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A William C. Morris Award Finalist
A New York Public Library Best Book for Teens of 2017
A Junior Library Guild Selection
“An empowering novel that will speak to many mixed-race teens.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“One of the most compelling reads of the year.” —Paste Magazine
“This book is a gem.” —BookRiot
A half-Japanese teen grapples with social anxiety and her narcissist mother in the wake of a crushing rejection from art school in this “stunningly beautiful, highly nuanced debut” (Booklist, starred review).
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.
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.30(d)|
|Age Range:||12 - 17 Years|
About the Author
Akemi Dawn Bowman is the author of Starfish and Summer Bird Blue. She is also a Ravenclaw and Star Wars enthusiast, who served in the US Navy for five years and has a BA in social sciences from UNLV. Originally from Las Vegas, she currently lives in Scotland with her husband, two children, and their Pekingese mix.
Read an Excerpt
Mom doesn’t show up.
I shouldn’t be surprised—she never shows up—but I can’t get rid of the empty, twisted feeling in my stomach. Emery always says that being alone isn’t the same thing as being lonely, but sometimes it feels like they’re exactly the same thing.
My mermaid teapot is sitting on the shelf in front of me. I flick my finger against the purple ribbon dangling from its spout. When I made it in ceramics class two months ago, it looked vibrant and smooth. Now all I can think about is how the blue glaze looks more gray than cerulean, how the torso is so unrealistically long, and how bad of an idea it was to make a mermaid teapot at all.
It doesn’t matter that the ribbon says “Honorable Mention.” All I see is “Not good enough to get into Prism.” All Mom would see is “Not good enough.”
Maybe I should be happy she isn’t here.
I pull the ribbon from the spout and shove it into my bag, burying it beneath a graveyard of almost-used-up pencils, a sketchbook, and a pack of cinnamon chewing gum.
When I hear laughter, I look up to see Susan Chang—the only other half-Asian girl in our school—clutching a blue and gold ribbon like she’s afraid she might lose it. Her mother’s hand is wrapped around her shoulder, and her father is pointing at her acrylic painting—an image of a house on a lake, with several geese dipping their toes into the water. It’s a sensible piece. It has mass appeal.
Not like my stupid mermaid teapot.
If I could feel anything other than sorry for myself right now, I’d feel happy for her. I’ve always felt a weird connection to Susan, even though we aren’t friends and even though the only things we have in common are our part Asian-ness and a love of art. I guess I always thought we could be friends, if either of us had bothered to try.
It’s not that I’m desperate for friends or anything. I mean, I do have friends. I have Emery Webber, who rescued me from having to eat lunch by myself on the first day of freshman year. And there’s Gemma and Cassidy, who are technically Emery’s friends, but we all sit at the same lunch table so I think they count.
I had a best friend once too. The kind you see in movies or read about in books. We lived in a different world than everyone else—a world that always made sense, even when everything around us didn’t.
We were like two halves of a snowflake—we matched.
But he moved away, and I’ve been half of a snowflake ever since.
The truth is I’m not really good at talking to new people. I’m not really good at talking to people, period.
And anyway, it isn’t a friend that I need. Not right now, when I prefer painting to trying to fit in. I need a mom who doesn’t look at me like I’m a worn-out piece of furniture that doesn’t match the rest of her house. I need a fresh start. I need a real life.
I need Prism.
But a purple ribbon isn’t going to get me admission to Prism Art School in New York. And it’s certainly not going to make my mother proud.
My chest feels heavy, and I try to think of what I’m going to say to her when I get home.
• • •
Mom is sitting on the couch painting her nails bright red with a gossip magazine propped against her knees. She isn’t looking at me, and she definitely isn’t looking at the teapot in my hands.
“How was school?” Mom asks from a thousand miles away.
“Fine,” I say. I tighten my bag over my shoulder. Maybe she forgot about my art show, even if I did remind her this morning. And yesterday. And every day before that for three weeks. But maybe she was busy and it slipped her mind. Maybe something came up.
She brushes another layer of candy-apple red over her toenail.
