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Fleen Book Corner: Kiss Number 8

There’s something universal about Kiss Number 8 (words by Colleen AF Venable, pictures by Ellen T Crenshaw), and it’s not necessarily the part you think it is. There’s a lot of the usual growing up narrative, wondering if the person we like feels the same way, or even like-likes in return. There’s the awkwardness of trying to navigate the teens years. There’s more than one LGBTQ identity to be learned, understood, and accepted (which is terrificly well done; for so long, so many didn’t get to seem themselves in fiction, and YA is leading the way in letting those people be seen).

But there’s one bit at the core that I think is the most important part of the story, and it’s been occupying a lot of my brainspace ever since :01 Books were kind enough to send a review copy some weeks back.

(This is where I usually warn against spoilers, but that warning is a little less stringent than usual this time; as sometimes happens depending on the publishing schedule, my review copy is an advance, uncorrected proof. It’s late for wholesale changes to the book, but dialogue or narration or details could be different in the final version that drops next Tuesday, so I’m going to be focusing on big themes, rather than specific bits of plot and character.)

Mads loves a couple of things in life — her dad (especially Sundays at the minor league ballpark after church and kicking his ass at videogames), instant messaging her friends, and … yeah. Lot of uncertainty in your middle teen years. Personal relationships befuddle her, she and her mom don’t see eye to eye, she’s not sure about how, when, or if she wants to romantically pair off (at least in the way that her family, school, neighbors, and church all seem to expect), and then there’s her friends. Because the heart of this story is interacting with friends, but also the phenomenon of the Bad Friend.

Everybody’s had a bad friend, one that’s a jerk until called on it, then you get cast out and don’t even have a bad friend any more. If you’ve got a lot of other friends, that’s survivable (although that friend group may well split). If you don’t have a lot, or they decide that they don’t want to be on the bad side of the bad friend — yikes. The very isolating nature of teendom just got more isolating.

Perhaps even more devastatingly, pretty much everybody has, at one time or another, been the bad friend; the best outcome there is you don’t ever realize it until long after that friendship fades away because then you don’t feel like crap about it in real time. The worst part is realizing you’ve been a jerk, and there’s no way to make things right, and it’s all your fault. If you aren’t the type to be a deliberately bad friend, you spend the next forever cringing at the memory. Mads will suffer a bad friend, but also be a bad friend; she’ll be done wrong by her family’s hard-hearted choices, and also give them legitimate reasons to be angry with her in turn. Nobody’s all good, and nobody’s all bad (except … yeah, there’s some pretty terrible people here).

In Kiss Number 8¹, there’s a lot of bad friends, and a lot of realization on the part of the major characters of their flaws and screwups, past and present. The good ones eventually move beyond them; the less good … well. You know the person that peaked in high school, and they’ll never be as happy, or well liked, or respected ever again? Sometimes it’s later than high school, but there are people that stagnate, never becoming better, their lives defined not by their now-fading-in-the-distance accomplishments, but by their cruelties. Sometimes they’re like that because they’re deeply insecure, like nervous dogs that exhibit fear aggression. Sometimes they’re so damn certain of how right and perfected they are, and how insufficient everybody else is in comparison.

They never say (or at least, never do more than insincerely mouth the words) I was wrong or I screwed up or I hurt you. But when you have the opportunity — the ability to say those things — you have the potential to find forgiveness, growth, acceptance, new loves (of all the classic types, not just romantic love). You can find peers that accept who you are and who you are becoming. On the far side of the fear and hatred there’s a happiness you can carve out for yourself and your loved ones.

Kiss Number 8 is an exploration of the kind of person who has the ability to self-reflect and say Hoo boy, I was an asshole sometimes _____ years ago, I really hope I’m a better person now and mean it, versus the kind of person who simply can’t.

When you can, you not only have the ability to improve yourself, you have the ability to see (and sometimes, gently and lovingly prod) progression in others. Family of birth and family of choice (or at least, parts of each) can grow and flourish, even it if doesn’t look like it now. Old hurts and grudges can heal. Lives can fulfill their promise. And nothing will ever taste as good as a minor league ballpark hot dog on a Sunday afternoon in the company of your nearest and dearest.

That journey by Venable and Crenshaw is heartfelt, hopeful (without over-promising how easy growing up is, for even the luckiest of us) and achingly real. Kiss Number 8 is for everybody that’s growing into who they will be, and everybody who’s realized that continuing to grow is the most important thing we can do. You’ll find it at bookstores everywhere starting 12 March.

Spam of the day:

Check out the video for the issuance of their prize in the amount of – 2288 Eur

I’m not sure that’s a dash. I think the prize is actually negative 2288 Euro.

¹ So named because Mads has kept track of her kisses, and they’ve been nothing to swoon over so far. There will be more down the line — some friendly, some meaningless, some low-key regretful, some tragic, some Why, Mads, why? and some to leave her sockless.

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