Akemi Dawn Bowman’s Starfish is the story of Kiko Himura, a young artist living with her mom and two brothers somewhere in Nebraska. Kiko is cripplingly shy and anxious, the result of years of emotional neglect and abuse at the hands of a narcissist mother and creepy uncle. The only thing she has in her life is her art, and her dreams of getting into Prism art school in New York. She used to be a happy enough kid, with a wonderful best friend named Jamie. But then her uncle abused her, her parents split up and her friend moved away. So, when she doesn’t get into her dream school she is suddenly confronted with the possibility she may never escape her horrible life. Luckily she runs into Jamie by chance at a graduation party and they rekindle their friendship. He offers her a place to stay in California for a few weeks so she can tour other art colleges there. What seems a simple gesture on his behalf is in reality the lifeline Kiko needs to start breaking away from her mother and learning to live life on her own terms.
I won’t say that I enjoyed reading this book but it is really good. It’s really hard for one to enjoy reading about a child being abused, and not being believed by the very person she is supposed to be able to count on. My own mother had her demons, but I never felt unloved in spite of them, not really. It was quite sad to read the inner monologue of a teen who has not felt loved by her mother her entire life. The entire time I kept yelling at Kiko “Girl, get thee to a therapist!!!” I hope she makes it to one after the epilogue, even though things are looking up for her by then.
Much of the novel is devoted to Kiko exploring California with Jamie and learning to live life as she sees fit rather than in any attempt to please her selfish mother. She lucks out and earns a sort of internship with a famous local artist who ends up being the adult in her life that she really needs. I liked all the characters you’re supposed to like and hated the ones you’re not. There’s a bit of a last-minute drama thrown in just I think for some heightened stakes, but it was actually something I saw coming almost from the outset. Kiko is most teen girls confidence-wise, but with the anxiety turned up to 11. I liked the way that she openly states that she has social anxiety. This is a YA novel; the idea that a lonely teenager might read this and find themselves in Kiko in this way that may help them feel more normal about their anxieties makes me happy. High school and being a teenager is so hard as it is. I can’t imagine having severe (trauma-induced) social anxieties at that age. I worried so much about what people thought and to this day I’m a people pleaser, so even I at nearly 40 found something in Kiko I could relate to.
Don’t get me wrong this book can be a total downer at times. Basically everyone in Kiko’s life fails her in every way possible growing up, with the exception of her best friend Emery (who then leaves for college early). She is sad, withdrawn, alone, and cannot be herself or trust her own parents with her safety and mental health. I like that this book ends on a positive note but it isn’t a fairy tale. Kiko still has a lot of healing to do and a lot of mental health issues she’ll need to tackle. She is getting there, and I like that Bowman didn’t tie everything up in a neat little bow. This is a well-written book on a tough subject.