Hawaii: Okazu at the Zoo

27 Aug

A day at the zoo isn’t complete until you pass through the gift shop. Usually, it’s the same ‘Made in China’ plush animals, stickers, toys, and coffee mugs. Though the Honolulu Zoo had something to strike a writer’s nerve. Children’s books! These weren’t your run-of-the-mill animal themed books. They were authentic Hawaiian creations.

With a handful to choose from, at a reasonable $12.95, I ended up taking home “Okazu at the Zoo,” written by Laurie Ide and illustrated by Daniel Kanekuni, both native Hawaiians. Published in 2006 by Mutual Publishing, the in-book summary reads: “Karley and Kamren share unique Hawaiian foods with the friendly animals at the zoo.” The deal maker was the author and illustrator autographs. I must admit, I’m a sucker for signatures.

“Okazu” is more of a overview of Hawaiian cuisine, than an education in its history, ingrediants, and preparation. Though a ‘Food Definitions’ page at the back of the book provides a foundation.

The story itself is lacking. Typically each page features the two children protagonists offering different animals food. By the end of the book I still hadn’t figured out how to define ‘Okazu.’ I’m assuming it’s an Hawaiian name for local food, though an urban dictionary tells me it’s Japanese for side dish and something a little more disturbing (see for yourself). Regardless, the array of edibles is intriguing. From the standard hot dog to the eccentric spam musubi, an interest in Hawaiian cooking will be sparked.

While the illustrations match the bright colorful nature of Hawaii, each page resembles a carnival caricature instead of displaying an innocent picture for children to get lost in. But the pictures do save the book from its random text.

Each page contains a short poem ranging from a forced rhyming couplet “Do you see the tiger by the tree? / Shall we give him a cone sushi?” to a bizarre  five-line stanza about a pink lion eating a hamburger. Children are guaranteed to giggle their way through the menagerie of animals and food. However, as a writer, this book feels rushed. It reads as a spell-checked first draft. If only some crucial editing took place, this could become a time honored read-aloud, and certainly a treasure for Honolulu.

Perhaps I’m being too technical here but why is the gorilla, which in nature is a vegetarian, dining on shoyu pork? Regardless, I still recommend “Okazu at the Zoo” as a wonderful souvenir from Hawaii. Especially for me as a writer, this book has been a useful learning tool. I felt as though my own ideas ran parallel to the comedic list of scenes, and related my own struggles to the uneven meter and lack of flow within the text.

“Okazu at the Zoo” may not be an award winner, but it deserves a space on your souvenir shelf!

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