author chat: a special aloha from margo sorenson

Of all the wonderful things Hawai’i has to offer — breathtaking natural beauty, world-renown beaches, stunning tropical flora, rich cultural diversity, divinely delicious variety of ethnic foods — its most valuable commodity is, and always will be, the genuine warmth and friendliness of its people.

Because I’ve always wished that this “spirit of Aloha” was more prevalent in the United States, I was especially pleased to read Margo Sorenson’s latest picture book, Aloha for Carol Ann (Marimba Books, 2011). In her heartwarming story, which is illustrated in bright colors by Priscilla Garcia Burris, Margo gives the “new kid in school” theme a tropical treatment. And there’s a nice twist: it’s a multicultural book where the main character is Caucasian.

Eight-year-old Carol Ann doesn’t like anything about her new school in Hawai’i. She misses her old friends and wishes everything could go back to how it was before. Not even the beauty of her new surroundings can quell her apprehension, feelings of awkwardness and isolation — until she’s encouraged by the natural, easy friendliness of her classmates and experiences aloha for the first time.

Pink Orchid Lei via Fine Art America

Margo herself knows this scenario all too well, having lived in Hawai’i for ten years (she taught English at President Obama’s alma mater, Punahou School). Though she now lives in California, Margo will always be an “Island girl” in some ways. The feeling of “aloha” — love, compassion, empathy, welcome, kindness and caring — taps into our essential humanity, invites reciprocation, and promotes peace and harmony for all within its reach.

Margo’s here today to tell us more about the book and her Hawai’i experiences, and she’ll share her recipe for Mango Shortbread, which is mentioned in the story. Love her ono (delicious) answers. She feels like ohana (family) now. ☺



Aloha, Margo! Is there a real Carol Ann? Why did you want to tell her story?

Carol Ann is based on some of the newly-arrived-to-Hawai’i students I had in class at Punahou School, on some of our daughters’ Punahou classmates, and on a young Marine wife whom we met when we lived in Kailua, Hawai’i.  Because of the welcoming aloha spirit of others and their own willingness to be accepting, they ultimately found friends in their new environment, just as Carol Ann does in my book.

Yes, there is a real Carol Ann – and there are many other Carol Anns out there who don’t want to move and leave a familiar place and old friends.  I hope they find some encouragement and hope in ALOHA FOR CAROL ANN and that kids everywhere will make that extra effort to welcome someone new into their schools.  We all want to feel welcome wherever we are, and Hawai’i has a unique way of encouraging that to happen.  The aloha spirit can translate anywhere, if you let it!

Please tell us what “aloha” means to you. In what ways did you personally experience the aloha spirit when you lived in Hawai’i?

To me, aloha means welcoming, love, and a spirit of generosity and thoughtfulness.  Carol Ann learns what it means from her new classmates, just as my family learned what it meant from our neighbors and friends.

When we first moved to Hawai’i and lived on Kaua’i for a year-and-a-half, before moving to O’ahu, we would come home from being somewhere, and it wasn’t unusual to find that someone would have left a few avocados, some mangos, some papayas, or some zucchini in a brown paper bag on our back doorstep in the carport.  Of course, I’d find out who our thoughtful benefactor was, and I’d bake some mango bread or chocolate chip cookies to reciprocate.

Margo and her husband Jim in Hawaii.

We were “adopted” by two extended families across the street, and they were always so thoughtful and helpful – getting our toddler into their “Auntie Marie’s” home for a few days a week – taking my husband night spear-fishing and marlin-fishing – and in general, making us feel very welcome and a part of their families on that small island.

When we’ve gone back to Kaua’i for a visit, we see them and have a wonderful time “talking story.”  When we moved to O’ahu, many people made us feel welcome, especially my teaching colleagues at Punahou, people at our church, and the coaches, players, and families in soccer and softball and Little League.  The aloha spirit is everywhere!

Finding a publisher for Aloha for Carol Ann is an inspiring story of perseverance. Please tell us about it.

It’s all about really believing in something special, I guess!  Because the aloha spirit made such an impression on us all as a family, I wanted to share that spirit with others after we returned to the Mainland.  Truly, moving back to the Mainland was a culture shock in so many ways, and, especially as a teacher, I wished that my California students would be able to understand how the aloha spirit worked, as it did in Hawai’i.

