vacation. In the six years since she graduated college and started working as a proofreader for a company in Nashville, she has accumulated 480 PTO hours (that’s Paid Time Off). When her company’s new owners tell her she has to use them all in the next six months, she panics a little, then books a trip to Kauai, Hawaii, a place she’d never even heard of before the day she booked it.
Her whole life has been tied up in school and work, and that is how she likes it, or so she believes. Her adventures and misadventures against the backdrop of exotic Kauai could make for some great stories to tell her co-workers… but she has to survive those adventures first!
These are not so much for the light reader, but rather for readers who really want a deeper look at the intricacies of Hawaii’s sometimes-shocking history. Happy reading!
Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands, Gavan Daws
I haven’t read this one yet, but apparently it’s the definitive book of Hawaiian history and very readable! This is definitely one for history lovers and those who are just curious about Hawaii’s history. Of course, Hawaii’s history is pretty controversial from the beginning to present day, and any historical account can only be told from the author’s perspective, but every perspective has value, and overall this one gets rave reviews!
Letters from Hawaii, Mark Twain
This is an interesting read. Mark Twain was sent to the Kingdom of Hawaii in the 1860s as a correspondent for the Sacramento Union newspaper. He wrote several letters in his four months there, 25 of which are included in this book. It’s a fascinating peek at an American’s impressions and perspectives about Hawaii, or the “Sandwich Islands,” as they were sometimes called then.
This is a fun, quick read all about Mark Twain’s adventures (and misadventures) during his first visit to Hawaii. You don’t want to miss his first impressions and the perspective of a tourist in the 1860s!
Aloha Betrayed: Native Hawaiian Resistance of American Colonialism, Noenoe K. Silva
Many of the books in this blog post hit on the injustice of the American takeover of Hawaii, but this one is unique in that it is told from the Hawaiian perspective, using Hawaiian resources in the Hawaiian language (to be clear, the book is in English, not Hawaiian, no worries if you don’t read Hawaiian!). It’s not pretty, but if you are looking for a non-fictional account of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and the islands, this needs to make its way onto your reading list.
Biographies and Personal Accounts
I’m not a huge fan of biographies. I find them generally boring and stale reads, if I’m honest. But these are particularly worth mentioning for their uniqueness and their ability to help you better understand Hawaii and its people’s history!
Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen, Queen Liliuokalani
History is unfair, often one-sided, and incomplete. That’s why it’s important to look for first-hand accounts of all perspectives. This book was written by Hawaii’s last queen, Queen Liliuokalani. In it she describes her family and how she grew up and how they were treated before and during the overthrow.
She writes about how she was arrested and placed under house arrest in just a few rooms on the upper floor of the I’olani Palace in Honolulu (which you can visit today, and which I highly recommend), and while some of her account is considered controversial by many, it is her perspective, and that’s valuable for people who truly respect world history.
Soul Surfer and Rise Above: A 90-Day Devotional, Bethany Hamilton
Bethany Hamilton is an inspiration to me and countless others all over the world. She’s a professional surfer and shark attack survivor, and her determination is beyond admirable. In her autobiography, she tells about having her arm bitten off by a shark while surfing with friends, her recovery, and getting back to professional surfing less than a month later. Her companion devotion is also encouraging for fellow young Christian women!
Waterman: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku, David Davis
If you’ve never heard of Duke Kahanamoku, you’re in for a treat! He was a pretty fascinating person, and he’s considered the father of modern surfing. He was born on the Big Island in 1890, competed in multiple events in multiple Olympics, survived the Spanish flu, dabbled in acting, taught tourists how to surf on Waikiki, ran a couple of gas stations, and served 13 terms as sherriff of Honolulu! This was truly an interesting read, especially for sports enthusiasts. And don’t forget to eat at Duke’s on O’ahu, Kauai, or Maui on your trip!
I picked this book up almost by accident, but I ended up really enjoying it! I’m not a marathoner, cyclist, or swimmer, but I was excited to learn the origins of the now-legendary Iron Man triathlon, which started on O’ahu in 1978! It’s a short book and a quick read, sure to inspire non-athletes and athletes alike!
Old Lana’i, Warren S. Croft
I can’t wait to read this one! Steve and I were supposed to visit Lana’i for our anniversary in May, but of course coronavirus had different ideas! We hope to reschedule as soon as possible, but I may wait to read this book until after we get back. This book is the journal of Dr. Warren S. Croft, written in 1940. He visited Lana’i to investigate the disappearance of the Keamoku villagers on the island, supposedly at the hands of evil spirits. The journal also includes photographs found on his camera from the trip. Mysteriously, this journal and the photos are all that remain of Dr. Warren S. Croft!
Holy Man: Father Damien of Molokai, Gavan Daws
If you’re headed to Molokai and plan to visit the Kalaupapa Peninsula’s former leper colony, this is a must-read. It’s another by Daws, writer of Shoals of Time, and it’s about Father Damien, the Catholic priest who ministered to the people of Kalaupapa from 1873-1889 when no one else dared to go. His compassion has changed many lives through the years, even his own.
Because sometimes you just need to know what’s what!
Stories of Old Hawaii, Roy Kakulu Alameida
Okay, so this is a fourth-grade text book, but I’m not to proud to say I thought it was incredibly helpful! There are 45 traditional legends and stories in this book, all short and sweet, and I think reading it together would be a fun bedtime activity for a family preparing for a trip to the islands! Also helpful are the pronunciation guide at the front (Hawaiian words are notably difficult for mainlanders to pronounce without a little guidance) and the Hawaiian terms defined in the margins throughout the book.
A friend who lives on the Big Island told me about this one, and it sounds fun! I haven’t read it yet, but I plan to as soon as Amazon sends it to me. I think the title says it all!
What’s your favorite book about or set in Hawaii? Comment below so I can add it to my list! You can take a look at all my book recommendations on my Shop Page. And find all the best resources to start planning your Hawaiian trip on my Hawaiian Islands Page!
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