Messy family dynamics. Social anxiety. Abuse. Healing. As a teenager, Akemi Dawn Bowman struggled through all of it. Looking back, she realized a book addressing these difficult experiences would have helped. So she wrote it.
Bowman's debut young adult (YA) novel Starfish follows talented, anxious young artist Kiko Himura as she navigates a home full of emotional landmines, including an abusive uncle and a self-obsessed mother. Throughout the book, she seeks a place where she not only feels safe, but also can grow into her fullest creative self.
"In many ways, Starfish is the book I desperately needed as a teen," Bowman told Spine. "I wanted to write a book that gave other people in similar situations hope, and show them that they aren't alone."
While the book's seed was planted during Bowman's adolescence, it came to fruition years later because Bowman needed professional distraction. Having completed a sci-fi book for the young adult (YA) market, she entered a sci-fi fantasy Twitter pitch contest (#SFFpit) and won herself an agent, Penny Moore. As Moore looked for publishers, Bowman looked for a project to distract her.
Starfish was "a million times different" than the sci-fi project, so she dove in. Writing progressed at top speed, in total silence — "I need absolute quiet when I work." — and in pajamas — "If I'm not comfortable, I won't stay in the chair." At the time, Bowman was expecting her second child and said fear of returning to "the Upside-Down that is having a newborn" kept her on task. "I think the combination of a pending baby and the anxiety of [the sci-fi project] being on submission is what fueled me to write Starfish as quickly as possible."
One of the biggest challenges Bowman faced when writing Starfish was figuring out how her main character might share what she's feeling with readers. "Kiko has social anxiety, and she has a difficult time saying what she’s really thinking." Bowman decided to end each chapter with a brief description of art Kiko creates in response to the chapter's events.
"I draw a row of paper dolls severed in the middle and two friends promising to someday put them back together again."
This ends the chapter in which Kiko's best friend leaves for college.
"I paint a monster with poisoned eyes swallowing up the sun so the whole world goes dark."
This ends the chapter in which Kiko's uncle invades her bedroom.
"I wanted her to have a way to express her emotions," Bowman said. "Because she has such a passion for art, this seemed like a great way to show some insight into what Kiko is feeling after each chapter. Most of the descriptions of her drawings and paintings are only a sentence or two, but I think they carry a lot of emotional weight. They’re honest and heartbreaking, and I think they really give the reader a glimpse of who Kiko is and how she’s growing throughout the book."
Though Kiko and Starfish have only just arrived in the world — Simon Pulse released the book earlier this fall — Bowman's head is already spinning with other projects. Just last week, she took to Twitter with a few teasers.
- Finished edits on STARFISH for the very last time— Akemi Dawn Bowman (@akemidawn) November 28, 2017
- Saw STARFISH in a bookstore for the very first time
- Turned in copyedits on SUMMER BIRD BLUE
- Halfway through drafting my fantasy WIP
- Started drafting super secret contemporary WIP
- I'm also very tired please send cookies https://t.co/Hxg5GlMemw
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Susanna Baird serves as Authors editor of Spine. She tackles her own creative writing and client projects from her dining room table in Salem, Massachusetts. When not working words, she helps lead The Clothing Connection, a local nonprofit getting new clothes to kids who need them. Find more of her writing at susannabaird.com, and find her (re)tweeting regularly on Twitter @SusannaBaird.