Lei and the Goddess book cover and preorder information

A 12-year-old part-Hawaiian girl must save her best friend and her island from an angry fire goddess, in Lei and the Fire Goddess, the debut novel from author Malia Maunakea, who is Native Hawaiian. The Windward Community College student lives in Colorado, so the Hawaiʻiloa online Hawaiian studies program is ideal for her.

She was inspired to write Lei and the Fire Goddess when she tried to find books of Hawaiian myths and legends to share with her then 9-year-old son several years ago.

Malia Maunakea holding her book
Malia Maunakea

“I looked for books at our local library and could only find picture books,” Maunakea said. “So I decided to write a story that I dreamed would someday wind up on shelves in the library and in schools for kids like him to read so they don’t have to listen to their mothers go on about them.”

Books for local families

She wrote Lei and the Fire Goddess in 2020 and sold it to Penguin Random House in 2021 in a two-book deal. Penguin will work with Hawaiʻi’s Partners In Development Foundation to donate a book to a Hawaiian family for every copy sold through June 6 (up to 500 copies). Maunakea has also partnered with local bookstore Da Shop in Kaimuki for a pre-order campaign.

“My target reader is anyone who enjoys books written for kids 7–12 years old (I happen to be one of those people, so I never say these books are just for kids), who loves fast-paced adventures, funny sidekicks and might be interested in Hawaiian culture or mythology,” Maunakea said. “It’s a great fit for kids who maybe don’t feel like they fit in based on their ethnicities or cultural beliefs and practices or because they look a certain way. I hope readers come away knowing that they’re the only ones who can determine who they truly are, no matter what other folks might say. That they are enough. And that there were really intense 50+ mile-per-hour sledding races in Hawaiʻi on lava!”

Moana ties and more

Her inaugural book already has a diverse group of fans.

Lei and the Fire Goddess blends preteen angst and beloved Hawaiian moʻolelo (stories) in a way that hasn’t been done before,” wrote actress Auliʻi Cravalho, who was the voice of Moana in the animated feature film. “With wit and humility, Lei’s journey demonstrates just how important it is to be wary of our (seemingly kooky) kupuna’s (elder’s) teachings.”

Maunakea has visited schools in Hawaiʻi to get the word out and the response has been very positive. She has also created a free discussion guide (PDF) for educators on her website.

“Thank YOU so much for meeting with us! The kids were so inspired and continued to talk about what you shared yesterday,” wrote a fourth grade teacher at Waiākeawaena Elementary, Maunakea’s alma mater. “Some of my girls also started their own planning template for an upcoming book they would like to write. …We are always looking for great books for our kids to read so that, like you mentioned, our novel studies are relevant and timely, rather than boring and disconnected. You are an inspiration!”

‘Perfect’ Hawaiian studies program

She said her work in Hawaiʻiloa has been the perfect complement to her book writing.

“I haven’t had any sort of Hawaiian culture education since graduating from Kamehameha Schools forever ago, and so much of my understanding of our history has changed!” Maunakea said. “Taking classes from Kumu (teacher) Kalawaiʻa [Peter Moore] (who taught Hawaiʻi: Center of Pacific) and Dr. David Keanu Sai (who taught Intro to the Hawaiian Kingdom) has been eye opening, and I made sure to include a scene referencing the lowering of the flag at the [ʻIolani] palace. I also included some ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian language), and Kumu Kapela Wong helped me with the pronunciations for the audio book.”

“I took a Hawaiian mythology class with Kumu Noe Tupou, who also teaches a Hawaiian and Indigenous film and literature course, and she stressed the need for more Hawaiian creators in these spaces. I have really valued the top notch instructors there, and can’t wait for my class this fall called, ‘Mele, Moʻolelo and Motion’ taught by the iconic Kumu Kawaikapuokalani Hewett.”

Maunakea’s second book is coming out in 2024. It will cover what the main character Lei has to do when she discovers that goddesses are sore losers. She also expects to earn her associate’s degree from Windward CC next year. However, because she is so all-in on her educational journey, Maunakea is scheduled to begin taking more online Hawaiian language classes at UH West Oʻahu this fall.

—By Kelli Abe Trifonovitch