Kiss Number 8 by Colleen AF Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw, 320 pp, RL: Middle Grade

Kiss Number 8
Review Copy from First Second Books
It's 2004 and Amanda, or Mads, has it pretty good. She goes to church every Sunday with her mom and dad, then minor league baseball games with her dad and his buddies. Her best friend is Cat, acknowledged bad influence, but tolerated because she goes to the same Catholic school Mads and their neighbors Laura and Adam do. True, she doesn't have her driver's license yet because she keeps hitting stationary objects and she has to keep fending off Adam and his raging crush on her, but she has Thursday nights with her dad and their favorite television show, "Valley of the Hidden." But, things aren't always great with Cat. She is self-obsessed and unnecessarily mean to Laura, not to mention she gets Mads into increasingly difficult situations. Then her dad starts lying to her and keeping secrets. And then there are the secrets that Mads has been keeping from herself.

Venable and Crenshaw do a magnificent job creating Mads's world and letting the reader live in it for a generous amount of time, moving the story along at what might feel like a slow pace but ultimately is the perfect pace. The discoveries that Mads makes, about her family and herself, are profound and the new connections she is driven to make are poignant and uplifting. Kirkus Reviews called Kiss Number 8, "a rare blend of tender and revolutionary," praising the elevation of the graphic novel format through the combined use of art and narrative. This is a graphic novel that you won't be able to put down, will cry as it ends and will not stop thinking about it once you have turned the last page. There is a major plot element that I think is best left unknown as you read Kiss Number 8. However, for those of you who want or need to know the details, scroll down.
Mads learns that the woman she thinks of as her father's mother is actually her grandfather's second wife. Samantha, her father's real mother, left her father as a child and transitioned, living the rest of his as a man. The pain that this caused Mads's father was so intense that it took him ten years just to talk to his wife about his past. When Sam dies and his widow, Dina, sends a letter to Mads, she begins to unravel her father's past, with the help of neighbor Laura. At the same time, tagging along with Cat introduces Mads to new friends (and kiss number 6) and new possibilities. As she pushes away her father, angry at his unwillingness to tell her the truth, Mads gradually realizes, with help, that she may be in love with Cat. She makes some mistakes, mostly with friends, some pretty big, but gets a surprising amount of understanding and help from her mom, someone she always thought she hated. And, best of all, Mads finds a new community that she embraces and is embraced by, friends who truly understand and care about her and, best of all, family she never knew. And, referring to the elevated use of the medium, Venable and Crenshaw use the words and the pictures to tell two different stories at a few points in the novel, illuminating the way that we all choose how we remember our childhoods, with memories that are shaped by the narratives our family choose to tell.

Somehow, Kiss Number 8 feels like an episode of a really great, well written television show while at the same time feeling like a really important book that will live on the shelves for a long time. It draws you in, shakes you up, breaks your heart a little, then puts it back together in a new and better way. 


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