Surfer of the Century: riding the waves with duke kahanamoku


Happy Nonfiction Monday!

Since it’s Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, and the Summer Olympics are just around the corner, I thought it was the perfect time to take a closer look at a very cool picture book biography: Surfer of the Century: The Life of Duke Kahanamoku, by Ellie Crowe.

I heard his name a lot growing up in Hawai’i. He was an icon, a legendary hero, and lived according to his self-defined Creed of Aloha

In Hawai’i we greet friends, loved ones or strangers with Aloha, which means with love. Aloha is the key word to the universal spirit of real hospitality, which makes Hawai’i renowned as the world’s center of understanding and fellowship. Try meeting or leaving people with Aloha. You’ll be surprised by their reaction. I believe it and this is my creed.

I knew that Duke had won Olympic medals for swimming and that he was the father of surfing. But I didn’t know about the hardships he faced in order to reach his goals, particularly with regard to discrimination.

Call me naive. I grew up on a small island populated by people of every color. I never saw or heard of anyone being refused service in a restaurant because of the color of his/her skin. So I was surprised to learn that although he was sought after and admired because of his athletic brilliance, Duke was often treated like a non-person — being stared at or ignored, deemed a “strange looking, dark-skinned native from a distant land.”

I like how Crowe highlights many of the crucial events in Duke’s life with dramatic scenes that really stick in the reader’s mind: when he broke three Amateur Athletic Union world records to qualify for the U.S.Olympic team, and his times were so fast the officials in New York refused to believe them; when he missed his 100-meter freestyle race at his first Olympic games in Stockholm because he had overslept; when he rescued eight fishermen from a capsized boat in California with his surfboard; or when he was the only surfer able to ride a gargantuan wave, as described at the beginning of the book:

Surf’s up!

Eager surfers gripped their wooden surfboards and stared out at the monster waves. Spawned far out at sea, the thirty-foot “Bluebirds” streaked across miles of ocean in a solid line, crashing in white foam on Waikiki Beach. Such huge waves occurred only on extraordinary occasions, the result of underwater earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. Who dared surf the Bluebirds?

Only one surfer mastered the gigantic waves that day in 1917 — Duke Kahanamoku. He rode a thundering Bluebird for almost two miles, from the deep blue ocean to the white sand beach.

This story, of how a poor beachboy from Waikiki won 6 Olympic medals, introduced surfing to America, Australia and New Zealand, held the world’s fastest swimming record for twelve years, became Sheriff of Honolulu, and then official ambassador for the Islands, is sure to fascinate and inspire adults and kids alike. Beyond his official honors and medals, one remembers his modesty, courage, determination and good sportsmanship, no matter what the obstacle.

On an interesting side note, Ellie Crowe says in a Honolulu Star Bulletin interview that she first wrote about Duke’s early years in Duke’s Olympic Feet, which she submitted to Lee and Low Books.

(Island Heritage, 2002), ages 1-6

When she didn’t receive an answer, she went ahead and published the book with Island Heritage, a regional publisher. Two years later, Lee and Low editor, Louise May, offered to publish Crowe’s manuscript, apologizing for the delay, but explaining that it had been buried on her desk. Crowe showed Louise the published book, and together they worked on a full biography geared for a national audience, which became Surfer of the Century.

This book received a starred review from School Library Journal, was named a Bloomsbury Review Editor’s Favorite 2007, and was one of only two books listed as a Notable Children’s Book for the Kiriyama Prize, which recognizes outstanding books about the Pacific Rim and South Asia. The striking art deco style illustrations done in gouache air brush by Richard Waldrep perfectly complement the era with gorgeous blues of ocean, pool, and sky.

For a complete roundup of today’s nonfiction features, see Anastasia Suen’s Picture Book of the Day blog.

9 thoughts on “Surfer of the Century: riding the waves with duke kahanamoku

  1. You mean about Crowe finally getting Lee and Low to publish? That would be something, hearing from them after 2 years and another version already out. A great surprise!


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