Starfish

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About The Book

A William C. Morris Award Finalist
A New York Public Library 2017 Best Book for Teens

“Dazzling.” —Bustle
“One of the most compelling reads of the year.” —Paste Magazine
“This book is a gem.” —BookRiot

A gorgeous and emotionally resonant debut novel about a half-Japanese teen who grapples with social anxiety and her narcissist mother in the wake of a crushing rejection from art school.

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.

Excerpt

Starfish

CHAPTER ONE
Mom doesn’t show up.

I shouldn’t be surprised—she never shows up—but I can’t get rid of the empty, twisted feeling in my stomach. Emery always says that being alone isn’t the same thing as being lonely, but sometimes it feels like they’re exactly the same thing.

My mermaid teapot is sitting on the shelf in front of me. I flick my finger against the purple ribbon dangling from its spout. When I made it in ceramics class two months ago, it looked vibrant and smooth. Now all I can think about is how the blue glaze looks more gray than cerulean, how the torso is so unrealistically long, and how bad of an idea it was to make a mermaid teapot at all.

It doesn’t matter that the ribbon says “Honorable Mention.” All I see is “Not good enough to get into Prism.” All Mom would see is “Not good enough.”

Maybe I should be happy she isn’t here.

I pull the ribbon from the spout and shove it into my bag, burying it beneath a graveyard of almost-used-up pencils, a sketchbook, and a pack of cinnamon chewing gum.

When I hear laughter, I look up to see Susan Chang—the only other half-Asian girl in our school—clutching a blue and gold ribbon like she’s afraid she might lose it. Her mother’s hand is wrapped around her shoulder, and her father is pointing at her acrylic painting—an image of a house on a lake, with several geese dipping their toes into the water. It’s a sensible piece. It has mass appeal.

Not like my stupid mermaid teapot.

If I could feel anything other than sorry for myself right now, I’d feel happy for her. I’ve always felt a weird connection to Susan, even though we aren’t friends and even though the only things we have in common are our part Asian-ness and a love of art. I guess I always thought we could be friends, if either of us had bothered to try.

It’s not that I’m desperate for friends or anything. I mean, I do have friends. I have Emery Webber, who rescued me from having to eat lunch by myself on the first day of freshman year. And there’s Gemma and Cassidy, who are technically Emery’s friends, but we all sit at the same lunch table so I think they count.

I had a best friend once too. The kind you see in movies or read about in books. We lived in a different world than everyone else—a world that always made sense, even when everything around us didn’t.

We were like two halves of a snowflake—we matched.

But he moved away, and I’ve been half of a snowflake ever since.

The truth is I’m not really good at talking to new people. I’m not really good at talking to people, period.

And anyway, it isn’t a friend that I need. Not right now, when I prefer painting to trying to fit in. I need a mom who doesn’t look at me like I’m a worn-out piece of furniture that doesn’t match the rest of her house. I need a fresh start. I need a real life.

I need Prism.

But a purple ribbon isn’t going to get me admission to Prism Art School in New York. And it’s certainly not going to make my mother proud.

My chest feels heavy, and I try to think of what I’m going to say to her when I get home.

• • •

Mom is sitting on the couch painting her nails bright red with a gossip magazine propped against her knees. She isn’t looking at me, and she definitely isn’t looking at the teapot in my hands.

“How was school?” Mom asks from a thousand miles away.

“Fine,” I say. I tighten my bag over my shoulder. Maybe she forgot about my art show, even if I did remind her this morning. And yesterday. And every day before that for three weeks. But maybe she was busy and it slipped her mind. Maybe something came up.

She brushes another layer of candy-apple red over her toenail.

I feel my stomach knot over and over and over again.

My older brother, Taro, steps into the kitchen. He’s wearing a gray and red shirt with a University of Nebraska logo printed on the front and oversized glasses, even though the lenses aren’t prescription. There’s half of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich wedged in his left hand.

“Mom, there’s nothing to eat in this house.” His voice is gruff because he doesn’t know any other way to speak.

Mom wipes a blond curl away with the back of her hand, her eyes narrowed with amusement. “There’s a grocery store around the corner. You know how to drive.”

Taro makes a noise like a disgruntled cow, and then he looks at me. “Where have you been?”

Mom turns away. I feel like it’s on purpose.

“My art show,” I say, loud enough for Mom to hear. I could lie. I could tell her I won first place—I could make my award sound a lot better than it is. Maybe she’d pay attention. Maybe she’d listen. “I won something.”

Taro looks at Mom, then at me, then back at Mom. He looks as awkward as I feel. “That’s cool,” he mumbles, chewing his sandwich and moving toward the refrigerator.

I think of my ribbon, buried at the bottom of my bag. She’d never see it. She’d never even ask to see it. Why not just tell her it’s blue and gold?

I sigh. I can’t lie to her, even if I desperately want her to care. It wouldn’t work anyway. Mom doesn’t look at me the way Susan Chang’s parents look at her—she looks at me like I don’t belong. Sometimes I wonder if it’s because I look nothing like her. I have dark hair and a wide jaw and stumpy legs; Mom has loose blond curls, a narrow chin, and legs like a supermodel. We’re just different, like we exist on different spectrums. If I lived on an iceberg, Mom would live inside a volcano. That kind of thing.

But most of the time she looks at me like she doesn’t want me to belong.

Maybe it’s because of what happened with Dad. I think I’ll always feel guilty about that part, even if Mom should’ve listened to me.

