Published by Simon Pulse on September 26th 2017
Source: Publisher, Edelweiss
Genres: Young Adult, Contemporary, Romance, Own Voices, Diversity
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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.
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 was heart-aching at times, extremely down-to-earth, and wholeheartedly triumphant as readers stay with Kiko every moment of her growth and transformation in the end of high school and beyond. Ever since reading the synopsis of this book, I was extremely excited (and definitely not disappointed!). Starfish captures the voice of a half-Japanese, half-white teen with such depth and heart, making readers really connect to her. I can’t say how many times I have heard myself say the same things Kiko says to herself, or the interactions with people and peers that she goes through. Raised in a household by her single mother who casts the all-American beauty of golden hair and blue eyes as the norm in society, Kiko grew up with distinct insecurities about her own self-image and worth. While her mother has that sort of “all-American beauty,” Kiko and her two brothers favor their father’s Japanese heritage. There is such an aching, realistic development of family dynamics in Starfish, a totally adorkable romance, and ultimately, a beautiful development of Kiko’s character from someone meek to someone who knows her own worth and beauty.
I don’t have to be white to be beautiful, just like I don’t have to be Asian to be beautiful. Because beauty doesn’t come in one mold.
The story starts with Kiko dreaming of getting into Prism, the art school that’ll allow her the escape from her toxic household. Her mother is selfish and cares only about herself, always twisting the situation into making herself a victim. Kiko holds herself back because of growing up in that kind of environment, becoming a people-pleaser. She has a generally quiet personality, but is full of wit and fun once you get to know her. In the beginning, she goes to a party (mostly from peer pressure) and finds herself in a distinct bubble from the rest of the group. In a predominantly white school with only one other Asian student, Kiko lives in a world where she is labeled as “exotic” and compared to ethnic characters like Princess Jasmine from Aladdin by her ignorant peers. More than ignorant – racist. Bowman writes this matter with precision, really honing in on the feelings of a student feeling like an outcast because of the way she looks. My heart was with Kiko the whole time while reading, because I got where she was coming from. It’s the seemingly small words and phrases, the side-glances and stereotypes, that squash down one’s self-esteem and worth. This part of Kiko’s characterization was extremely well-done and oh-so-relatable. Even better was the development that has a steady progression throughout the book. From meeting different people in different places, past her small town, Kiko gains an appreciation for herself and the beauty both in and outside her.
The romance plays a small part in this, but is never a central aspect. At the party in the beginning of the book, Kiko rekindles a friendship with her childhood best friend who moved away, Jamie. There are tensions at first, especially as Kiko has social anxiety and is generally awkward and frozen around groups of people, but they eventually get back into a comfortable friendship with romantic tension. Jamie is also extremely patient when Kiko’s anxiety sets in, and they work well together as they catch up on lost experiences throughout the years. My favorite part of the romance, however, is that no matter how romantic and sweet Jamie is, Kiko doesn’t rely on him totally. She recognizes her dependence on him at one point, and puts a pause on their relationship to find her own strength, without him as a pillar of help. And he understands that. I love how the romance is in the book, but not the turning factor that causes Kiko to change. I think this is a healthy relationship for readers to see, and I myself enjoyed how light and geeky it was.
I’m so in love with Jamie Merrick I want to fun straight into a wall and squash into a flat pancake because loving him feels like a cartoon.
There’s so much I could say about the family dynamics that play such a large role in the story, but could never fit in a review. There’s just so much growth – in relationship, in understanding each other, and in the characters in the family except the starfish. Jamie and her brother have a kind of cold relationship. Not really so cold, but they engage in limited conversation and interactions as each have their own interests that don’t involve the other. (Which is actually pretty relatable.) But when Kiko goes to California to explore her options in art college over there, as well as stay with Jamie, she finds out more than ever how quiet family matters can amass into a large event. And with that discovery comes one where she recognizes her relationship with her brothers, and the hope of it growing. Kiko also has a traumatic event in the past as a child that was flippantly dismissed by her starfish mother, and the way Bowman resolves this is another example of the stellar characterization that she writes.
‘Beauty isn’t a single thing. Beauty is dreaming – it’s different for everyone, and there are so many versions of it that you mostly have no control over how you see it.’
I’m sure most of y’all are confused why I keep calling a character the “starfish,” but I highly urge you to read the book to find out why. Kiko goes through so much lovely growth throughout all the turbulent relationships of her life. She finds out that beauty can go past the standard that her mother grew up to ingrain in her head. She recognizes her own beauty and worth. And I also adored the bits and pieces of art that the author adds in the story. At the end of almost each chapter, Kiko draws a picture that corresponds to what happened in the chapter. They are stunning on pages, and even more stunning in a reader’s imagination. Starfish is a YA contemporary that will capture readers’ hearts as they see Kiko’s character growth and the heart-pounding triumph of her both as a person with loved ones and an artist with a sea of ideas.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Thank you Edelweiss and Simon & Schuster for the review copy!