Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman
Published by Simon Pulse on September 26, 2017
cw: sexual assault, racism, emotional abuse, victim blaming, portrayals of anxiety, suicide
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.
This is a book I really wish my younger self could have read. There are so many deep, important subjects here that I feel are covered in a healthy, realistic way. Kiko is a biracial girl living in an overwhelmingly-white town who finds herself dealing with the intersection of several different issues: racism (both from her classmates and her white mother), abuse (both emotional and sexual), and mental illness (severe social anxiety).
I feel weird just standing there listening. Do other people do that? Move from circle to circle, socializing with everyone like they all know each other? It seems invasive. I don’t know the rules.
As a white woman who was raised in rural New England, I am constantly learning and growing when it comes to issues surrounding race. Because of this, I defer to own voices reviews when it comes to aspects of race in books. However, I can speak to some extent to the latter two topics mentioned above. I felt that Akemi’s portrayal of sexual assault and social anxiety were both spot-on. Of course, everyone’s experiences are different, but I really saw my own reflected here, which made me feel understood and validated. My one issue being that both Kiko and her friends tended to joke about and/or accuse her abusive mother of being bipolar or narcissistic. It was definitely a bummer to see an author attempt to destigmatize one form of mental illness while at the same time continuing to stigmatize others.
I paint three faceless people–one becomes the sky, one becomes the ocean, and one becomes the sun. They live apart for eternity because they don’t belong together.
I loved pretty much everything else about this book. I found myself hooked into the plot right from the beginning. I really felt like I was in Kiko’s head and her emotions became my own. I adored the focus on her art and the descriptions of her pieces (or lack thereof) at the end of each chapter. I thought it was just wonderful to have a romantic subplot that wasn’t the focus of everything, and it was wonderful to have a character whose emotional well-being was not tied to their romantic relationship. I think a lot of folx (myself included) struggle to find a balance in relationships where they are able to use their partner for support without using them as a crutch. I was so happy that Akemi was able to depict a protagonist who could do this, especially since it was depicted as something that involved conscientiousness and work to do.
He looks confused, and of course he is. 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.
In short, I loved this book and I cannot recommend it enough. I’m so glad that I got my hands on a copy and I really can’t wait to see what Akemi puts out next. Please let me know if you’ve read this and, if so, what your thoughts were! If you haven’t read it, do you plan to? Also, how beautiful is the cover??