Harley in the Sky: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Harley in the Sky by Akemi Dawn BowmanHarley never thought she’d have to run away to the circus. Not when her parents already run a successful one in Las Vegas. After years of dreaming of becoming an aerialist and performing on the static trapeze, Harley hopes her parents will finally see how serious she is and let her begin training professionally after high school.

Instead they double down on their demand that Harley focus on college first and then consider the circus–even though Harley knows she is in her prime as a performer right now, something that may not be true after four years in school studying something she has no interest in learning.

After her latest fight with her parents goes too far, Harley feels like she only has one choice: join a rival traveling circus.

Life on the road isn’t what Harley expected. The performers at Maison du Mystère don’t trust her, the trapeze artist who is supposed to mentor Harley actively hates her, and worst of all Harley has to live with the guilt over what she did to her parents so that she could snatch this opportunity. Harley has never felt like she fit into her family–never enough of any one thing to truly share her biracial parents’ and her grandparents’ histories–and now she’s afraid she may not be enough for the circus either.

As she struggles to carve out a place for herself at the Maison du Mystère and prove to herself and her parents that she has what it takes, Harley will have to decide if the sacrifices–and the choices–that she’s made to get to this point are worth it in Harley in the Sky (2020) by Akemi Dawn Bowman.

Find it on Bookshop.

Harley in the Sky tackles a lot but it’s all handled exceptionally well and works to create a well-rounded, character-driven story. While trying to earn a spot in the circus Harley  grapples with her identity as the child of two biracial parents and what that means for her own cultural identity (or her lack thereof when she feels she is not quite enough of any one thing to truly claim it). She also tries to explain the coping mechanisms she has created for herself to deal with depression and mania and the stigma her own parents carry toward discussing mental illness. (Harley remains undiagnosed in the novel because, as she tells other characters, the way she moves through the world is normal to her and not something she needs help handling right now.)

Harley is a smart, passionate narrator. She understands her world through her physicality–something Bowman captures beautifully–and she isn’t afraid to go after what she wants even if she sometimes goes too far chasing those dreams. But she is also constantly learning and growing and, perhaps most importantly, she is always trying to do better–something that can never be undervalued in a novel or in real life.

Harley in the Sky is an ode to the beauty and the work of circus life as seen through the eyes of someone who loves every aspect of it. Come for the circus setting, stay for the sweet romance and thoughtful conversations on friendship, intersectionality, and work. Highly recommended.

You can also check out my exclusive interview with Akemi Dawn Boman about this book!

Possible Pairings: Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert, What Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen, Caraval by Stephanie Garber, The Circus by Olivia Levez, Tweet Cute by Emma Lord, Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy, The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero, This Time Will Be Different by Misa Sugiura, American Girls by Alison Umminger

Author Interview: Akemi Dawn Bowman on Harley in the Sky

Akemi Dawn Bowman author photoHarley in the Sky is a complex book about family, identity, and everything that makes circuses so magical. I loved this story about performing and training to pursue your dreams and the way it shows the work behind the scenes as well as the wonder audiences see. And, of course, I loved Harley–a resilient heroine who is willing to pursue her dreams no matter the cost. Today I have Akemi Dawn Bowman here answering some questions about her latest book and one of my favorite reads of the year.

Miss Print: Can you tell me a bit about your path as a writer? How did you get to this point?

Akemi Dawn Bowman: I think it’s been a combination of big dreams, a lot of hard work, and all the stars aligning at the exact right time. I feel very lucky to have the publishing team that I do, but it took a good 4-5 years of querying before I got an agent. And in that time, I wrote (and re-wrote) four different manuscripts. I’m a very weird mix of thinking I never deserve anything good while also refusing to give up on the goals I set for myself. I guess it puts me in a strange headspace when I find success, because I am constantly plagued by self-doubt. But I’m stubborn too, and writing has been a dream of mine since I was a little kid. I’ve always known I wanted to create stories, and characters, and worlds. And whenever I’ve dealt with rejection in this business, I don’t hear “no.” I hear “not right now,” or “not this particular project.” So I’ve always been good about working on something else, to give myself the very best chance at making it in this industry. And eventually, after hundreds of rejections, I found my wonderful agent and still can’t believe I get to do this as a job!

