Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman


  • my rating: 5 stars
  • published by: Simon Pulse
  • genres: contemporary
  • diversity: biracial mc (Japanese/White), anxiety representation
  • content warnings: parental abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, suicide attempt, anxious thoughts
  • links: Amazon | B&N | Goodreads

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.


Starfish feels like a lovesong. I would not hesitate to say it feels like Akemi Dawn Bowman put everything she had into this book .. and then some. It’s emotive and moving and thoughtful, and honestly on par with contemporary YA favourites this year like The Hate U Give. At times it is tough to read, the content can be heavy and sickening, but for me the strength and resilience of Kiko as a character, and her personal growth more then made up for the bits that were hard to read.

Starfish follows Kiko Himura, a Japanese-American girl living aspiring to gain entrance into her coveted art school, Prism. The majority of the tension throughout the book comes from the abusive relationship between Kiko and her mother. Kiko struggles to overcome the emotional abuse perpetuated by her mother, and to embrace her Japanese heritage, as well as the experience’s she’s had throughout her childhood. Kiko’s mental illness – specifically social anxiety, also plays a large role in this, and I really liked the portrayal of that aspect.

Kiko’s struggle felt incredibly authentic and the emotion poured throughout these pages is immense. It’s hard not to sympathise with Kiko, and to want her to succeed. For me, it was easy early on to see what was going on between Kiko and her mother, but I think the journey that Kiko goes through to recognise her past and to reconcile with it was the highlight of this book.

The romance was also really cute. Jamie is a male character I can really get behind. He’s patient and kind, and I really enjoyed watching the connection between Kiko and Jamie flourish and grow, and I also really liked how although that subplot was there, it was Kiko’s development that was fore fronted before the romance was.

I also really liked Hiroshi as a character, and the relationship between him and Kiko. To see that “taking someone under your wing” kind of thing was really nice, and I think his mentorship of Kiko and how he taught her to value herself and her art was so beautiful. I loved that relationship and how strong and important it was for Kiko.

This book really tackles so many issues, especially abuse, the idea of ethnicities being considered “exotic”, the importance of representation, mental illness,  and what it’s like being biracial in America. The issues are tackled with care and concern, and I really loved how you could tell these issues were important to the author.

One thing I wish had been focussed on more was Kiko’s dad and brothers. I felt the subplot about Kiko’s brother felt a bit thrown in and that it was not as well developed as other elements of the story. However, I can hardly say this took away from the book as a whole.


Starfish is an incredibly well constructed and moving book. It is, shamefully underrated. This book for me is such a gem, from the amazing representation, to the fun characters, to the beautiful descriptions of art and what art means to people.

I really hope more people take notice of this book, it’s so beautiful both inside and out.

But some people are just starfish – they need everyone to fill the roles that they assign.

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