8+ Books to Read before Traveling to Hawaii: Fiction and History

I keep revisited the beautiful state of Hawaii through books that unveils its rich culture, traditions, and history. 

Last updated: January 30, 2024

Hawaii - Roads and Destinations
Read these books before visiting Hawaii: Get inspired through reading before visiting in person

The Best Books to Read before Visiting Hawaii

I traveled to many countries, including some of the most remote corners of the Earth through books. Months, often years, after first encountering these places along the thin pages, I would be fortunate to see them in person. Many more of these places still live in my mind only as alluring locations that ignite my thirst for new adventures.

Hawaii was different. This place that abounded with so many stories and traditions didn’t need introduction. Hula dance, tropical green forests, waterfalls that stop you in your tracks… I didn’t feel that I needed to learn about all of these from books before our visit to Kauai, Hawaii, a few years ago.

Yet the more we drove along the coast, dotted with splendid beaches, tiny towns, and historic landmarks, such as the Kilauea Lighthouse, the more I longed to know their stories. Occasional conversations with locals ignited this hunger even more.

Nakalele Blowhole, Maui - Roads and Destinations
Explore Hawaii through Books

Visit Hawaii through Books

With just four days on our hands, diving deeper into Hawaiian history was impossible. I embarked on this journey once back in California. And while reading more about Hawaii, I planned a new trip to another island.

A few years passed. I took several virtual trips to Hawaii through books and none in person. When a pandemic started, that long-awaited trip was pushed back indefinitely. I delved even deeper into the paradise called Hawaii… through books. One novel followed by another, and soon I had many of these “trips” under my belt.

We finally went back to Hawaii last year. We visited Maui, a place so diverse and beautiful that makes you want to move there. Four days later, I came back to California with a few more books about Hawaii. Some things never change.

Without further ado, here are the books that I recommend you to read before visiting Hawaii. 

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The best fiction and non-fiction books about Hawaii

THE BOOKS YOU SHOULD READ BEFORE VISITING HAWAII

1. Radar Girls 

Book set in Hawaii by Sara Ackerman

My first book, set in Hawaii, by Sara Ackerman… and I was enchanted by her writing style. In fact, it was one of the first books I’ve ever read about the Aloha State. While I was perusing one Sara’s book after another on a long weekend at home in California, mentally I was running on a beach on O’ahu, Hawaii, taken back in time some 80 years ago.

Radar Girls indeed takes you back that far, to the time of World War II and the attack on Pearl Harbor. The main heroine, Daisy Wilder, encounters the war on a Hawaiian beach, a short walk away from her family house. Fond of horses and more comfortable with animals than people, this Hawaiian soon finds herself in a city, far away from her little paradise, working as a radar girl. 

For the first time in her life, Daisy meets women that she feels safe with. True friendship is born over time and carries the girls throughout the harshness of the war. 

While the book is fictional, the author did a great research, adding bits of the historical past of Hawaii to the novel. 

2. Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers 

Book set in Hawaii by Sara Ackerman

Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers is another book that portraits one of the mesmerizing Hawaiian islands during World War II. 

Violet Iverson’s life changes drastically after her husband disappears. Forced to stay strong for herself and her young daughter, Ella, the woman continues on with her teaching job and watches how her beloved island becomes hostile toward some of her dearest friends of Japanese descent. In the time of war, any Japanese is looked at as a potential spy. 

While most of the locals know it better, soldiers that arrive at the island are yet to learn who is a friend and who is an enemy. One of these soldiers shows a particular affection for Violet. Yet the young woman can’t make any decision before she finds out what happened to her husband. 

Similar to the previous book, this novel dissects some real issues Hawaii was forced to deal with during World War II.

Sunflower field on Maui - Roads and Destinations
The Aloha State | Books to read before traveling to Hawaii

3. Honolulu 

Book about Hawaii by Alan Brennert

Honolulu is one of my favorite books about Hawaii for quite some reasons. First, it depicts the island of O’ahu during the time when “local” culture and identity were in their initial stage. Second, it opens the door to Korean culture and traditions prevailing at that time. 

