Heather Demetrios' debut YA novel was called Something Real, but that title could fit just perfectly on her latest book I'll Meet You There. Demetrios' story about the intersection of poverty, war, alcohol, family, first love, and so many other issues is the realest real you'll see on the shelves so far this year.
That may have something to do with the fact that these issues of poverty and the military hit so close to Demetrios' heart. I talked with the author about her own experiences growing up in a Marine family, witnessing firsthand the effects of PTSD, and how poverty can inform decisions that deeply affect teenagers' futures.
I'll Meet You There centers on Skylar, a girl growing up in one of the poorest parts in a poor town, with a constantly relapsing alcoholic mother and an absentee father. She wants so desperately to escape the kind of life her mother leads, with rotating boyfriends she needs to pay the rent because she can't hold down her job at Taco Bell, and so she works her summer days at a kitschy local motel to finance her potential future. It's there that she encounters Josh, the popular boy from her high school, who returned from his tour as a Marine in Afghanistan missing a leg.
As Skylar and Josh become closer, open up to each other, and, yes, fall in love, Josh's troubles with post-traumatic stress disorder become sharply clear, though Demetrios never gives them a label, and Josh never does either. In fact, he rallies against calling his symptoms PTSD, though he is certainly not the same cocksure boy he was in high school.
I'll Meet You There is set in the fictional central California town of Creek View. In a world where most pop culture, in both the young adult and adult categories, seems to be set in a generic, upper-middle class community, Demetrios' novel stands out. And according to the author, it was completely on purpose:
I noticed that we were only seeing middle class kids in most of YA and I felt like that was a problem. For me, growing up, I was lower middle class. I had a single mom. We had to apply for food stamps once, and I remember just not ever having money and being so worried about money. I feel like there are a lot of kids like that and they're just not being represented and not being seen or known in YA lit and I think it's important they're included.
Demetrios is from Los Angeles, but she went to high school in Central California, so she talks about the drive she used to take, along the 99 between LA and Fresno, where she kept seeing really, really tiny towns with run-down homes and maybe one small bodega amid just agricultural land. Certainly not what readers first thing of when the think of The Golden State.
It means so much when you can see your experiences reflected because it validates them. Yes, we hear you, we see you, you are not invisible.
"Kids are obviously living here," Demetrios said. "I just imagined what that life would be like. And it felt like a really great opportunity to talk about poverty because I'm seeing it all the time on this drive." These kids exist in real life, Demetrios saw them firsthand, and lived it, too, so she knows what it means to put them on the page.
"It means so much when you can see your experiences reflected because it validates them. Yes, we hear you, we see you, you are not invisible."
And it's in this type of world, envisioned as the fictional Creek View, that a young man named Josh is cultivated.
"Josh is really why this book exists," Demetrios said. Josh was never the perfect, swoony YA love interest. He could be mean and crass, but he was real (and believe me, you will swoon despite his flaws). And as Demetrios said, he just seemed to belong in Creek View. "I put Josh in Creek View because of course these kids had only the options of the military or something like truck driving, because they had no opportunity."
Josh is really why this book exists.
Both of Demetrios' parents are Marines. Her dad has suffered from PTSD after his experiences in the Gulf War. And when writing this book, Demetrios also had conversations with Marines and other soldiers about their own war experiences and mental health.
"It was hard," she said, "But I knew this story, Josh's story, had to be told. The military is made up of young adults, just like him." In fact, right after she wrote I'll Meet You There, she learned that her younger brother had been recruited into the Army.
There's a need for the conversation in young adult literature because when you look at the statistics of suicide in the military and wounded warriors, physical or mental, they're mostly guys between the ages of 18 and 24.
It was with this information in mind, that she spoke to her own brother.
I support your decision as long as it is something you really want to do, you feel like you want to fight for your country, but if it's because you you feel you don't have any other options, that's not a good enough reason.
Josh, stuck by poverty in a dead-end situation, chose the Marines and Afghanistan rather than stay in Creek View with no chance to get out.
"I feel like that is something people don't talk about. That connection between poverty and the military," Demetrios said. "And that is so frustrating to me."
And now, with his leg amputation, he's back stuck in Creek View, but now he's suffering deeply with survivors guilt and PTSD, which Demetrios says is a hugely difficult label for Marines:
The label PTSD is really tricky, especially for Marines. They don't to be seen as not having everything together. Even my dad, it's been 20 years, and it's still really hard for him to admit he has PTSD.
But Demetrios believes that if readers can fall in love with Josh as a character, they might just be able to get it. Be able to see the mental health effects of war and the military, to see how poverty can affect your decision to join the military, and then, how we can work harder to understand and support those who have come home.
In I'll Meet You There, Skylar takes up the art of collage. This isn't a throwaway addition by Demetrios. Collage means that everything, even trash, even things that are looked down upon by the majority of people, has potential. And Skylar, Josh, everyone in Creek View, and readers who know what it's like to be in their places, has that same potential.
I won't sidestep my thoughts on the book: I'll Meet You There is one of my favorite novels I've read in awhile. It's the kind that burrows into you, with real characters, real places, and real issues. It's a love story that you will seriously swoon over. It's about friendship, and the changes it faces over the years. And it's about one place in one time, but also about lots of places at lots of times. And both Skylar and Josh are the types of characters we all should be reading about, no matter where we're from.
Image: Heather Demetrios/Facebook