Why, after seventeen years, do I still crave her approval so much? I have no idea. It’s stupid, but I can’t help it. Whoever programmed my personality made me overly accommodating. Whoever programmed Mom made her—well, I haven’t figured that part out yet.

And then, because Taro can’t help himself, he says from over his shoulder, “Mom, did you see Kiko’s teapot?” Sometimes I don’t know if he thinks confrontation is hilarious, or if he thinks he’s helping in his own pushy way.

He’s not helping. Mom hates being called out.

She looks up and flashes her peroxide-infused teeth. “Well, what did you win?” She didn’t forget about my art show, but she’s also not going to acknowledge that she didn’t want to go. She’s going to pretend like it isn’t a big deal, even though to me it’s a huge deal.

Heat radiates across my face. “Just a ribbon,” I say.

A crack appears in her glass smile. “What, like a participation ribbon? You know that’s not a real award, right?” She doesn’t ask to see it; she laughs like it’s a harmless joke—like I’m supposed to be in on the joke. Except Mom doesn’t laugh like a normal person. She laughs like she’s secretly mocking the entire world. That’s her “tell.” It’s how I know she means everything she’s saying.

I tighten my mouth. Maybe I should’ve listened to Mr. Miller and entered one of my paintings in the art show. Maybe then I’d have won first place instead of Susan Chang.

I swallow the lump in my throat. I could never enter a painting into a school competition for everyone to see. They’re too precious to me. I consider them actual, physical pieces of my soul.

Taro closes the refrigerator door and groans. “Seriously, is anyone going to make anything for dinner? I’m starving.”

“You’re graduating from college next year; why don’t you cook a meal for a change?” she points out, twisting the cap back onto her bottle of nail polish. “It would be nice if someone would cook for me once in a while.”

WHAT I WANT TO SAY:

“I’ve literally been cooking dinner at least twice a week every week for the last year. How can that possibly go unnoticed?”

WHAT I ACTUALLY SAY:

“I just made spaghetti a few days ago.”

She laughs. “I hardly call boiling some noodles in a pot ‘cooking.’?” She makes a face at Taro as if to ask if he agrees with her.

Uninterested in Mom, me, and the teapot he’s all but forgotten about, Taro stuffs the rest of his sandwich into his mouth, swallows the lump of bread, and says, “Forget it. I’m not hungry.”

“You guys are so lazy.” Mom rolls her eyes. Mine feel like someone has thrown salt in them.

It doesn’t matter that I’ve had straight A’s since the seventh grade, a nearly full-time job at the bookstore, or the fact that I’ve been actively building an art portfolio to help me get into Prism. I’m never doing enough to keep Mom happy. She never notices how hard I try, how much I care, or that maybe I just need to be noticed every now and then. And not just when it’s convenient for her.

“I’m going upstairs. I’ve got work in an hour.” I mutter the last part under my breath.

“Do you want a piece of cake before you go? I bought a pound cake from the grocery store. Isn’t that your favorite?” Mom’s voice drips with something sickly sweet.

I flinch, pausing before I reach the first step. Something tugs inside my chest, like there’s a hook pierced into my heart and Mom’s words are reeling me back to her. “I’m not hungry. But thanks.”

“Okay. Well, I’ll save a slice for you and you can have it when you get home.” She smiles so naturally, as if she’s like this all the time.

She’s not, but sometimes she makes it so hard to remember.

• • •

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.

About The Author

n/a

Akemi Dawn Bowman is the author of Starfish and Summer Bird Blue. She is also a Ravenclaw and Star Wars enthusiast, who served in the US Navy for five years and has a BA in social sciences from UNLV. Originally from Las Vegas, she currently lives in Scotland with her husband, two children, and their Pekingese mix.

 

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon Pulse (September 2017)
  • Length: 352 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781481487726
  • Grades: 7 and up
  • Ages: 12 - 99
  • Lexile ® HL670L

Raves and Reviews

A 2018 William C. Morris Award Finalist
A New York Public Library 2017 Best Book for Teens
A Junior Library Guild Selection


“An empowering novel that will speak to many mixed-race teens.” Publishers Weekly, starred review

“A stunningly beautiful, highly nuanced debut.” Booklist, starred review

“Readers living with anxiety or depression will immediately identify with Kiko. . . . a deep and engaging story that will not only entertain but also may encourage readers to live their best lives.” School Library Journal

Vividly captures the identity struggles of a biracial young adult searching to find her place in two worlds.” BCCB

“Bowman gives a powerful voice to silenced victims of sexual abuse through Kiko, whose transformation from meek and afraid into powerful and strong is incredibly moving.” VOYA

“Dazzling.” Bustle

“One of the most compelling reads of the year.” Paste Magazine

“This book is a gem.” —BookRiot

“A vibrant, complex and heartfelt story about finding your place in a sharp-edged world that never makes it easy.” —Kelly Loy Gilbert, author of Conviction and Picture Us in the Light

“Akemi Dawn Bowman’s quietly dazzling debut novel gave me the sensation of looking into a mirror. This story is a knockout, at once an incisive portrait of family dysfunction, a nuanced depiction of Asian-American adolescence, and an artist's vibrant coming-of-age—a story so specific as to be universal. Brimming with confessional intimacy and the furious strength of empowerment, Starfish feels like the ache of being lost and the relief of finding home.” —Riley Redgate, author of Seven Ways We Lie and Noteworthy

Awards and Honors

  • NYPL Best Books for Teens
  • ALA/William C. Morris Award Finalist

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More books from this author: Akemi Dawn Bowman