Jin, a Korean girl, is reminded of her unwelcoming arrival all her life. Her parents can’t even hide their disappointment when a girl and not a boy is born. The newborn member of the family is named Regret. 

A true Korean girl, the heroine never questions her culture and fate until she meets a beautiful gisaeng, Evening Rose. The new friend teaches Regret to read. The act, back then forbidden for a Korean girl, leads to another and soon Regret finds herself on a ship to Honolulu as a picture bride. 

Not a life Regret who soon changes her name to Jin pictured awaits the new immigrant on O’ahu. Living on the paradise island is far from what people were saying. It turns its nice face to some residents, while punishing the rest. The island lives a double life where nice parties, prostitution, poverty, and a crime that changes the fate of Hawaii coexist. 

Jin sees and lives through all of these. She makes friends, loses friends, and learns to love this strange island. 

Read more: 15 Travel Books that Will Spark Your Wanderlust

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6 books to read before visiting Hawaii

4. Moloka’i 

Book about Hawaii by Alan Brennert

Moloka’i is one of a few books about Hawaii that I’ve been eyeing for a while but yet have to get my hands on. A highly acclaimed novel, Moloka’i unveils the harsh reality about forced segregation that took place in Hawaii during the outbreak of leprosy.

Both books, Moloka’i and Honolulu are packed with historical facts and a few real people that once called Hawaii their home. These books indeed inspire you to visit not only tourist sites of Hawaii, but explore its lesser-known corners and certainly appreciate its long and somewhat forsaken past. 

Note: I finally read Moloka’i along with Daughter of Moloka’i, another book by Alan Brennert, a few months ago. I hid in a room so nobody could see me and wept while I was reading about the leper girl named Rachel Kalama.

5. Red Sky Over Hawaii 

Book set in Hawaii by Sara Ackerman

Similar to the two other books, Ackerman takes you back to Hawaii during World War II. The attack on Pearl Harbor turns Lana Hitchcock’s life upside down. Arriving home at the Big Island to see her sick father, the woman is stuck here to put his affairs into order. Shortly after her arrival, she finds out about a secret property nestled in the rainforest of the Kilauea volcano. 

When the government starts relocating local Japanese and Germans suspected of sympathizing with attacking armies, Lana flees to the hidden house. Two German girls, a Japanese fisherman, and his son come along with her. 

Interestingly, the house Sara so vividly describes in her novel is as real as the Hawaiian culture and history. Known as ‘Ainahou, the old ranch is on the National Register of Historic Places and is located within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Note: I ended up reading all novels written by Sara Ackerman, including The Lieutenant’s Nurse and The Codebreaker’s Secret. All five books are set in Hawaii and narrate about the Hawaiian Islands, love, and life during World War II.

Maui - Roads and Destinations
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6. Freckled: A Memoir of Growing Up Wild in Hawaii 

Book about Hawaii by TW Neal

Freckled is one of the nearest to my heart books that inspires me to revisit the lush island of Kauai, Hawaii. The story narrates about the author’s life, full of the rugged beauty of the island, its hardship and deprivations, racial harassment, and indifference of girl’s hippie surfer parents. Despite all these struggles, Kauai’s spell and charm are undeniable. Kauai is although strange, but still a sweet home.

7. Daughter of Moloka’i

Book set in Hawaii and California by Alan Brennert

Ruth Utagawa is an adoptive child. Half-Japanese, half-Hawaiian, the girl often feels out of place, surrounded by much shorter classmates. The adoptive family, however, loves Ruth dearly.

When life in Hawaii becomes tough, the family accepts the invitation of their relatives and moves to California. Yet troubles seem to follow them. The Golden State is not as friendly as they expected. During World War II, Ruth’s family faces internment.

A new surprise arrives after the war. In the letter, with the signature, “Rachel Utagawa”.