I feel my stomach knot over and over and over again.
My older brother, Taro, steps into the kitchen. He’s wearing a gray and red shirt with a University of Nebraska logo printed on the front and oversized glasses, even though the lenses aren’t prescription. There’s half of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich wedged in his left hand.
“Mom, there’s nothing to eat in this house.” His voice is gruff because he doesn’t know any other way to speak.
Mom wipes a blond curl away with the back of her hand, her eyes narrowed with amusement. “There’s a grocery store around the corner. You know how to drive.”
Taro makes a noise like a disgruntled cow, and then he looks at me. “Where have you been?”
Mom turns away. I feel like it’s on purpose.
“My art show,” I say, loud enough for Mom to hear. I could lie. I could tell her I won first place—I could make my award sound a lot better than it is. Maybe she’d pay attention. Maybe she’d listen. “I won something.”
Taro looks at Mom, then at me, then back at Mom. He looks as awkward as I feel. “That’s cool,” he mumbles, chewing his sandwich and moving toward the refrigerator.
I think of my ribbon, buried at the bottom of my bag. She’d never see it. She’d never even ask to see it. Why not just tell her it’s blue and gold?
I sigh. I can’t lie to her, even if I desperately want her to care. It wouldn’t work anyway. Mom doesn’t look at me the way Susan Chang’s parents look at her—she looks at me like I don’t belong. Sometimes I wonder if it’s because I look nothing like her. I have dark hair and a wide jaw and stumpy legs; Mom has loose blond curls, a narrow chin, and legs like a supermodel. We’re just different, like we exist on different spectrums. If I lived on an iceberg, Mom would live inside a volcano. That kind of thing.
But most of the time she looks at me like she doesn’t want me to belong.
Maybe it’s because of what happened with Dad. I think I’ll always feel guilty about that part, even if Mom should’ve listened to me.
Why, after seventeen years, do I still crave her approval so much? I have no idea. It’s stupid, but I can’t help it. Whoever programmed my personality made me overly accommodating. Whoever programmed Mom made her—well, I haven’t figured that part out yet.
And then, because Taro can’t help himself, he says from over his shoulder, “Mom, did you see Kiko’s teapot?” Sometimes I don’t know if he thinks confrontation is hilarious, or if he thinks he’s helping in his own pushy way.
He’s not helping. Mom hates being called out.
She looks up and flashes her peroxide-infused teeth. “Well, what did you win?” She didn’t forget about my art show, but she’s also not going to acknowledge that she didn’t want to go. She’s going to pretend like it isn’t a big deal, even though to me it’s a huge deal.
Heat radiates across my face. “Just a ribbon,” I say.
A crack appears in her glass smile. “What, like a participation ribbon? You know that’s not a real award, right?” She doesn’t ask to see it; she laughs like it’s a harmless joke—like I’m supposed to be in on the joke. Except Mom doesn’t laugh like a normal person. She laughs like she’s secretly mocking the entire world. That’s her “tell.” It’s how I know she means everything she’s saying.
I tighten my mouth. Maybe I should’ve listened to Mr. Miller and entered one of my paintings in the art show. Maybe then I’d have won first place instead of Susan Chang.
I swallow the lump in my throat. I could never enter a painting into a school competition for everyone to see. They’re too precious to me. I consider them actual, physical pieces of my soul.
Taro closes the refrigerator door and groans. “Seriously, is anyone going to make anything for dinner? I’m starving.”
“You’re graduating from college next year; why don’t you cook a meal for a change?” she points out, twisting the cap back onto her bottle of nail polish. “It would be nice if someone would cook for me once in a while.”
WHAT I WANT TO SAY:
“I’ve literally been cooking dinner at least twice a week every week for the last year. How can that possibly go unnoticed?”
WHAT I ACTUALLY SAY:
“I just made spaghetti a few days ago.”
She laughs. “I hardly call boiling some noodles in a pot ‘cooking.’?” She makes a face at Taro as if to ask if he agrees with her.