I began writing this manuscript twenty-three years ago, and, after at least fifty revisions (ah, yes, revisions!) and many rejections (the dreaded rejections!), the right publisher came along, my wonderful multicultural publisher, Marimba Books, and they accepted the manuscript.

They saw the many possibilities of the story of eight-year-old Carol Ann, a haole, a Caucasian, who reluctantly moves to Hawai’i, and she does so NOT want anything different or new – no palm trees, no different school, no different friends – no different anything.  With the help of her new friends and her teacher, she learns the meaning of “aloha, and, in finally accepting the kindness of her new friends, she realizes she can feel at home, even in such a different place.

Spam Musubi via Urban Sasquatch

My favorite scene is one that Priscilla drew so beautifully – in which Maile, one of her new friends, shares her spam musubi with Carol Ann. The acceptance and friendship on those little faces show such promise for the future and go far beyond what the mere words on the page can connote.  That’s why Priscilla is such a gifted illustrator – she takes the text and gives it an entirely new dimension.

These days, so many kids move away from familiar surroundings, and I hope Carol Ann’s story will resonate with them and with their parents.  If you really believe in something, as I did in the aloha spirit in Carol Ann’s story, persevere (make those revisions, handle the rejections!), and you may be surprised and thrilled at the outcome, as I was when I got the email from the publishers saying they wanted to publish her story!

Food is a social institution in Hawai’i, certainly one of the most obvious ways of expressing aloha. What are some of your favorite local foods – things you just have to eat whenever you return to the Islands? Do you like musubi?

You are so right about the importance of food in Hawai’i; it truly brings people together.  Yes, I do like musubi (sticky rice and nori – yum!), and it was cute that Priscilla, the illustrator, took the illustration to the next level, by turning the rice ball into one of my most favorite foods, spam musubi!  Seriously, I am addicted to spam musubi, and we have it for lunch often when we return to O’ahu each year, mostly on the golf course where we always reserve it in advance, since they sell out by lunchtime!

There’s nothing like hot malasadas!

Of course, the first stop we have to make after we land in Honolulu is make a stop at Leonard’s Malasadas to buy a dozen malasadas, the Portuguese fried doughnut that is like nothing else on earth.  That is the first of many stops there or at Agnes’s Bake Shop in Kailua, waiting in eager anticipation while the sizzling oil fries the malasadas to a fragrant delight.  I love mangos (mango shortbread, especially!), Portagee sausage with two scoops rice for breakfast, fried rice, panko chicken, sesame chicken, char siu bao (like the dumplings in your cute book, DUMPLING SOUP!), and bento with mac salad and two scoops rice.

Rice Candy (Tomoe Ame) via kalihikahuna74

Korean barbecue, pickled mango, Maui potato chips, and won ton chips are favorites, and, of course, I always go to Costco and buy a tub of tomoe ame, the rice candy that delights little kids because you can eat the “inside wrapper,” since it’s made of rice paper.  I bring that back to the Mainland, and when I do author visits or book signings, I hand the candy out to kids, whose eyes widen at the thought they can eat the wrapper!

Margaret Kim’s Khalbi (Korean BBQ Shortribs)

I can’t miss eating potstickers and fried won ton, and I always mix up the hot mustard (wasabi) with shoyu for a great dipping sauce – the best!  Of course, my super favorite local food in Hawaii is Kalua Pig – I have a great recipe for it, too, but I have to use banana leaves, since ti leaves aren’t too available.  Now I’m getting hungry!

Many people say that once you visit Hawai’i, it will always call you back. Are there any particular Hawaiian customs you adopted when you left to move to California?

It seems as if living in Hawai’i permeated my entire existence; it’s hard to isolate specific customs, because they’ve become such a part of me!

I sign all my letters and emails with “Aloha.”  It just seems to create a nice feeling, I think, a bit warmer than “Best,” or “Sincerely.”  Other Hawaiian customs are taking my shoes off at the front door when we’re visiting friends who lived in Hawai’i, as well.  Additionally, I wouldn’t think of visiting someone without taking a small gift to them, either, and, although Emily Post does discuss that custom, I’ve never seen it enacted as consistently and as thoughtfully as I did when we lived in Hawai’i.