Books to read about Hawaii- Roads and Destinations
Books that inspire you to travel to Hawaii

8. Maui: A History

A history about Maui, once the center of Hawaii, by Cummins E. Speakman, Jr

History of Hawaii comes to life through the pages of this thin, yet captivating book. Long before Europeans discovered the tropical paradise lost in the Pacific Ocean, wars between ruling chiefs frequently shattered peace in Hawaii.

By the end of the 19th century, the warrior chief, Kamehameha the Great, managed to unite the islands. Maui became the center of the Hawaiian Kingdom with Lahaina the first capital of the new territory. The Hawaiian Kingdom existed nearly 100 years until the monarchy was overthrown as a result of a staged coup d’état against Queen Liliuokalani and her government.

In this little book, Speakman summarizes the history of Maui and Hawaii, from Polynesian settlement to the arrival of American missionaries and the influx of Asian immigrants all the way to the beginning of the 21st century.

Note: You can find more great book recommendations about Hawaii, its history and traditions in the comment section below.

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10 Comments

  1. Dedria Goodman
    March 22, 2022 / 11:35 am

    Great list, I’ve read all that you’ve mentioned. What about the granddaddy of them all, James Michener’s Hawaii?

    • Zhanna
      Author
      March 23, 2022 / 8:22 am

      You can’t imagine how many times I put it in my shopping card and later removed it. Some reviews on Amazon said it wasn’t worth buying it. At the same time not all readers loved Sara Ackerman’s books as much as I did. So I guess I just need to give “Hawaii” a try. Thank you for bringing it up here.

  2. Kathy Reel
    March 22, 2022 / 1:06 pm

    I’ve long been a fan of Alan Brennert’s Hawaii books (and his others). Reading Moloka’i inspired me to actually travel to this Hawaiian island on a day trip from Oahu. I got on a very small plane, which I don’t like to do, and went to Kalaupapa, the former leper colony side of the island. It was a visit I’ll never forget. I also love his book Honolulu and the sequel to Moloka’i, Daughter of Moloka’i.

    Another wonderful non-fiction book about Hawaii is Sarah Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes. It is non-fiction but told in a fascinating narrative style. It explores the history of the white man coming to the islands, not a pretty history.

    • Zhanna
      Author
      March 23, 2022 / 8:25 am

      I glad you visited that island. I’m sure it was wonderful. And thank you for suggesting new books. I’m going to peruse them as soon as I’m done with the books I’m reading right now.

    • Colin
      March 23, 2022 / 12:06 pm

      Yes, Sarah Vowell’s book Unfamiliar Fishes is a must to help one understand how the take over of Hawaiʻi occurred, as you say not a pretty history.

      • Zhanna
        Author
        March 25, 2022 / 11:46 am

        Indeed, it’s not a pretty part of Hawaiian history. I’m looking forward to learning more about it.

  3. March 23, 2022 / 11:15 am

    I also have been a long time fan of Alan Brennert and have read everything he has ever written. I patiently await seeing a new book on the shelves. Molokai was a wonderful book and the sequel even more so. I have been to Kalaupapa three times and have had a different spiritual experience each time. Seeing Father Damien’s church was the objective of my first visit, but after meeting Richard Marks and listening to his stories I wanted to return again. Actually he told me when the tour was over that I would come back again. I did. My third visit was a sad one though. Knowing all the history and the deaths was sad, but not seeing Richard Marks my last visit was sad. He was ill and had passed away. I have wonderful memories of Hawaii and read everything I can get my hands on. Out of the list of 6 – have read 5. Thanks for this posting.

    • Zhanna
      Author
      March 25, 2022 / 11:44 am

      I’m a little jealous of your experiences 🙂 Thanks for sharing them!

  4. Colin
    March 23, 2022 / 12:11 pm

    Zhanna, since you loved Freckled, can I recommend Rainforest Puʻuhonua by Kahikāhealani Wight, about life growing up on the big island, Hawaiʻi. One of the few books in my life that I have bought extra copies of to give away.

    • Zhanna
      Author
      March 25, 2022 / 11:48 am

      Yes, definitely! And thank you! I’m adding it to my reading list.

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