Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman

The gorgeous cover fits this young adult novel about a teen artist. In Starfish, debut author Akemi Dawn Bowman uses art metaphorically to explore multicultural identity, mental illness, and resilience. A victim of sexual abuse as a young child, Kiko paints the feelings that she is too scared to share with anyone. Since her Japanese American father signed full custody to her Caucasian mother, Kiko lost her chance to understand her Japanese heritage. Her narcissistic mom transfers her resentment about divorce into criticism of anything Asian, making Kiko and her brothers ashamed of their biracial roots. Living in a white suburban neighborhood in Nebraska with racist peers doesn't help.

Kiko's confusion about her identity exacerbates her social anxiety disorder: "I can't imagine feeling like I'll ever belong anywhere. I'm either too white, or too Asian, but never enough of either. And I'm weird. People don't react well to weird."

When her dream art college in NYC rejects her and her abusive uncle moves back in with her family, Kiko drives off with Jamie, an old friend/crush, to look at other art schools. In California she meets a Japanese American artist who offers to mentor her, but her anxiety makes it hard to trust anyone, including herself. Jamie, like the reader, often becomes frustrated with Kiko, but with love and acceptance, her self-confidence grows and her art improves. Their sweet romance offsets the pain.

Most chapters end with a description of Kiko's art, which captures her daily mood: "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."

Despite her dark issues, Kiko has a good sense of humor. On her mom obsessing over the "Best-Looking" in her yearbook: "Sometimes it feels like she belongs in high school more than I do."

Akemi Dawn Bowman portrait by Rory Lewis
As you can see from these excerpts, Starfish is brutally honest, surprisingly funny, and often lyrical. The author, like her protagonist, is hafu Japanese American and has social anxiety as well. Her novel will help multicultural teens feel less isolated and encourage empathy from others. The sexual abuse part of the story, although understated and not explicit, would make me not recommend this book to younger teenagers. However, Starfish would crossover well to adults since it's so introspective and the central relationship is with the mother. With all the media speculation on a certain president's narcissistic personality disorder, this book is timely. Although the college application process was somewhat unrealistic, the artistic process ringed true. I wish I'd read Starfish senior year in high school, as a young artist myself.

Since I was raised with two religions and married an immigrant, I relate to the identity issues facing Kiko. I have faced anti-Semitism but was also told that I wasn't Jewish since my mother was Christian. On the plus side, my brother and I have always been more open to people who are different from us. I married a British man and my brother married a Japanese woman, and we raised our children with multiple religions and time abroad to understand their mixed cultural heritage. Blended families need books like Starfish. Thank you, Akemi!

Reviewer's Disclosure: The hardcover was published in September, 2017. I searched four bookstores until I found Starfish at Print: A Bookstore in Portland. I connected with the author on twitter.

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@Barrie Summy


Lucy said...

It is a beautiful cover. Great review. Thanks.

Donna said...

Thanks for the review. I'm going to add this to my to-read list.

Linda McLaughlin said...

Great review, Sarah. This sounds like a really good book. Thanks for the review.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Sometimes it seems like YA novels are confronting bigger issues than adult novels.

Barrie said...

Thank you for this very thoughtful review. I think the humor must work well in a book tackling such tough stuff. And, yes, the cover is gorgeous. Thank you!

thecuecard said...

I wonder how much of the story is the author's? Beautiful book cover --- does the protagonist paint starfish or jellyfish in the story? nicely done review.

troutbirder said...

Very interesting and well done review Sarah. I'm sure I'll be able to relate to this book having a wife with the consequences of early childhood divorce and subsequent years in a Catholic boarding school for girls. Also my sons blended family with a little United Nations" family bonding of several races, adoptions from Africa, religions and residences in four different States..:)

Charlotte Agell said...

May I borrow it?

Sarah Laurence said...

Lucy & Linda, thanks!

Donna, great! I'd love to hear your reaction to this novel.

Patti, YA is confronting issues and pushing boundaries as it matures. That's what makes it exciting to read and to write.

Barrie, gallow humor helps in fiction and in real life. Thanks for hosting the book review club!

Cue, the best novels are written with emotional truth and thereby make the fictional elements ring true. I do hope the more tragic plot points did not come from personal experience, but if they did, I applaud the author for sharing to make others not feel alone. The marketing label of "ownvoice" usually refers only to a match between the author and the protagonist's ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or health issue, not necessarily the plot points. On the cover, as much as I Iove the jellyfish, I wondered why there wasn't also a starfish, which is used metaphorically in the book to represent a narcissistic person. There is also a painting description about the MC feeling like a small fish in an ocean of stars and planets, which probably inspired the cover art more than the title. Perhaps the title changed?

troutbirder, thanks! This book would resonate with your family too. I'd love to hear your reaction.

Charlotte, sure, stop by this weekend to pick it up. It would be fun to catch up too!

Jenn Jilks said...

It IS a lovey cover. It's so important!
Great review. I think we can learn so much from suck books.

A Cuban In London said...

I love the cover. And the novel sounds very interesting indeed.

Greetings from London.