The Fine Print: How We Chose the 50 Essential Hawai‘i Books

What defines greatness? What matters most to us today? What will people actually (really) read? Those were some of the questions we faced while winnowing HONOLULU’s first-ever list of books every Islander should know, if not own.
Great Hawaii Books
Some of the books that were under consideration (before we ran out of chairs).
Photo: Don Wallace

In the May issue of HONOLULU, which starts landing in subscriber mailboxes in the next few days, we unveil our first-ever list of 50 Essential Hawai‘i Books. Readers naturally will be curious about the selection process, so we go into that below. But, first, we want to say what our list is not—not a ranking from No. 1 to No. 50, and not a canon. Instead, we think of it as a commons, a shared resource like our ocean and ‘āina.


To start our list, we ransacked class syllabuses; hit the State Library’s Hawaiiana section; polled writers, critics and booksellers; and studied our own bookshelves. To open our minds and examine our own biases, we read important critical studies, among them Stephen Sumida’s seminal And the View From the Shore, Multicultural Hawai‘i (Michael Haas, ed.), Dennis Kawaharada’s Toward an Authentic Local Literature of Hawai‘i and Brandy Nālani McDougall’s recent Finding Meaning: Kaona and Contemporary Hawaiian Literature.


For voters, we contacted close to 70 well-known writers, booksellers, publishers, academics, librarians and book reviewers, some from the past, and asked them for more people to poll. In the end, almost 40 ended up contributing in some form or another—some writing complete theses, others submitting simple asterisks by titles, or write-ins, as requested.


We started out with a Long List of more than 130 titles, including plays and children’s books, which was then trimmed to 90 and sent out to the voters. On tallying up responses, plus write-ins, a clear list emerged. Books that tallied more than 10 votes formed a top tier of 29 titles (two topped the list at 20 votes); a second tier of books that received 9 votes followed; after that books with 8 votes; and then one at 7 1/2. We found ourselves at 50 without having to make any Solomonic decisions. Whew.


Our voters faced a difficult task, especially given their regular jobs, and we can’t thank them enough—but anonymity was guaranteed, so we hope this finds you well and satisfied, at least somewhat, with the outcome.


For you, dear readers, we hope that the list—which you can read in our May issue, on newsstands May 1—will inform, amuse and inspire. We hope you’ll buy some books and support local authors and literature. We hope it sparks debate. In fact, if you have something to say about it or don’t see your own favorite on the list, we encourage you to write us at or post a comment after the story on Because any list of great books shouldn’t be a conversation stopper; it should be a great conversation starter.


SEE ALSO: Roll of Honor: The Next 37 Titles on Our List of 50 Essential Hawai‘i Books