Uninterested in Mom, me, and the teapot he’s all but forgotten about, Taro stuffs the rest of his sandwich into his mouth, swallows the lump of bread, and says, “Forget it. I’m not hungry.”
“You guys are so lazy.” Mom rolls her eyes. Mine feel like someone has thrown salt in them.
It doesn’t matter that I’ve had straight A’s since the seventh grade, a nearly full-time job at the bookstore, or the fact that I’ve been actively building an art portfolio to help me get into Prism. I’m never doing enough to keep Mom happy. She never notices how hard I try, how much I care, or that maybe I just need to be noticed every now and then. And not just when it’s convenient for her.
“I’m going upstairs. I’ve got work in an hour.” I mutter the last part under my breath.
“Do you want a piece of cake before you go? I bought a pound cake from the grocery store. Isn’t that your favorite?” Mom’s voice drips with something sickly sweet.
I flinch, pausing before I reach the first step. Something tugs inside my chest, like there’s a hook pierced into my heart and Mom’s words are reeling me back to her. “I’m not hungry. But thanks.”
“Okay. Well, I’ll save a slice for you and you can have it when you get home.” She smiles so naturally, as if she’s like this all the time.
She’s not, but sometimes she makes it so hard to remember.
• • •
I paint a girl with white hair, blending into a forest of white trees, with stars exploding in the sky above them like shattering glass. If you don’t know where to look for her, you might not see her at all.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
okay well I FREAKING LOVED THIS. IT WAS SO GOOD. AHHHHHHHHHH. SO MANY FREAKING STARS because as someone Asian, I connected to this too damn much. The main character, Kiko, is half white and half Japanese, and... I could relate to her insecure feelings about being Asian. In today's society (I say society too much tbh) one of the standards of beauty is white, tall, and skinny. IF YOU'RE NONE OF THOSE THINGS YOU ARE STILL BEAUTIFUL OKAY YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL AND THERE ARE DIFFERENT VERSIONS OF BEAUTy AND YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL OKAY? OKAY. *exhales* I really hate the impression that people have, that being skinny or being tall is equivalent to beauty- it is not. It is not. It is not. If you're skinny and/or tall, you're still beautiful! If you AREN'T, you're still beautiful! Kiko feels really insecure because she's not white. During her childhood, once this really racist guy said that he couldn't date Kiko because "he doesn't like girls that look like her." AKA ASIAN. I think they were in elementary school, but I!! STILL!! AM!! MAD!!! This is a huge example of ingrained racism and how these impressions stay with people from when they're young. Kiko also has anxiety and hello? I can relate even more. She struggles with going to parties without friends, and she gets really nervous when she doesn't have someone to be with. Do you hear people screaming "same" into the night? BECAUSE THAT IS ME. I love Kiko as a character, and throughout the story she progresses and grows- and she learns to stand up on her own two legs. This was such a great coming-of-age novel, and I seriously recommend it for anyone- but especially for Asians.
