Review: Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman

Posted February 11, 2021 by Angie in Book Reviews / 0 Comments

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Review: Starfish by Akemi Dawn BowmanStarfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman
Published by Simon Pulse on September 26, 2017
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Contemporary
Format: Hardcover (340 pages)
Source: Library
Purchase: AmazonIndieBound
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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.


Proceed with Caution:

This book contains mentions of child abuse, incest, and victim blaming. Kiko was molested by her uncle as a child and suffers severe social anxiety as a result.

The Basics:

This is narrated in first person by Kiko, a half-Japanese high school senior who doesn’t fit in at school or in her family.

When we first meet Kiko she’s waiting on her acceptance letter from her first choice art school, Prism in New York. Unfortunately, she doesn’t get in and she didn’t have a back-up school. She also knows that she can’t stay home, because her mother allows her uncle to move back in with them despite what he did to Kiko as a child. Kiko’s childhood friend, Jamie, had been in town for the summer and invites her back to his home in California where she starts looking for schools and her voice.

My Thoughts:

Starfish immediately sucked me in. Kiko has a very distinct voice and an engaging story that I think a lot of people can relate to. We immediately see her mother’s emotional neglect when she barely acknowledges Kiko’s art show, which she didn’t attend in order to paint her toenails. Her older brother has one foot out the door, because he’s learned it’s best to not even bother trying to confront the woman who birthed them. Meanwhile, Kiko sees her younger brother disengaging from the family entirely. Her family situation isn’t all awful. I was actually pleasantly surprised that she gets along with her dad, stepmom, and the babies. Step-families don’t need to be awful!

She can’t be the villain if she’s the victim. (pg 70)

Kiki struggles a lot with her appearance as a biracial Asian person. Her mother is white and that is the standard of beauty that she’s always been fed. Her mother’s careless comments throughout Starfish have completely shaped Kiko’s self image. She can’t see herself as pretty. She just sees someone who stands out and has the “wrong” features. There’s always this feeling of otherness, which I’ve always felt as well. However, I am so glad that Kiko realizes that her mother’s beauty is not all beauty, and comes to accept this during her time in California.

Everyone expects me to be Asian, not white, because of the way I look. But I’m only half Japanese–I’m the same amount of Asian as I am white. Why doesn’t anyone ever call me half white? It’s confusing. I wonder if it will always be confusing. (pg 61)

When I look in the mirror, I don’t see a fat girl. But after five minutes of pinching my skin and studying every angle in the reflection, I see the fattest person in the world. (pg 131)

I also really liked how Starfish handled back-up plans for when your life doesn’t go how you planned, particularly after high school. Kiko made the ultimate mistake by only applying to one school, so when she didn’t get in, she had no idea what to do. Thankfully, Jamie was a great friend and help steer her in a direction. She spent the summer working on her art, making connections, and applying to other schools. Community college was also mentioned as an option, which is good. Although I don’t like how it was made out to be an undesirable option in general. I do think it was a bad option for Kiko because of her living situation. She needed that distance from her mother. But to make community college seem like the bottom of the barrel is not a good thing.

In the end, I was very impressed with Starfish. I consumed it in just a few hours. I was cheering for Kiko to find her voice and accomplish her dreams. Her mother was also a train-wreck that I couldn’t look away from. This woman has the uncanny ability to make every single thing about her, even Kiko’s abuse somehow gets flipped to be about her. I just could not stop reading and waiting for the light bulb moment. Highly recommended.

Quotes From Starfish:

She doesn’t have to wonder if guys will like her because of her race. Nobody will tell her she’s “pretty, for a white girl.” She’s just pretty, period. (pg 11)

Having fun with lots of other people isn’t an easy thing for me to do, especially when it’s with people I don’t feel comfortable around. (pg 15)

And besides, everything breaks eventually if it’s put under enough strain. Even titanium. That’s not sensitivity–that’s science. (pg 19)

“But some people are just starfish–they need everyone to fill the roles that they assign. They need the world to sit around them, pointing at them and validating their feelings. But you can’t spend your life trying to make a starfish happy, because no matter what you do, it will never be enough. They will always find a way to make themselves the center of attention, because it’s the only way they know how to live.” (pg 233)

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