Author: Akemi Dawn Bowman
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Date Published: September 26, 2017
Page Count: 343 pages
Rep: Biracial Japanese-American main character, anxiety representation
Content Warnings: Anxiety, suicide mentions/self harm (off-page), emotionally abusive parent, sexual assault/harrassment mentions, internalized racism (addressed)
Synopsis: A half-Japanese teen grapples with social anxiety and her narcissist mother in the wake of a crushing rejection from art school in this debut novel.
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.
From debut author Akemi Dawn Bowman comes a luminous, heartbreaking story of identity, family, and the beauty that emerges when we embrace our true selves.
Starfish is a beautiful book about self-love. It completely enraptured me, and I fell in love with so many of the characters, for their complexity and sweetness. I give Starfish 5 stars, and it has my highest recommendation.
So, you ask – what is this story even about? A simple question with a complicated answer, and in the end, I guess it depends on your own interpretation. Starfish is the story about a girl learning to love herself. Or maybe it’s about a girl finding her voice. Or, maybe, it’s just about a girl, period, because I think no matter your background or your privilege or your personality, every girl has experienced insecurities, or been afraid of something, or felt simply not enough, and Kiko is a bit of every girl, put together in beautiful, memorable way – and her story is simply mesmerizing.
Kiko Himura is biracial and Japanese — I am neither, yet I could relate to Kiko so much, it was amazing. And while I don’t know much about it, I’ve read many #OwnVoices reviews that have said that the anxiety rep was amazing as well.
In the beginning, Kiko isn’t a fierce girl — which I feel is important to mention because in most YA books today, main female characters are fierce, witty, and know their worth. In that respect, Kiko starts out different – unsure and insecure. It’s a type of representation we don’t see often, but it’s crucial to remember that a girl who’s in the process of self-discovery and is full of insecurities is just as powerful and worthy as anyone else.
Kiko’s afraid of confrontation and disagreements, and avoids social situations whenever she can. Whenever she disagrees with someone, she’s afraid that they’ll be mad at her, which is something that I can relate to on another level. However, gradually, Kiko learns that she does not have to please everyone, and that she shouldn’t be afraid to say what she wants to say.
That brings me to another thing I absolutely *love* about Starfish — while showing valuable insight on what it feels like to feel alienated, unloved, and invaluable, it also shows what it feels like to come out of your shell and finally feel enough. In that way, Starfish isn’t a sad book at all, but instead, a hopeful one.
Kiko’s family is a broken one. With a mother who’s self-obsessed and frankly, a horrible, horrible person, with brothers who feel more like strangers than family, and a father who’s with his new happy family, Kiko feels alone. However, she learns to let go, to find people who care for her just as much as she cares for them. And you know what? I am living for this self-love.
Jamie Merrick, Kiko’s childhood best friend and crush, and Mr. Hiroshi Matsumoto, a famous Japanese artist, and his family, all shower Kiko with love, but at the end of the day, they’re just supporting characters —– which is amazing, because they’re great emphasis on how Kiko comes out of her shell by herself, how Kiko is her own power. The romance and relationships between all the characters is gorgeous, but at no point is Kiko ever overshadowed.
Kiko says it herself – she wants to be able to stand on her own. She doesn’t want to use anyone as a social crutch.
And she does!! Kiko stands on her own, and it’s the most beautiful thing ever!!
I’ve already talked a lot about some of the themes in Starfish, but there’s a lot more, regarding identity, and having pride in it.
- Starfish addresses beauty standards, all across the world, but especially in western society, and how damaging it can be. In most western societies, there’s a certain definition for “beautiful” – generally being some combination of blond hair, blue eyes, and white skin. Asians don’t fit anywhere in this stereotype, and learning to love yourself despite an entire culture pressing on you to look like someone you’re not is hard. It’s something I face and struggle with all the time.
- These sort of stereotypes are harmful. Really harmful. While this has never happened to me, a lot of my friends have fallen down the rabbit hole known as internalized racism. Again, it’s hard to escape the feeling of not belonging when external racism is so rampant in this world. Conventional standards are a serious blow to one’s self-esteem, something I know all too well. Kiko thinks she’s “not pretty” because she’s Asian, and hates being photographed. However, throughout the book, she comes out of it, realizing that she’s not ugly, and taking priding in her ethnicity.
- A quick sidenote ~ Beauty standards are found in all cultures, even POC cultures. For example, in India, the beautiful girl is thin and fair (as close to white as she an be.) I can’t put emphasis on how every beauty standard is damaging, not just the ones found in western societies. The only completely “good” world is the one free of every kind of beauty standard, where every girl, regardless of whether she fits into a stereotype or not, is viewed as beautiful and gorgeous, which we are.
Any praise I give for the writing in Starfish is simply not enough. It’s gorgeous.
As someone who generally favors purple, flowery prose over normal writing, I was (pleasantly) surprised by how much I adored Akemi Dawn Bowman’s style of writing. It was straight forward and not excessively wordy, raw, emotional, and personal, and went wonderful with the story. As an artist, I absolutely loved the artistic touch to the writing.
My favorite part, though, were the last lines of each chapter. They hit me, so hard, and I think I died a little bit each time I read one. For example:
- I draw five humans and one skeleton, and it doesn’t matter that the skeleton has all the right bones and joints—he will never be the same as the others because he doesn’t have the right skin.
- I draw a girl with arms that reach up to the clouds, but all the clouds avoid her because she’s made of night and not day.
- I draw a girl shrinking into the grass until she’s hidden by a bed of flowers that are all so much prettier than she is.
Isn’t it gorgeous? Aren’t you hurting? The last lines actually killed me. I’m so in love.
that’s it for me! tell me how you feel about this book in the comments! if you haven’t already read it, I hope you enjoyed this insight into the story!