I always give books as presents, even to children who can’t yet read. It’s never too early to start reading and reading to your child. The marvelous Wally Amos agrees, which is why he’s involved with prompting literacy at Read it Loud.

In that spirit, here are a few children’s books that caught my eye and imagination during 2009.

WAIKIKI LULLABY | by Beth Greenway | illustrated by Alexis America

Waikiki Lullaby,” a new board book by one-time Hawai’i resident Beth Greenway Skinner presents adults and children with a soothing bedtime story centered on Hawaiian-style activities. One memorable verse is the lovely: “Hear Uncle play his steel guitar, hear ocean breezes sigh,” even though ukulele or even slack key guitar would have been a more contemporary reference. In other pages, hula girls put down their “feather dancing gourd(s),” or ūli’ūli, and surfers their boards, and soon enter a gentle night of dreams. Throughout, Alexis America’s night sky-hued illustrations evoke the nostalgia of Matson tourism posters and classic images of one of my favorite books, Cooper Edens’ “If You’re Afraid of the Dark, Remember the Night Rainbow.”

PULELEHUA AND MĀMAKI | by Janice Crowl | illustrations by Harinani Orme

A Kamehameha butterfly lands on a koa tree so it can converse with the soft-spoken māmaki tree in “Pulelehua and Māmaki,” forgetting māmaki’s past nurturing of her when the pulelehua was just an egg about to become a caterpillar. Some discussion near hāpu’u and palapalai ferns, some ‘ōhi’a dancing in the wind, a new birth and raising of a new caterpillar later, Crowl’s engaging storytelling reveals not only a clever and soothing way to teach children about our local plants and animals, but also an ode to our enduring culture and values that include caring for others, no matter whose blood runs through their veins.

WHAT AM I? A Hawai’i Guessing Game (vol 2) | by Daniel Harrington | illustrated by Susan Brandt

“You may see me resting upside down / My body is red, pink, and brown / Also on my body are many white lines / And very long and dangerous spines / What am I?” Did you get that one right? After reading “What am I? A Hawaii Animal Guessing game,” the short and sweet, purely entertaining animal riddle book by Kaua’i teacher Daniel Harrington, you and keiki will know what animal this rhyme refers to, as well as rhymes about the Honu, the ‘Io, Manō, and more. Brandt’s illustrations are clear and large–perfect for small fingers pointing out features such as the beak of the Nēnē. (ps_the photo is of vol. 1)

KEONI’S SPECIAL GIFT | by Dorinda Lum | illustrated by Michael Furuya

It’s award-winning illustrator Michael Furuya’s atmospheric illustrations that steal the show in the surprisingly captivating tale of “Keoni’s Special Gift” by retired art teacher Dorinda Lum, captivating with their step-above-Pixar reverberations and enlarged but realistic portraits of Keoni the ‘o’opu and his adorable best friends the ‘Ōpae, Koloa (Hawaiian Duck), and Pueo. Keoni is afflicted with the stuff of great childhood stories–the desire to be someone else (in this case a bird who can fly), but after trying on ‘I’iwi wings for size and flying on an island adventure, he learns to appreciate what he already has, and ultimately who he is.

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