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. Starfish is such a beautiful story of finding yourself and finding your place in the world. It’s heartbreaking and hopeful and filled with the beauty of self discovery. We follow Kiko Hirmura as she struggles with her art, anxiety, and painful secrets from her past. But when Kiko has the chance to tour art schools on the west coast with a childhood friend, she begins to find a courage within herself she didn’t know existed. Things I Liked I LOVED the descriptions of her artwork at the end of the chapters. They were beautiful and moving and perfectly captured Kiko’s emotions. I could really connect with her as a character, because I could feel what she was feeling so clearly. Kiko Himura is an AMAZING character. Kiko’s journey is heartbreaking and beautiful! She has such pain and insecurity that you just want to hold her hand and help her in any way you can. But she also has such strength and resilience - she want to be the one to help herself, even when she’s scared. And that makes her one of the most courageous characters I’ve even encountered. - And I just love her a lot. Kiko experiencing Chinatown and seeing other people like her was one of the purest and most joyous things I have ever read in my life. Growing up in a rural town, Kiko’s half Japanese heritage marks her as visibly different from her classmates, but seeing her experience the wonders of her culture and seeing the beauty in herself and others like her, was inspiring. I really liked that we see Kiko address how horrible and gross it is to refer to people as “exotic.” How she feels othered and like an object to look at, not a person to know or love. She clearly explains why this hurts her, and why being seen this way feels demeaning. I also really liked Hiroshi Matsunoto, who becomes a mentor-figure for Kiko. He was a wonderful character who was caring, inspiring, and encouraging. He lifted Kiko up and helped her grow at her own pace. Kiko and Jamie were really cute. I loved that they were both artistic and they connect through their art. I love how supportive Jamie was, and he listened to Kiko when she talked about her struggles with her anxiety. Things I Didn’t Like Kiko’s mom is the worst! She is poison and darkness suffocating anything around her. She is one of the most selfish characters I have ever encountered. She didn’t have a single redeeming quality and I did not like her. Kiko’s family life just made me so sad. Her mother was horrid, her father has a new family, and she never talked with her brothers, Taro and Shoji. It was just so heartbreaking to read about Kiko, Taro, and Shoji having to live in such a toxic environment. Starfish is a beautiful story of a girl learning her worth. Kiko’s journey is emotionally captivating and her strength is inspiring. The story has such a hopeful feeling, despite Kiko’s pain and unhappiness, that you completely immerse yourself in her world. This was such a great book and I cannot recommend it enough. Trigger Warning for racism, childhood sexual assault, parental emotional & verbal abuse, suicide attempt I received a copy of the book from Simon Pulse via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.
Trigger warnings include abandonment, rejection, toxic family relationships, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, racism, divorce, suicide attempt and mental health. I don’t know how to even begin to explain how I feel about Starfish so I’ll start with something easy. That cover!!! Sarah Creech has created one of the most beautiful covers I’ve ever seen! This artist must be an author’s dream come true. The colours, the layout, the design, the awesomeness of it all combined! I need this cover image available as a print so I can frame it and admire it every day. I also need Sarah commissioned to create artwork of all of the paintings and drawings described in the book because I really, really need a special limited edition illustrated version of Starfish signed by the author and illustrator in my life. I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced such a deep bookish connection with a main character before. Kiko’s experience of social anxiety is the most honest and realistic portrayal I have ever come across. I was impressed by her ability to push through her fear to be in the vicinity of more than one other person at a time sometimes, even though her successes in that area seemed to be fuelled mostly by her need for approval. Her constant feeling of being out of place, weird and different to everyone else hit home for me, as did her pathological need to be ‘enough’ for a person whose expectations are both unrealistic and impossible to meet. I loved her introspection and keen insights into the actions of those around her and her own feelings and behaviour. The long term effects of childhood sexual abuse were handled sensitively. The lingering self doubt, guilt and shame were realistic, as were the character’s experiences and internal dialogue as a result of way this trauma was handled by the people they should have been able to trust to protect them. The physical abandonment by one parent and the emotional abandonment by the other had me getting pretty imaginative with the voodoo doll depiction in my head of Kiko’s mother. Kiko’s fear of abandonment, rejection and of never being enough were all logical but heartbreaking responses to really dysfunctional family dynamics. Kiko finds her voice through her art and the more she explored her feelings through painting and drawing the more I wished I had the ability to translate images in my head to paper and canvas in that way. I loved the use of art as therapy although I did think that the ending was a bit too easy. I know there were struggles, anguish and angst along the way but Kiko must be made of stronger stuff than I am. If Kiko’s story was my story I am pretty certain there’d be an epilogue that mentioned how well my therapy was going. I felt for sure that Kiko would remain my favourite character but then I met Hiroshi. My candidate for both Father of the Year and Best Mentor Ever, Hiroshi is wise, sensitive, accepting, vulnerable, loving and adorable! I wanted to hug him, take art classes from him and listen to him talk about his life and the world for the rest of my life. Akemi Dawn Bowman’s writing is so beautiful and the translation of Kiko’s feelings to artwork was poetic and stunning. I felt a deep connection with so many characters and didn’t want to finish reading because I wanted to continue to hang out with Kiko and Hiroshi. Thank you so much to NetGalley and Ink Road, an imprint of Black & White Publishing, for the opportunity to read this incredible debut.