Miss Print: What was the inspiration for Harley in the Sky?

Akemi Dawn Bowman: I think the inspiration came from two things. The first was that I’d just finished writing two very emotional and very heavy books, and I wanted to write something a little bit lighter, and a little bit more fun. The circus has always seemed so magical to me, so it felt like the perfect way to combine real-life with something that always brought me joy. And the second inspiration came from my experiences with mental health, and specifically what it felt like to be living and coping with something I didn’t have a diagnosis for at the time. A lot of people—especially on social media—seem to equate seeing a therapist or having a diagnosis as the only way to validate a mental illness, and that isn’t fair or accurate. There are many, many people who are unable to seek treatment or therapy for a number of reasons. They may not have access to it, they may not be able to afford it, they may not have family who are supportive, or they may have a personal situation that prevents them from seeking care. They might also choose not to go to therapy because they are already coping in a way that feels healthy and right for them. Mental health isn’t a one-size-fits-all, and managing a mental illness doesn’t look the same for everyone. And I guess I wanted to write this story so people like Harley can feel like they’re doing okay—that their experiences are valid, too, even if they don’t have a label.

Miss Print: It’s hard for me to pick a favorite thing about this book because it does so many things, so very well. However, it’s fair to say that the circus setting and Harley’s dream of becoming an aerialist are major parts of the story. What kind of research did you do to nail the setting? Do you share Harley’s love of the static trapeze?

Akemi Dawn Bowman: Thank you! I love the circus, and particularly the static trapeze. It’s always the act I look forward to most. There’s this otherworldly quality about it that makes me feel like I’m in a dream. I did a lot of research for this book—articles, circus documentaries, and many, many YouTube clips to help capture the setting. Originally, the circus Harley winds up in traveled by train. But it really limited how many interactions Harley could have with the rest of the troupe, so I made some changes halfway through drafting and switched to traveling by trucks and caravans. It meant that some of the research never really got used, but I think it was for the best. Still, there’s something really cool about the way a circus can transform an empty plot of land into something that fills people with so much nostalgia and wonder. I wanted to show the behind-the-scenes work that’s done, to kind of balance the way Harley sees the world versus reality. Because there’s more to the circus than just the glamor and the beautiful performances, and Harley is definitely prone to romanticizing things!

Miss Print: Harley in the Sky came out in early March right when shelter in place and quarantine orders were going through. How do you think Harley and the other characters would do with quarantine?

Akemi Dawn Bowman: I think Harley would very much be missing her circus family. She likes to be on the move, and a big part of her love for the circus isn’t just performing, but performing with people. Plus, it would be hard to train without a spotter! Vas on the other hand would probably be coping quite well. He could happily work on his music in a room alone and not feel like he was missing out on anything. He’s a bit like me, in the sense that being told to stay home and self-isolate doesn’t exactly feel like a punishment. Especially when he’s got his violin nearby!

MP: Do you have a favorite scene or a scene you are excited for readers to discover? (I really loved seeing Harley with her grandmother!)

Akemi Dawn Bowman: Oh, I’m so glad you loved Popo! She’s near and dear to my heart. I’m excited for readers to learn about Harley, and how messy she can be but also how hard she tries. It’s so, so human to make mistakes. Harley stumbles quite frequently in her quest to follow her dreams, but she cares so much, and I hope it’s a reminder to readers that nobody is perfect, and that it’s okay to mess up as long as we keep trying to be better. Also, I’m biased, but I love the scenes between Harley and Vas and can’t wait for readers to meet them!

Miss Print: Can you tell me anything about your next project?