Kalua Pig via Haili’s Hawaiian Food

Some local expressions have become part of my life, too, such as “shibai” – the proverbial red herring or baloney – as well as “akamai,” or street smart, my personal favorite.  For evenings out and special times, I always wear my Hawaiian bracelet with my Hawaiian name, Leipua’ala, a name given to me by a Hawaiian family friend.  Haku leis (artificial ones that I buy at Long’s when we go back!) decorate my sun hats, too.  When a family member graduates or has a momentous occasion, he or she is always sure to receive a lei from us in celebration.  That always makes it so special and brings back so many wonderful memories.  Hawai’i always calls me back!

Are you writing any other books set in Hawai’i? What are some of your favorite Hawai’i-related books (for either children or adults)?

ISLAND DANGER is my newest book set in Hawai’i, an e-book mystery for ages 9-14, (Muse It Up Publishing, a Canadian e-book publisher), and it will be released in June 2012.  I’m really excited about it, because I’ve never had an e-book published before, and it takes place on O’ahu and involves the U.S. Marines, explosives, surfing, and soccer.

Besides ALOHA FOR CAROL ANN, I have two other published books set in Hawaii: KIMO AND THE SECRET WAVES (ages 9-14, Perfection Learning, a surfing mystery adventure), and DANGER MARCHES TO THE PALACE: QUEEN LILI’UOKALANI (ages 9-14, Perfection Learning, a time-travel adventure biography).  There’s plenty of food in all those books – at baby luaus, Korean barbecues, and palace feasts.  Now, I am definitely getting hungry!

One of my favorite Hawai’i-related books for adults is THE DESCENDANTS (yes, the George Clooney movie), by Kaui Hart Hemmings, who went to Punahou with our younger daughter and whose mother was my friend.  Favorite books for children are THE PRINCESS KAIULANI by Helen Hoyt, about that sad but lovely princess, who charmed Robert Louis Stevenson, as well as ALOHA ABCs, the latter being a bit of a challenge to read aloud for those who never lived in Hawai’i!

Is there anything else you’d like to say about Aloha for Carol Ann or your writing?

It’s been an honor and a privilege to write about Hawai’i and to try and share with readers the spirit of aloha, the welcoming thoughtfulness of many dear friends, and the wonderful, energetic diversity of the islands.  There are so many special things about this wonderful place that I’d love to share with others, and writing about them seemed to be a good way to let others know about this culture, a way of life that is unique and valuable in its own right.




The first time I had Mango Shortbread was on Kaua’i, in Lihue, at a neighbor’s family party (the kind where only chopsticks are available!), and my neighbor happily shared the recipe for this wonderful delicacy with me (the aloha spirit, of course!).  It has become a family favorite, because the tangy-ness of the mangos is a wonderful complement to the butter and sugar and cinnamon and the shortbread dough.  It’s an unusual and memorable combination, and anytime there are good mangos, I’ll be sure to get enough to make this treat.  It’s wonderful the next day and the day after that – if there’s any left!


Mix and divide dough in half:

1-1/2 c. butter
1 c. sugar
4 c. flour

2-1/2 c. sliced mangoes

Mix and set aside:

2/3 c. sugar
1/4 c. flour
1-1/2 tsp. cinnamon

Put half of dough in ungreased 9 x 13 pan. Add sliced mangoes. Sprinkle with cinnamon mixture. Cover with other half of dough. Bake at 350 for 35 minutes.


Okay, now I’m really hungry for all the foods Margo just mentioned, which I consider to be quintessential comfort food. I know there are some Mainlanders who turn their noses up at Spam. In Hawai’i, Spam is king. Until you’ve eaten it fried just so, the pieces a little crisp on the outside, dipped in a light teriyaki sauce, laid atop perfectly shaped rice blocks and wrapped with a strip of seaweed (you’re at the beach or the park, ravenous and talking story with good friends and a gentle breeze is blowing), you haven’t lived. Did you know Hawai’i accounts for 40% of all the Spam sold in the U.S.?

Aloha for Carol Ann is available from most major booksellers or directly from the publisher. This charming story is a wonderful way to teach young readers about the meaning of Aloha — its power and its importance in our everyday lives, and it’s ultimately a good reminder for everyone, young or old, of how a small act of kindness can make all the difference.

Mahalo for visiting today, Margo!


