Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman is the powerful and sometimes heartbreaking story of Kiko, a half-Japanese teen who hopes that her artistic talent will help her escape her toxic home life with her white mother who is alternately neglectful and abusive. After Kiko’s dream art school rejects her, she is forced to consider other options. When she reunites with her childhood friend Jamie and embarks on a completely unexpected journey with him, Kiko starts to realize that sometimes second choices can lead to second chances. Starfish is a finalist for YALSA’s 2018 Morris Award. Today I’m thrilled to have Akemi Dawn Bowman here to answer some questions about her debut novel.
Congratulations on Starfish’s selection as a 2018 Morris Award finalist! Where were you when you heard the news? Who was the first person you told about the big news?
Akemi Dawn Bowman (ADB): Thank you so much! I was sitting on the couch with my three-year-old when I read the email. It had actually been sent hours before, but we had been out all day and I wasn’t checking my phone. When I finally did, I had all these messages from my editor and agent. I totally started crying and jumping around the living room, and then my three-year-old asked what was wrong. When I told her my book had been nominated for an award, she looked very unimpressed and said, “That’s not a good thing to cry about.” But my husband got home about fifteen minutes later, and his response was a lot more enthusiastic. And then I had to keep it a secret until they announced it publicly a few days later!
Your debut novel follows Kiko’s journey both literally across the country and figuratively as she tries to figure out how to break away from her toxic home life. What was the inspiration for this novel? What was the first thing you learned as an author about Kiko?
ADB: Starfish is very much the book I needed as a teen. I wanted to write a story that would’ve made me feel like I wasn’t alone—a story that would’ve made me feel like everything was going to be okay. I really wanted that for other readers, because hope is such an important part of healing.
I think the first thing I learned about Kiko was how resilient she was without even realizing it. She has no idea how strong her heart is, because it’s covered in bruises and scars and it constantly aches. And part of her journey is realizing that she has the strength to do things on her own—to make changes on her own—and I could see that in her early on, but she needed thirty chapters or so to figure it out for herself.
Art plays a huge role in Starfish as Kiko describes her paintings and sketches to readers (and dreams of attending art school). Kiko also interacts with other artists including Jamie who is a photographer when they meet again at the start of the novel. I loved these extremely visual and evocative moments in a prose novel. Did you turn to any pieces of art for inspiration while writing this novel? Who are some of your favorite artists? Does Kiko share your artistic tastes?
ADB: None of the artwork Kiko creates was inspired by any specific piece of art. It’s sort of the style that exists in my imagination (and also stays there, because I am laughably bad at drawing and even worse at painting). So I think it’s fair to say our tastes are similar, even if our talent for art is at opposite ends of the scale. But with Hiroshi, his style was inspired by my love of pop surrealism and artists like Mark Ryden and Anne Angelshaug.
Starfish is filled with a lot of empowering moments as Kiko begins to gain confidence and learns about her own resilience and strength. Did you have a favorite scene to write in this novel? Is there one you are excited for readers to discover?
ADB: I really enjoyed writing all the early scenes with Kiko and Jamie. The romance in Starfish very much takes a backseat to Kiko’s journey of self-acceptance and finding a way to move forward, but it’s still such an important part of her growth. Because one of the things Kiko worries about as a biracial teen is that she’s “too Asian” for people to find her beautiful or desirable. She had a couple of bad experiences where people told her they weren’t “into Asian girls,” and it really affected the way she saw herself. And it’s something that hits so close to home for me, because that way of thinking is so difficult to unlearn. I wanted Kiko to have unmistakable proof that the feelings she had for Jamie were mutual, and to show that his affections for Kiko had zero to do with her being half-Japanese. Writing their scenes brought me a lot of joy, because I was letting Kiko essentially unlearn these fears she had about the way others see her. And as for a scene I’m most excited for readers to discover, it would probably be the scene where the meaning of “starfish” is revealed. It’s a pivotal moment for Kiko, and I think it’s the point where she really starts to look at the future differently.
There’s no right or wrong way to write a novel, but there’s lots of advice to be had. What’s the best piece of writing advice you received when you were starting out? Now that your debut is out in the world, do you have any advice that you would share with aspiring authors?
To always be writing the next book. And it’s the same advice I would give aspiring authors now. Because there is so much in this business that will be completely out of your control. But that next book? It’s the one thing you have complete control over. In a lot of ways, the “next book” is my anchor. It keeps me from getting completely lost in the excitement, anxiety, and terror that comes with getting an agent/getting a book deal/seeing your first trade reviews/etc, etc. So ignore the noise, stay focused, and work on the next book.
Thank you to Akemi for taking the time to answer my questions about Starfish. Be sure to watch for the Youth Media Awards ceremony at 8 a.m. MT on Feb. 12, 20l8 to see which Morris Award finalist will be selected as this year’s winner.
— Emma Carbone, currently reading Warcross by Marie Lu