A half-Japanese teen grapples with social anxiety and a narcissistic mother in the wake of a crushing rejection from art school before accepting an invitation to tour other art schools on the West Coast. A first novel. Simultaneous eBook.
*Starred Review* Half Japanese Kiko Himura is a recent high-school graduate whose art-school rejection leaves her with no means of escaping her toxic homelife. Her parents are divorced, and while her father happily lives with his new family, Kiko and her brothers live with their mother, a golden-haired, self-absorbed woman who belittles Kiko relentlessly. Because of this, Kiko is unable to speak what's on her mind; rather, she expresses herself through art she never shares. Socially awkward, Kiko is more than surprised when her closest childhood friend, Jamie, spots her at a party she didn't want to attend. They renew their relationship, and Jamie invites her to stay with his family in California to investigate art schools. There Kiko meets famous artist Hiroshi Matsumoto, who befriends and encourages her. Things begin to look up until tragedy strikes at home, and Kiko finally finds the courage and the voice to make important decisions that will guide her out of her shell and toward a fulfilling life. Bowman evokes Kiko's quiet hurt, pain, and frustration with breathtaking clarity, all the while reinforcing the narrative with love and hope. The story will resonate deeply with readers who have experienced abuse of any kind, or who have been held back by social anxiety. This is a stunningly beautiful, highly nuanced debut. Copyright 2017 Booklist Reviews.
For Kiko, a biracial Nebraska teen, attending Prism, a prestigious art school, will allow her to pursue her dream of making art and to escape a toxic family environment; denied admission, she has no Plan B. Kiko's Japanese-American father and his new wife, a white woman, like Kiko's mom, are preoccupied parents of twin baby girls. Kiko and her two brothers live with their self-absorbed mother, who belittles all things Japanese, raising Kiko to consider herself unworthy and her Japanese features ugly, to the point where she and her brothers used to compete over who looked least Asian. Knowing her brother abused Kiko as a small child, her mother not only allows Uncle Max to move in, she prohibits Kiko from putting a lock on her door. Kiko knows she must leave, but her traumatic upbringing has left her with crippling social anxiety, and her only close friend has left for college. A chance meeting with Jamie, the white boy who was her childhood crush, rekindles their friendship, and he invites Kiko to stay with his family in California while checking out art schools. There, mentored by a Japanese-American artist and befriended by his family, Kiko blossoms. Readers will wonder why Kiko's mother is more monster than human; why insecure Kiko was certain she'd be accepted to the country's most prestigious art school (and how she'd afford it); and why the cover depicts a jellyfish rather than the titular starfish. If not all elements persuade, Kiko's sometimes-halting journey from defensive passivity to courageous self-realization remains believable and moving throughout. (Fiction. 12-16) Copyright Kirkus 2017 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
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.