Born in Washington, DC, Margo Sorenson spent the first seven years of her life in Spain and Italy, where books became her earliest friends. She finished school in California, graduating from UCLA. After teaching high school and middle school, Margo began work as a full-time writer and has since published 27 books, including Danger Marches to the Palace; Queen Luili’uokalani and Secret Heroes. When she isn’t writing, she loves visiting her grandchildren, playing golf, reading, watching sports, traveling, and hearing from her readers. Margo and her husband now live in California. Margo’s Hawaiian name, Leipua’ala, given to her by a Hawaiian family friend, means lasting gifts for children.


written by Margo Sorenson
illustrated by Priscilla Garcia Burris
published by Marimba Books, 2011
Picture Book for ages 2-8, 32 pp.
*Softcover, trim size 10.6″ x 8.2 “
Cool themes: love, friendship, compassion, sharing, school, social situations, Hawai’i

♥ Visit Margo Sorenson’s official website to learn more about all her other books.

♥ Visit Priscilla Burris’s official website.

♥ Check out the Aloha for Carol Ann Teacher’s Guide.

Cool interview with Margo and Priscilla at the publisher’s website.


*Spreads from Aloha for Carol Ann posted by permission, text copyright © 2011 Margo Sorenson, illustrations © 2011 Priscilla Garcia Burris, published by Marimba Books. All rights reserved.

**Flip flop banner via anders ruff.

Copyright © 2012 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.


22 thoughts on “author chat: a special aloha from margo sorenson

  1. Jama, what an amazing interview-so full of good things about Hawaii that I didn’t know, & about Margo, whose books I don’t know. The book looks wonderful, & you are right, children are moving often today. Thank you for sharing so much of this place with us. I’ve still never been-maybe someday?!


  2. My elder daughter learned to make something very similar to the nori/Spam/rice roll – just assembled slightly differently, I think – last summer. She LOVED it. I had expected her to make a face at the seaweed, but, nope, she gobbled the whole thing down. Need to find a place that sells nori around here.

    I hadn’t thought too much about what culture shock might be involved with a move to the islands – the story sounds neat, and the illustrations are adorable. Many thanks to you and the author for sharing!


    1. Your daughter has good taste! There are different ways to make Spam Musubi — you can see that my mom puts Spam and egg in the middle instead of just placing the Spam on top of the rice. Nori shouldn’t be too hard to find. It’s a great gluten-free snack!

      When I taught GED prep to Army wives I encountered some of that culture shock. They were so homesick and didn’t like Hawai’i at all. We learned a lot from each other, and by the end of the term were a happy group. 🙂


  3. I love Margo. I met Margo in 1998 when she came to the Library and spoke to the children about her books and her experiences. Moving from the library to the classroom, I used many of her books in my 4th grade classroom. Retired, I purchased Aloha for Carol Ann for my granddaughter and it has been a favorite as a story and a teaching tool as she moved into a new school and new classrooms. The pictures are delightful, colorful, and fun.

    I enjoyed this article as I learned some new things about Margo and love the food she mentioned. I definitely will try the bread recipe but think Margo’s next book should definitely be a cookbook for adults:-) Thanks Margo, and Aloha!
    HUgs, Gail


    1. Thanks for the lovely comment, Gail! Loved hearing about your connections with Margo. Her favorite foods are my favorites too. 🙂


  4. Margo is so multi-talented. She has excellent literary, culinary, organizational and instructional skills. My grandchildren love her books. I can’t wait to try her Mango Shortbread. Very informative interview!! Mahalo!


    Barbara Klein


    1. Many mahalos to everyone for all their wonderful comments! A special aloha-filled mahalo to you, Jama, for your superlative job on this blog! Everyone is getting hungry, I know! Thank you so much for your beautiful pictures of food (yum) and your lovely review.
      With grateful aloha,
      Margo 🙂


      1. Thank YOU, Margo, for all your wonderful answers and for writing this book and persevering! Yes, we’re all starving now :)!


  5. Interesting interview! And spam musubi sound, er, interesting. I will probably try the mango shortbread first. Congrats on the book and sharing your own story, Margo.


  6. It’s 8:17 am here in my part of the world and I haven’t had breakfast yet, dear Jama. Now I’m positively drooling – over all the photos you have shared here (that spam musubi thing I definitely have to try when I visit the States in a week’s time), and salivating as well over Margo’s books, which I have not heard of until now!!! How remiss of me! I hope that I find her books here and share them as well. 🙂 Fantabulous interview, as always.


    1. Oh, you must try Spam Musubi. Let me know how you like it. You sure do get around :).

      Margo is a new-to-me author as well; I’m looking forward to reading her other books. After this interview she really does feel like an old friend, though. We like the same foods :).


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