Zyla & Kai by Kristina Forest

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Hezekiah Johnson is in his senior year at Cedar Regional High in Poconos, Pennsylvania. He is popular at school and is hoping to win a sports scholarship to his dad’s old college. Kai’s parents died nine years ago, he has regular therapy sessions with a youth social worker Dr Reuben and he lives with his Aunt and Uncle. From being sad and anxious, easily lashing out in anger, he has been able to turn his life around through hard work and sport. His best friend is Jamal and he has had a string of girlfriends, searching for the ideal loving relationship he believes his parents had. Zyla Matthews, petite, quiet also 17, attends St Catherines and lives with her needy and unreliable mother, maths whiz younger sister and Aunt Ida. Zyla is passionate about fashion and wants to win a scholarship to a Paris fashion college so has no time for relationships, spending every spare minute working on her portfolio. She doesn’t want to waste time focussing on disappointing relationships like her mother and Aunt Ida do. Her best friend Beatrice is from a rich family and they have a strong and supportive friendship. Kai and Zyla both have summer jobs at a local amusement park and when Kai’s toxic girlfriend gets him into trouble at work they find themselves attending the same amusement booth and become unlikely friends. After bonding over an incident with an aggressive customer the two start a relationship. Idealistic Kai falls head over heels for Zyla while she can’t quite believe she is succumbing to his charms and is wary about being just another conquest. As they navigate the pressures of school, family and their career aspirations with their differing ideas about what love is and how their relationship might endure the inevitable obstacles and doubts it becomes apparent that being in love is not in itself enough.

The timeline switches backwards and forwards between the start of their relationship the previous summer and the Seniors’ day trip in May and the point of view alternates between the two main characters and, later in the book, from others. The characters are well developed and the friendships and other relationships are well imagined, especially Kai’s therapist, an excellent advocacy for mental health support. But this is essentially a story about all consuming teenage love, not a mystery and it doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. I would have liked more detail about the main characters’ career aspirations. We learn that Zyla’s portfolio theme was “something to do with the beauty and versatility of Black women and how that played into fashion” on page 47 but after that there is not much and we learn nothing about Kai’s scholarship pathway. The plot is a bit thin and over the nearly 500 pages it ebbs and flows with some irritating repetitive parts but it will appeal to readers of Kristina Forest’s other young adult romances.

Themes: Love, Relationships, Family.

Sue Speck