South, in his debut, offers a blend of reading instruction and encouragement for young readers, in a fantastical Hawaiian setting.
Third-grader Eddie Akamai decides to skip school after he’s assigned to remedial reading classes; he balks at the idea of being put in a classroom with first-graders. He takes out the family boat, and Eddie’s sister Emma and their friend Kim Kokua join him. Eddie manages to pilot the boat through an unexpected storm, and the three kids discover Aloha Island, a magical world where animals talk—one even has a tendency to overuse synonyms—and letters grow like flowers. The island’s human residents, Aunty Pono and Uncle Aka, convince the children to help them save the island from the threat of Ignorance, which has already trapped neighboring Mele Island in darkness. A band of talking animals joins the children in their effort, with occasional assistance from a tricky creature from Hawaiian mythology called a menhune, and a lei made of letters instead of flowers. The Flaming Illiterates, a trio of animals with less noble motives, do their best to subvert the kids’ mission, and they prove particularly adept at using Eddie’s insecurities against him. Throughout the book, the children face challenges involving phonics, wordplay and literacy. The story’s many surprises should appeal to in reluctant readers, and the short chapters are likely to sustain kids’ interest. The author keeps the phonics lessons and the pro-literacy message from overwhelming the story itself. Although the pronunciation guides and definitions of Hawaiian terms may seem excessive at times, they provide necessary background about what may be an unfamiliar culture for many readers.
A fast-paced educational adventure story.