STARFISH by Akemi Dawn Bowman | Book Review + Spotify Playlist


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.


This book took my breath away. I usually take a few months to read one book for a tour and end up dropping out because I lose interest or run out of time to finish the book. But for Starfish, I had very little trouble getting into it and falling for the environment Kiko was in. It took me a few weeks to finish, but there was not a minute that I didn't root for Kiko every step of the way. I smiled, laughed, shed so many tears (especially towards the big reveal at the end!), and it felt really real and authentic.
I'm not biracial myself, but being a young, black girl growing up, I also felt confused as to where I belonged in this world. I'd felt too "white" for the black kids, but not "white enough" to be white, so I never had a lot of friends growing up. I'd felt so out of place that, like Kiko, I hid in my room and used my art (writing) to escape, the way Kiko uses visual arts (painting/drawing) as hers. So I could feel Kiko's insecurities about not knowing her true half-Japanese heritage.

Her relationship with her childhood friend Jamie was so realistic. I loved how they grew up together, but circumstances made him move away, but she's never stopped thinking about him. Even when she'd had terrifying anxiety attacks, he was confused and didn't know how to help her much, he didn't push her away. He kept her guarded and safe by playing music for her on his earbuds! So sweet!

One thing I'd like to point out, and it's a spoiler, but it needs to be said: When Jamie kissed Kiko for the first time, Kiko was surprised but let it happen because she'd wanted it for a long time. A reviewer on Goodreads had thought it had insinuated sexual abuse or and issue of consent. To me, it didn't feel like that at all. I'd felt that both times that Jamie kissed Kiko when she was emotional, but it wasn't because she didn't want the kiss to happen. She'd always let herself fall into it and somehow enjoy it. I'd gotten into an argument with this person on social media, and after she had blasted me on Twitter about the scenes in the book, I dropped the conversation. Differences aside, I still don't think what Jamie did was wrong or hurtful towards Kiko. I still feel like she needed to let those emotions go to be with him. 

At first, when I'd read the synopsis and read about Kiko road-tripping with a childhood friend, I initially had thought it was with her best friend, Emery, since she was going away for college. But it wasn't---it was Jamie! Which I thought was really clever way to keep the reader interested.
On the downside, two things that held this story back: short chapters and Kiko's mother. The chapters, while beautifully written, were so short. Kiko's crippling anxiety both showed her character and held her back mentally. She challenged herself split into two ways --- "WHAT I WANT TO SAY" and "WHAT I ACTUALLY SAY" --- especially when she was in an argument with her mother. And at the end of each chapter, there is a description of Kiko's drawings and paintings. Those were amazing because I could feel how much art really meant to her.

Another downside was Kiko's goddamn narcissistic, self-centered, selfish, twisted, cunning mother. Not only did she find ways to bring down Kiko and her brothers, she blamed Kiko for her divorce from their father for years. Kiko's mother was a bigot too, from making her kids play "Most Caucasian-looking of the Himura Children" to inviting her abusive brother to stay with them, knowing that Kiko was sexually abused by him as a child. She chose to either avoid, ignore or use Kiko's anxiety against her and make it about herself. It wasn't until near the end of the book when Kiko's mother admitted that she too may have had been abused too, but by then it was too late.

However on the other hand, I wish Kiko would have used that moment to at least share some empathy towards her mother. It's usually those heavy moments that make even the toughest people break down, and it would have been nice to see Kiko gain some new perspective towards her mother.

But other than those moments, this book was still incredible! It was such sheer, unadulterated, open, honest, vulnerable brilliance, and I'm so glad I read it. If this is Bowman's debut, then I can't wait to see what else she has up her sleeve.

Check out my Spotify playlist for Starfish:

GIVEAWAY: Signed + Personalized Copy of Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman

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