Kristina Forest is the author of romance books for young adults. She is the author of I Wanna Be Where You Are and Now That I’ve Found You. Zyla and Kai is Forest’s latest novel. While on a school trip to the Pocono Mountains, Zyla and Kai run away together, leaving their friends and family confused. As far as everyone knows, they broke up months ago. To their friends, it came as no surprise. Zyla, a cynic about love, met Kai, a hopeless romantic while working together at an amusement park the previous summer. They could not have been more different. Alternating between the past and present, we see the love story unfold from the perspectives of Zyla and Kai: how they became the unlikeliest of friends, fell in love, and ultimately broke up. But the question still lingers: what really happened between them that summer?
Zyla and Kai is an excellent, masterfully crafted novel. The way in which Forest weaves together the two timelines - of Zyla and Kai being searched for in the present and how we see Zyla and Kai’s relationship unfold in the past - was seamless. It was especially great here to see the amusement park scenes where Zyla and Kai’s bond begins. These scenes were incredibly heartwarming. Forest’s decision to narrate the present scenes from the perspectives of characters other than Zyla and Kai also paid off. The way that this enabled us to see outside perspectives and opinions of their relationship added to the suspense around their disappearance and the whole mystery of their relationship. This made for an addictive read.
It was fantastic to see Forest develop Zyla and Kai into so much more than just a romance novel. The characters were complex with their own sets of traumas and troubles, adding a whole other layer to the story. Zyla, for example, has a difficult relationship with her mother and is clearly scarred by her mother’s own heartbreak. Here Forest touches upon the importance of role models and the impact our parents’ relationships can have on us. Meanwhile, Kai lost his parents in a car accident when he was younger and now lives with his aunt and uncle. As a result of the trauma he suffered as a child, he attends therapy. Throughout the whole novel, there is an emphasis and openness from Kai around being a Black teenage boy who attends therapy and deals with grief. It was great to see Forest normalise and advocate for therapy here as she has Kai repeatedly reiterate how he believes everyone should try therapy in their lives as it can be beneficial for all of us. This was a powerful and valuable message for Forest to send to her young adult audience.
All in all, Zyla and Kai is a wonderful novel that not only explores romance but mental health and family dynamics too.