One of those painful, emotional books that got under my skin in the first few chapters and stayed swirling around in my head until I finished. Kiko's path to finding and building a family who appreciates her and escaping her mother's emotional abuse is sure to resonate with readers who've grown up with less than ideal home lives. I loved the ongoing dichotomy between 'what I wanted to say' and 'what I did say' during Kiko's interactions with the other characters almost as much as I loved the references to her art at the end of each chapter. And her developing relationship with her childhood friend Jamie is almost as wonderful as Kiko's determination to stand on her own two feet in spite of the support he provides for her. Although the ending felt a little rushed to me--in large part because I wanted more time with these characters--STARFISH is still one of those stories I'll be thinking about for a long, long time. Check it out if you like narratives centered around recovering and escaping abuse, biracial protagonists exploring and accepting their biracial identities, art-focused books, or just powerful contemporary YA that makes you ache and think by turns.
STARFISH took my breath away. This is such a fantastic look at a character trying to figure out her own identity while life keeps throwing curveballs. Kiko is so realistic and multifaceted, readers won't be able to stop rooting for her. The family dynamic in this story is so telling of the lifestyles for children who aren't quite sure which side of their heritage they are "expected" to embody, and Akemi did a beautiful job of illustrating the pressures put on kids (teens and younger). Her writing style is also subtle and powerful, and I couldn't put the book down! 100% recommend this book. It's fantastic and should be on everyone's list.
There are some books out there that you just connect with on every level, and Akemi Dawn Bowan’s Starfish was one of those for me. Before I begin, I would like to that the Cover Gods for coming up with the ABSOLUTELY BEAUTIFUL Starfish cover because everything about this cover works for this book and AAH. It’s just so pleasing to look at. “I draw a girl on a plane, leaving her heart on the runway.” There was absolutely nothing I didn’t like about this book, so let’s talk about all the things I did love: 1. Our Biracial Protagonist: Kiko is half American, half Japanese and from the very first page you can see her struggling with the image of beauty that her mother has drilled into her. She struggles to fall in love with the person she sees in the mirror, she struggles with anxiety, she struggles with her heritage versus just wanting to be “normal” which as an Indian is SO RELATABLE to me. I connected with Kiko, and fell for her instantly because her voice is raw, honest and most importantly, real. “I draw water and fire, forgetting all the rules and morphing into something new.” 2. THE ART: I don’t talk about it one the internet much, but I’m also an artist. I’m nowhere near as talented as Kiko, but I can paint. When I feel like it. The words used by Akemi Bowan to describe Kiko’s art brought it to life in a way I’ve never seen done before. All the quotes are Akemi bringing to life her imaginings of Kiko’s art, because I thought you should see how BEAUTIFUL it was to read for me. “I draw a thousand fairies circling around a girl so she can finally fly away.” 3. THE CHARACTER GROWTH: Three chapters into this book, I felt like I knew Kiko. I understood what it was like to be her, socially awkward and all. I loved how she blossomed and started gambling on herself more as the book progressed and by the end, she actually said out loud what she kept inside before. It was like a caterpillar learning to become a butterfly and I LOVED IT. “I draw five Japanese women with very different faces, but all of them are equally beautiful because beauty is not just one thing.” 4. HIROSHI AND JAMIE: Now, they’re not love interests, this book DOESN’T HAVE a love triangle, but they’re both such SPECTACULAR characters. Hiroshi is an artist who takes Kiko under his wing, introduces her to his Japanese family and shows her what unconditional love is. Jamie, on the other hand, is her childhoos best friend with his blue eyes and kind smile. They’re both such perfect people, and exactly the supportive, kind people that Kiko needed and I fell in love with them too. A lyrical, gorgeously written, poignant diverse book about loving yourself, growing up and first love. 5 stars and I COULD NOT RECOMMEND IT MORE.
