Akemi Dawn Bowman’s Novel ‘Starfish’ Promotes Self-Acceptance Through the Lens of an Asian-American High Schooler

The award winning novel deals with themes of trauma and neglectful relationships, while teaching the importance of growth and self-acceptance.


Rida Nuamah

The cover of the book ‘Starfish’ has sea animals in the galaxy, showing how everything (quite literally) revolves around them.

Starfish is a 2018 William C. Morris Award finalist novel written by Akemi Dawn Bowman, an American author who has written many novels such as Harley in the Sky, The Infinity Court series, and many others. Starfish focuses on Kiko Himura, a half-Japanese teen who struggles with social anxiety and tries to find her identity. The novel centers around self-acceptance and the power of independence.

Kiko has a narcissistic mother who wouldn’t let Kiko stay with her father, and always wanted Kiko to be around her. Trapped at home with her brothers and mother, she often felt out of place. Her ticket out was art school, but her hopes of escaping were shattered when she didn’t make it in. Kiko goes on a trip to California with her childhood friend, where she finds herself and discovers hidden truths about her mother, her friend, and herself.

The book starts at an art contest, where Kiko wins an award. Her mother is not there to congratulate her, but when she gets home, she finds her mother doing nothing. From the get-go, we find out that one of the main issues in the story is that her mother is not there for Kiko, yet Kiko seeks her validation. This theme of her mother not being there for her is very important in the novel, and is especially relatable for Bronx Science students; many of us came to this school to please our parents, and despite the accomplishment of being accepted into a Specialized High School, many students have parents who are still not satisfied with their kids’ achievements, and parents who place too much emphasis on achieving perfect grades.

Cultural conflicts also feature prominently in the novel. Kiko is half-Japanese, from her Japanese father, and half-white, with her white mother, and her mother clearly doesn’t appreciate her Japanese heritage. Out of both her siblings, Kiko’s younger brother Shoji is the only one who ever came to embrace their heritage, which is something that Kiko envies her younger brother for, given his ability to easily embrace their heritage.

The relationship between Kiko and her siblings is a compelling dynamic throughout the novel. Kiko has two brothers, named Shoji and Taro. All three siblings saw how their mother wasn’t loving and rejected their culture, but the siblings weren’t close. Bowman writes that they “aren’t like other siblings,” instead resembling “strangers living under the same roof.” Even though all of them are going through the same situation, they all have different responses. Taro doesn’t exactly care that much about what their mother is doing, because he already came to realize that she would never change, and Shoji also ignores their mother and focuses on himself instead of her.

One reason why Kiko wanted to leave her home was because of her uncle. He physically harmed her; because of that, she couldn’t stand to be around him without thinking about how he had made her suffer. Even though she told her mother, her mother never did anything about it, and repeatedly let him back into their house. By bringing it up to her mother, Kiko thought she caused her parents’ divorce, and blamed herself for their choice to separate.

Amid physical abuse at the hands of her uncle, distant relationships with her siblings, and her mother trying to keep her home all the time, Kiko was eager to escape her home.

Kiko’s dream of art school was so she could escape, but she is forced to reconsider what it is that she wants to do when she is rejected. This is something that I think is very realistic in the story. Many people rely on college to get out of their homes, and I think that the reality is that some of us won’t get in. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any other options, and this book teaches us that, as Kiko moves on from her rejection and tries again.

Kiko’s childhood friend Jamie invited her to go to California with him after she was rejected from the art school. In California she looked for more art schools and met a person there who became her mentor. In California, she found her independence and realized that her dreams are the dreams that she should pursue.

The descriptions of Kiko’s art at the end of every chapter is also compelling because they represent her mood throughout the story. The art pieces describe her emotions in a way that we could understand what she is feeling. For example, she drew skeletons to show how empty she felt. The art is important to the story because descriptions of Kiko’s emotions aren’t really described in the story, so the only way that readers can really understand her feelings is through the lens of her art.

Kiko’s dream was art school and leaving her mother’s house, but that was never her mother’s dream for her. What Kiko’s mother wanted was for her kids to always be around her and focus their attention solely on her. And because of that, Kiko’s mentor told her,“We all have to dream our own dreams. We only get one life to live — live it for yourself, not anyone else. Because when you’re on your deathbed, you’re going to be wishing you had. When everyone else is on theirs, I guarantee they aren’t going to be thinking about your life.” This quote points out that you don’t need to live your life for anyone but yourself, and that is something that many teenagers need to learn. I really liked the quote and its meaning because it showed me that my life should be the one that I live for, and that my dreams should be mine and I shouldn’t be trying to live someone else’s dream for me.

Kiko’s mother made everything about herself. Every time Kiko did something like bring her friends over, her mother asked if Kiko said anything bad about her. She thinks that all Kiko does is make her out to be the villain of her life. Bowman wrote that Kiko’s mentor told her about how “some people are just starfish — they need everyone to fill the roles that they assign. They need the world to sit around them, pointing at them and validating their feelings. But you can’t spend your life trying to make a starfish happy, because no matter what you do, it will never be enough. They will always find a way to make themselves the center of attention, because it’s the only way they know how to live.” This is a big part of the story, because Kiko’s mother is like the starfish in her life.

This is why the book is entitled Starfish, because some people, who Bowman named ‘starfish,’ need the world to revolve around them. The lesson that you do not have to make your world revolve around anyone except yourself is the main theme of the story; this is evident as Kiko begins to live for herself and free herself from the pressure to fit other people’s standards. I really like the message that this novel conveyed, because I have met many people who are like ‘starfish,’ and I’m sure many other’s have too. This novel has showed me that I don’t have to want their validation, or anyone else’s.

Something that was a bit off-putting was how unrealistic the book was. The events that took place, such as Kiko going on a trip to California with her childhood best friend after reuniting with him after only a few weeks, did not seem like it could happen in real life. Something else was that readers couldn’t really see how Kiko’s confidence grew. Instead, all that we saw is that she could now ignore her mother and that she has people who care about her, including her childhood friend and her mentor.

I quite enjoyed the novel, particularly as I read about how Kiko changed her perspective on her life. She realized that her life is hers to live and that it does not have to be about anyone else. She also realized that her mother would never change, but she matured past worrying about her mother.

Starfish moved me deeply, since it taught me that I shouldn’t have to live up to anyone else’s expectations, or live for anyone else’s dreams except mine.

The starfish metaphor helps Kiko go from being a girl who only wanted validation from someone, to validating herself. This book was engaging and thought-provoking, and I would recommend it to those looking to read about self-acceptance, or anyone who is looking for a great book!

This is why the book is entitled Starfish, because some people, who Bowman named ‘starfish,’ need the world to revolve around them. The lesson that you do not have to make your world revolve around anyone except yourself is the main theme of the story