Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman
Published by: Simon Pulse
Release Date: September 26th, 2017
Genre: YA Contemporary
Others by Author: Summer Bird Blue (Release date TBA)
Kiko Himura has always had a hard time saying exactly what she’s thinking. With a mother who makes her feel unremarkable and a half-Japanese heritage she doesn’t quite understand, Kiko prefers to keep her head down, certain that once she makes it into her dream art school, Prism, her real life will begin.
But then Kiko doesn’t get into Prism, at the same time her abusive uncle moves back in with her family. So when she receives an invitation from her childhood friend to leave her small town and tour art schools on the west coast, Kiko jumps at the opportunity in spite of the anxieties and fears that attempt to hold her back. And now that she is finally free to be her own person outside the constricting walls of her home life, Kiko learns life-changing truths about herself, her past, and how to be brave.
I have resigned myself to the fact that I am likely never going to read and/or watch a story about a Brazilian girl who is half white Latina and half Japanese/Chinese who immigrates to Canada and has to go on a long rant every time someone asks what her background is. Which is alright, but also means that I have a tendency to get attached to people who look like me even if their stories are a little different (take my mild obsession with Chloe Bennet, star of Agents of SHIELD, for example: the show isn’t great, but as long as she is at the forefront and Ming-Na Wen is playing an almost romance with Coulson, I’m all in).
So what immediately caught my attention when I saw this book at the store was that the character was half Japanese. “I must read this immediately,” I thought. So I did, and the book made me very happy and very sad at the same time.
Kiko has social anxiety, a very emotionally-abusive mother who thinks Kiko’s too Asian to be pretty, almost no relationship with her Japanese father, and doesn’t really know anything about being Japanese since she had no contact with that culture. I was lucky enough to have been brought up in pretty multicultural places and with a fairly close connection to my Asian background, so I’ve been surrounded by all kinds of people for (most of) my life. So if even I have had things to deal with in regards to White beauty standards and all that, I can’t imagine what it would be like for someone in Kiko’s situation. In fact, one of my favourite scenes was when Kiko goes to Chinatown for the first time. I’ve always loved Chinatown, and even now going there or into a Chinese market brings me a specific kind of home-y feeling, which is a little weird now I think about it, but Bowman got that feeling down on paper pretty well, so I know that I can’t be the only person who feels that way. Plus, the whole thing about Kiko buying food to feel connected to her Japanese background was just spot on.
“When I look around at the people in Chinatown, I don’t feel like I’m desperate for their acceptance. I feel at ease.”
As for the characters, they were all fleshed out very well, and I loved reading about them, even when I hated them. My favourites include Hiroshi, his entire family, Emery, and Shoji. But most of all, I loved Kiko. Her story felt so personal that I just want to give Akemi Dawn Bowman a hug. She’s definitely shot up my list of authors I desperately want to meet, partly because she’s half Asian like me but also partly because she got so much so right. The way Kiko thinks through everything she says, misses opportunities, obsesses over little things…honestly, sometimes the story was hard to read. I especially loved the way that Kiko’s social anxiety was formatted in the book with the comparisons between what she wants to say with what she does say. And that party scene! It was so relatable that it kind of hurt.
“Normal people don’t need to prepare for social interactions. Normal people don’t panic at the sight of strangers. Normal people don’t want to cry because the plan they’ve processed in their head is suddenly not the plan that’s going to happen.”
Kiko’s journey from anxious, awkward, shy, and uncertain to a person who isn’t afraid to let herself be in the spotlight every once in a while was a pretty wonderful thing to read. I also love that she realizes how dependent she is on other people and that she needs to learn how to be her own person.
“I don’t want to need anyone. I want to stand on my own two feet. I want to control my own life and my own emotions. I don’t want to be a branch in someone else’s life anymore–I want to be the tree on my own.”
The only reason this isn’t getting 5 stars is because the story moved a little fast sometimes and the romance felt almost unnecessary. Also, Kiko’s mom was so villainous that it felt a little odd. It was pretty clearly stated that her mother had a mental illness, and while I understand that sometimes this leads to terrible relationships with people, [SPOILER ALERT] I would have preferred if her mother’s mental illness had been addressed instead of just blamed for all of her mother’s abusive acts. [/END spoiler alert] But even so, this was still a gorgeous debut, and I couldn’t be happier that I’m seeing stories a little closer to my own.
Now I just want to cry at Akemi Dawn Bowman and hug her and be her friend but let’s be honest—chances are, I’d probably do the same thing Kiko does at a book signing: throw the book at her and mumble and not even remember what was said after the fact. I’m sure there’s more to be said (and many other reviewers were a lot more eloquent), but that’s what I’ve got for you for now. Ask me more if you’d like and maybe I can come up with some other things to say.
“I don’t have to be white to be beautiful just like I don’t have to be Asian to be beautiful. Because beauty doesn’t come in one mold.”
Let me know what you think of this book! I am already very excited to see what Akemi Dawn Bowman does next 😉