First Love and Other Investigations

“Here’s something you should know about me: I’m a terrible daughter,” Chloe Pierce announces in the first sentence of Kristina Forest’s debut novel, I WANNA BE WHERE YOU ARE (Roaring Brook, 272 pp., $17.99; ages 12 and up). It’s a great opener even though it’s hardly true — Chloe, “a 17-year-old black girl living in the middle of nowhere, New Jersey,” is a talented dancer who dreams of becoming a professional ballerina; she’s the kind of good kid most parents would kvell over. But Chloe’s dad died when she was 3, and her extra-protective mom has forbidden her from auditioning for a New York City dance company, which she has her heart set on. When her mom leaves for a tropical vacation with her boyfriend, Chloe comes up with a plan: Drive herself to the audition in D.C., try out, and get a spot. After that, her mom has to say yes … right?

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A road trip is a satisfying catalyst in itself; the story is further sparked by Chloe’s irritating neighbor, Eli, who blackmails her into taking him — and his dog, Geezer — along for the ride, and who has his own complicated emotional situation in the works. He’s also cute, and they have something of a past, creating a highly shippable will-they-won’t-they dynamic. But Forest’s novel offers more than romance. This is a bighearted story about being brave enough to go for what you want, even when the rules tell you something different.

In Michelle Ruiz Keil’s ALL OF US WITH WINGS (Soho Teen, 360 pp., $18.99; ages 16 and up), a 17-year-old named Xochi is adrift in the world. She’s never known her Mexican father, and has led a peripatetic existence with her white mother, Gina, and her mother’s abusive ex-boyfriend. But when Gina gets out of town, it’s Xochi’s turn to escape the man who has, in her mother’s absence, abused her, too. She finds her way to an enchanting, musical, wild and weird San Francisco, where she meets an equally enchanting 12-year-old, the brilliant-beyond-her-years Pallas, the daughter of rock stars who live with a troupe of their polyamorous band members and friends in a Victorian mansion. Xochi gets a job as Pallas’s “governess,” and moves in with the family.

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That’s only the beginning. During an after-party at the mansion on the vernal equinox, a night charged with all sorts of energies (and a tongue-piercing), Pallas and Xochi accidentally call up two “waterbabies,” fey creatures who emerge from a tub on a quest for justice. They’re after anyone who’s hurt, or who is currently hurting, Xochi.

Keil’s ambitious debut is jam-packed with twists and depth and froth and function — the world of this novel is real, but magical, too. At times you’re even in the perspective of a kind bookstore cat. The lyricism skews heavy at times, and the many side stories and voices make for a slower read, but maybe that’s the point: The effect is something of a transcendent journey. Those who keep with it (drug references and sexual trauma as well as a flirtation with an older man make it better for older teenagers or adults) will find a book about embracing everything — people, lifestyles, beliefs, experiences — and, in so doing, finding your own distinct power.

The very first scene in Colleen AF Venable’s graphic novel KISS NUMBER 8 (First Second, 320 pp., $17.99; ages 13 and up), drawn by Ellen T. Crenshaw, is of a car parked across from a house with a “Bush/Cheney ’04” campaign sign standing in its front yard. It’s an important detail to remember. Venable follows an irrepressible main character called Mads, short for Amanda, a Catholic high school student who’s almost as interested in finding out why everyone’s so obsessed with kissing as she is with hanging out with her beloved dad. That is, until something weird starts happening at home. Her parents are lying to her, and whatever it is, it’s big. What Mads ultimately finds out is more world-altering than she could have imagined, causing her to question her friendships, her family history, her father’s beliefs and her own sexual orientation. It’s not easy, but it’s a necessary process in becoming the person she truly wants to be.

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