Review: Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman

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Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman is a beautiful book about art and anxiety and dealing with poisonous people in your life. I found it equal parts brutal and brilliant, so packed with emotion and heart that I couldn’t help falling in love by the end. It also has an incredible ending that just filled my heart so much (you know…right after it finished smashing my heart into little pieces). Definitely all signs of an incredible book!

The story follows Kiko who is an artist with severe social anxiety. She’s trapped in a home where her mother is openly racist and basically psychologically torments her, all under the guise of just being a “caring parent”. Kiko feels like she doesn’t and will never belong as a biracial Japanese-American. All she can dream about is getting into a specific art school after graduation, where she get away from her mother’s torment and start a new life for herself. But what if she doesn’t get in?

It had the simple best and most brutally accurate representation of social anxiety I’ve ever read. It made my heart ache for Kiko as she battled the deeply rooted feelings of being a burden, being unwanted, being a problem to everyone. She couldn’t just “go an hang out” at a party. The anxiety levels were so intense she sometimes couldn’t even leave her car. It’s also uplifting to see her journey through it. This isn’t a story that uses mental illness as just a tragedy. It shows the dark cruel side, of course, but it also talks about recovery and finding yourself and learning to feel loved. (But there’s also no messages of “love cures all” which is refreshing!)

Kiko’s family life breaks my heart. Her mother was an utter psychopath and it was unbelievable how racist she was towards her own kids. Kiko never felt loved, pretty, validated, or cared about. Reading about it made me burn with righteous fury. Kiko just wanted her mother to acknowledge her art but her mother refused unless it gained her power. I rooted for Kiko to get her dream of being an artist and get out so so bad.

I loved the super sweet friendship between her and Jamie. They’re childhood friends who lost each other when they were 11 and now he’s back! Their lack of communication really grated on me, but they’re teens and this is just realistic. I love how slowly and tentatively they explored their feelings. And it was literally the sweetest thing how Jamie was there for her.

I loved the discussions about being biracial from an #ownvoices author. The author wrote her perspective so fluently and beautifully that it was an amazing insight to read. I felt so connected to Kiko and I loved watching her start to feel empowered by here Japanese roots, not ashamed.

The art aspect was also glorious! Every chapter ended with a little snippet of what Kiko was drawing that day and the imagination was stunning. My only wish was that the book had included some sketches! (I need fan art for this wow.) And the book really reminded me of I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson. Total recommend for them both obviously. It explores a bit of the tortured-artist feelings, but also the empowerment of releasing your emotions through visual displays and turning something ugly into something beautiful.

Starfish was a beautiful and poignant story that really digs into your heart! It’s seriously sad and hard to read at times as you watch Kiko’s life spin out of control. But the point is, she wants to get the control back. She is an anxious character, but not a passive one. I thought this book was brilliant!

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Cait Drews

Cait Drews is writer, book blogger, and reader extraordinaire. She's been blogging for 5 years, reads 200 books a year, and has written over fourteen YA novels. She is usually found hugging her bookshelves and she often eats full books before breakfast.