Ellen Emerson White: Kaiulani's story is absolutely a tragedy. After spending her entire life — from the moment of her birth — being raised to serve as the Queen of Hawaii one day, she was entirely lost when the monarchy fell. It was as though, having been prepared to lead, she felt that she had no other options, and no real reason to exist otherwise. I am quite convinced that she died as the result of a broken heart. For one thing, almost everyone she loved died during her lifetime — which is tragic, in and of itself. Her mother, Annie, Robert Louis Stevenson — the list goes one and on. Then, once the monarchy was abolished against the will of the Hawaiian people, I think Kaiulani felt she no longer had any purpose in life. No one had ever prepared her for the possibility of leading an ordinary life, so I think she ended up feeling utterly hopeless. It's a tragedy of both wasted potential and, naturally, of a beautiful princess who died much too young.
RFA & EST: What do you think were the essential qualities that made Kaiulani so admired and loved?
EEW: I think her grace and beauty appealed to everyone, regardless of whether they had ever actually met her. Then, upon getting to know her, people were drawn to her intelligence and dignity — even as a small child. Her closest friends found her to be witty and vivacious, but I think she kept that side of herself somewhat hidden when she was in public.
RFA & EST: As you researched Princess Kaiulani's life and the end of the monarchy in Hawaii, what did you discover that surprised you most?
EEW: The honest answer is that I was surprised by the absolutely disgraceful behavior of the United States government. They simply took over a small country to serve their own interests, and the Hawaiian people suffered a great deal as a result. Since America is a democracy, I did not think we would do something like that, and I don't ever remember hearing anything about this period of history when I was in school. All we were taught is that Hawaii became the 50th state. Somehow, the history books left out the crucial details of what can only be described as a military coup.
RFA & EST: Robert Louis Stevenson's friendship with Kaiulani is a thread that runs throughout the fabric of the princess's life. Would you tell us more about this unlikely friendship? How did it develop and why?
EEW: There actually isn't that much historical information available about their friendship, beyond what is in the diary. Without question, they shared a sense of humor and a similar sort of intellectual curiosity, so I think they just plain "hit it off." Certainly, as an important member of the Royal Family, Kaiulani would have been introduced to any famous person who came to the Islands. I think their initial contact was purely a courtesy call on Robert Louis Stevenson's part. It would have been very impolite of him not to pay his respects to the Royal Family during his stay on Oahu. The fact that he and Kaiulani genuinely enjoyed each other's company was, I suspect, nothing more than a happy accident.
RFA & EST: This is your first Royal Diaries book, although you've authored a previous Dear America book, The Voyage of the Great Titanic — The Diary of Margaret Ann Brady. What do you like most about the diary format, and did you find it easier or more difficult to write from the point of view of a real person?
EEW: It is much more difficult to write about a real person, in my opinion. In my Titanic book, I could give Margaret any background and personality that felt comfortable to me — which, in my case, meant lots of jokes and a certain rebellious nature. With Kaiulani, I felt a great responsibility to try and reflect her actual voice, as closely as possible. I read a number of letters she had written to people, and did my best to adopt her exact tone. As a result, the voice ended up being a lot more formal than any sort of voice I would normally use in fiction. My sense of Kaiulani is that she was so conscious of her responsibilities as a future Queen, that she rarely allowed herself to relax or let down her guard. I'm not sure she would even have had a sense of absolute privacy within the pages of her own diary — and the book reflects that. But I found it so difficult to write, that I don't think I would do another diary about a real person; I far prefer making up my own characters.
RFA & EST: If you could ask youngsters who have read Kaiulani: The People's Princess just one question about the book, what would that question be?
EEW: I would ask, "How do you think our nation's history would have changed if the United States had never overthrown the monarchy, and Hawaii was still a small, independent country today?"
RFA & EST: What do you hope young readers will take with them after reading Kaiulani: The People's Princess?
EEW: Actually, I hope they go out and read a couple of books by Robert Louis Stevenson. I also hope that readers will feel that they've learned something new about an unknown, and almost forgotten, part of our nation's history.
Interview conducted by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston and Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D., Clinical Assistant Professor, University of Houston, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Houston, Texas.