I’m the type of reader that has a tendency to become really attached to characters, especially the protagonist that we follow throughout the story. They either become a character who I can see myself being friends with, or a character who I can relate to in some way. With Kiko Himura, the protagonist in Starfish, it was different because I didn’t only see one or the other. This time… I saw me. And coming to that realization was equal parts terrifying and wondrous. I understood and identified with Kiko on such a deep and emotional level that I found it to be such a struggle to read the first half of the book because that is when we are first shown the unhealthy and destructive home-life Kiko and her siblings live in. It was awful, heartbreaking, and rage-inducing to see her mother be so selfish, narcissistic, and delusional to the point where it was physically draining for her own children to be anywhere near her. Kiko has social anxiety – something I can definitely relate to but never really had a name for until reading this book. There were moments in the book where I wanted to reassure Kiko that everything would be okay and that all she needed to do was take a chance, but I also acknowledged how scary taking that leap can be. I’ve always been the quiet type growing up, and didn’t try breaking out of my shell until college, but I also know that despite going through that, I still have some degree of social anxiety and that is something that is just part of who I am. Like Kiko, I’ve had to learn – and am still trying to everyday – to accept and see the beauty in myself, quirks and all. I found myself feeling so proud and excited for Kiko as she explored California and discovered more about her Asian culture – a significant part of herself that she had missed out on growing up because of her terrible mother. Maybe because it’s so appalling for me to fully grasp, but I could not understand how her mother could have married and had three children with Kiko’s Asian father, and still be so racist towards anything Asian (even something as simple as anime, for heaven’s sake!), to the point where it distorted her perception of beauty. To Kiko’s mother, there was only one form of beauty: skinny, blonde, and blue-eyed, and anything differing from that was a flaw. I am not Japanese, nor am I half of anything, but I am a Filipino Asian American who grew up in California, so seeing Kiko finally break free from her racist and toxic home town – and even worst mother – was such a relief. It was beautiful seeing Kiko discover, not only her Asian culture, but also an inner strength and courage she never knew was there. The whole best-friends-turned-lovers arc is something I’m always wary about in books because I don’t believe in it, but the romance between Kiko and Jamie was so sweet and beautifully developed. It did not feel like insta-love at all. On the contrary, Kiko and Jamie actually go through a lot of growth throughout their friends-to-more-than-friends relationship and it was so lovely to see that. Jamie is sweet, charming, understanding, and, like Kiko, has an artistic eye. Except while she utilizes pencils and paints to create images, Jamie captures them with his camera. He and Kiko hadn’t seen each other since they were children so the awkward reunion period was understandable; they were different people now, more grown up and have gone through so many things in their short lives, Kiko especially. I liked how Jamie did not immediately know
I read my first review on this book and knew immediately it was one I had to read. It was sad, beautiful, and so achingly real. I've often wondered how families of different cultures handled sharing these differences with their children. In this case, not well at all. Kiko's mom was a real piece of work and so, so familiar. Though the author never specifically said she was bipolar, from personal experience, I assumed so. I grew up with a sister who is dead on this starfish. This is such an apt description for a bipolar individual and so much better than "bat-shit crazy" (my description for her for the last 40+ years). Unfortunately, until about 10 years ago, I wasn't very familiar with this condition. Also unfortunately, my granddaughter is barely surviving growing up in similar circumstances. A Mom that is always criticizing her, telling her that she is useless, ugly and not worth the air she breathes. A Mom that keeps her isolated so that she doesn't have friends nor develop life skills. She "home schools" her. This is her way of having total control and being answerable to no one. For the most part, as grandparents, your hands are tied. Offering emotional support and simply being there for them is about the sum total of help that you can give. If you attempt to run interference then you get cut totally out of their life. Unless the bipolar parent is physically abusive, you can do little. In most cases, the bipolar individual presents a totally different face to outsiders. Outsiders typically think you are overreacting. This book shows how this emotionally cripples the children caught in the middle of the vicious cycle where everything revolves around the starfish. It's me! me! me! 24/7. Anxiety and fear becomes a way of life for these children. A copy of this book will be in my personal library so that when my granddaughter is a couple of years older, I can let her read it to see that there is a possibility of light at the end of the road.