A special thank you to Rich in Variety for providing me with an ARC of Starfish.
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, Kikoprefers 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
CW: ableism, aromisia, mental illness, child abuse, sexual abuse, sexual assault, suicide
After much consideration, I dropped my original rating to 1 star. This book is extremely dangerous, and the ratings it’s receiving are uncritical and harmful. Readers need to be aware of how dangerous this book is before they read it.
Short Review: Starfish is a tale rife with culture, self-exploration, and cute romance. Despite the excellent character development, beautiful writing and formatting, and excellent messages on racism, the story also paints a very ableist image that boosts one experience at another’s expense.
Long Review: Warning – May Contain Spoilers
The writing is amazing. If you’re looking for writing that not only tells a story, but does so beautifully, you’ve come to the right place. Each chapter ends with an image that our MC paints, and these images are beautiful and inspirational.
Kiko is a wonderful, well-developed character. She showcases the true struggles of being biracial, of being Japanese in a white world, of being emotionally abused by a parent, and of living with anxiety. She is a great image for young Asian readers to see themselves in, and a really relatable character beyond that.
The romance was cute (if a little cheesy), and handled quite well. The romance doesn’t “cure” Kiko, and throughout the story, she insists on having her own life separate from it.
There was a sort of unnatural dichotomy between Kiko’s parents. Her father basically did no wrong, and her mother did no right. While this is an image that can develop in a person’s mind after a divorce, I think the support of the narrative made her father into an unnaturally good character, and therefore made his character a bit flat. Likewise, Kiko’s brothers were a bit underdeveloped. While it’s explored in the story that they don’t all no each other that well, I would have liked to have seen more about them, especially after what happened to Kiko’s younger brother.
The ableism in this story is far too much to ignore. There are ableist slurs littered throughout the pages, but what really brings it all together is the climax of the story. Kiko goes on to describe her mother as a “split-personality, narcissistic, psychopathic mom”, which is a lovely three ableist slurs in quick secession. We then end the story by learning that Kiko’s mother (the main antagonist of the story) is supposedly only this way because of some “undiagnosed mental illness” that no one but Kiko has determined exists. Not only is it ableist for a teenager with no medical experience to diagnose a mother she barely knows, but the constant insistence that she has mental illness simply because she’s abusive and selfish is disgusting, and a terrible pillar for this book to be built on.
We also have the aromisic line of “just friends” and the insistence that romance is more important than friendship. Finally, I want to mention the line which reads, “He kisses me even though I try to raise my hand to stop him”. This is a clear lack of consent, which then transitions into, “And then I don’t stop him. His lips mold against mine like they’re perfectly shaped for each other.” This is sexual assault, and worse yet, it’s portrayed as romantic. Gross.
Overall, Starfish has the potential to be one of my favorite books of the year. I can’t deny how well the issues of race were handled in this book, but ignoring the ableism, aromisia, and lack of consent simply isn’t possible and would only serve as terrible allyship.
Enter the giveaway for a signed and personalized copy of Starfish here!