Akemi Dawn Bowman: Absolutely! The next YA book I have coming out is called THE INFINITY COURTS, and it’s basically the sci-fi/fantasy mash-up of my heart. It’s about a girl who ends up in the afterlife, only to discover it’s been taken over by an artificial intelligence called Ophelia who is posing as a queen. It combines my love of robots and superpowers with my love of period dramas, and I’m just unbelievably excited about it. Even though all of my published novels so far have been contemporaries, I actually started out writing fantasy, and the book I found an agent with was a sci-fi. In a lot of ways this story feels like getting back to my roots. I’m nervous for sure, because it’s such a jump from what readers have known me for. I also have my middle-grade debut releasing next year, which is called GENERATION MISFITS. It’s about a girl who meets an unlikely group of friends through a shared love of J-Pop. I was home-schooled for a lot of elementary and middle school, and this book is a nod to my experience of going back to a public school and feeling totally out of place.

Miss Print: Do you have any advice to offer aspiring authors?

Akemi Dawn Bowman: Keep writing. There’s so much in this business and industry that writers have zero control over, but the one thing you can control is your writing. Every book, every page, every sentence—it’s all practice, and it’s all getting you one step closer to your goal. And try not to compare your journey with anyone else’s. Everyone is different, and most of the time what people share on social media is their highlight reel. It’s not the reality of all the rejections and bumps in the road. Keep your eyes on your own path, and remember that every word you write is one more than you had yesterday.

Thank you again to Akemi for these great answers! I’m definitely taking a lot of this to heart myself.

You can find out more about Akemi and her books on her website.

You can also read my review of Harley in the Sky here on the blog.

Starfish: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Starfish by Akemi Dawn BowmanAll of Kiko Himura’s hopes are pinned on getting accepted to Prism–her dream art school. At Prism Kiko knows that it won’t matter that she’s half-Japanese and knows barely anything about her own culture. She won’t need to regret her failed relationships with her brothers. She’ll be able to get away from her mother who is alternately suffocating and neglectful. Best of all, Kiko knows that at Prism she’ll finally be understood the way she always used to be by her childhood best friend, Jamie.

After Prism rejects her, Kiko is forced to consider other options–especially when her abusive uncle moves into the house and makes life even more unbearable. When Kiko and Jamie meet up at a party, Kiko jumps at the improbable chance to tour art schools with him on the west coast. Along the way Kiko will learn how to be brave and and let herself be heard while understand that sometimes second choices can lead to second chances in Starfish (2017) by Akemi Dawn Bowman.

Find it on Bookshop.

Starfish is Bowman’s debut novel and a finalist for YALSA’s 2018 Morris Award.

This is a quiet and deliberate novel. Kiko knows better than most that words have weight thanks to what happened when she spoke out about her uncle’s abuse and also from the methodical way Kiko’s mother uses them to break her down. Kiko’s visions of vivid sketches and lavish paintings are interspersed throughout Starfish helping Kiko give voice to her emotions when she doesn’t feel strong enough to share them herself.

While Kiko’s strained relationship with her mother and her uncle’s abuse are key factors in Starfish, the main story here is Kiko’s growth and resilience as she begins to realize she has more options than she ever imagined.

Starfish is both heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful as Kiko comes into her own and discovers her own strength. Evocative settings and an obvious love for art are imbued in this story along with a subtle romance. Kiko is an empowering heroine readers will immediately want to cheer on. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, Down and Across by Arvin Ahmadi, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Far From the Tree by Robin Benway, Suffer Love by Ashley Herring Blake, Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley, In a Perfect World by Trish Doller, This Raging Light by Estelle Laure, When We Collided by Emery Lord, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan, 500 Words or Less by Juleah del Rosario, Break Me Like a Promise by Tiffany Schmidt, As You Wish by Chelsea Sedoti, Your Destination is On the Left by Lauren Spieller, The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner