“Get Real: Why You Should Be Recommending I’ll Meet You There by Heather Demetrios” – Review by Kara Rosenberg
My middle and high school students want different things out of their books. Some—the lucky ones, given the prolific nature of YA fantasy writers—just want to dive into one vaguely medieval alternative universe after another. Others, often girls, connect to the real characters, often girls, in the novels of John Green and Laurie Halse Anderson. I could go on.
But other readers want to see—sometimes need to see–what happens to teenagers when they leave high school. What choices will they make? How do they become young men and women who can make their own choices? What does it mean to be in a mature relationship (and, yes, Virginia, it does mean more than having sex…)? Once or twice a year, I’ll have a student, usually a young man, who doesn’t particularly like to read and for whom fantasy, adventure, and John Green just doesn’t cut it. That young man is often drawn in by books about other young men (and women) on the cusp of the rest of their lives. For those readers, I have a short but growing list of books, and I’ll Meet You There by Heather Demetrios has jumped to the top of it.
The novel is set in a poor California community described as “just a trailer park, a few run-down houses, a couple of businesses that barely made enough to keep their doors open, and the Paradise Motel.” It deals with two transitions, Skylar’s decision about what she’s going to do after high school and Josh’s decision about what he’s going to do after getting his leg blow off in Afghanistan. I’ll Meet You There is told primarily from Sky’s point of view with intermittent, short chapters narrated by Josh.
Josh’s story shows young male readers an example of what growing up can look like. Sky tells us that Josh was less than serious in high school, sleeping around, getting drunk, not caring about school. The post-Afghanistan Marine Josh, however, reads Slaughterhouse-Five, plays chess, and tries to figure out how to be in a real relationship. “I don’t know how to do this,” he tells Sky at one point. “You’re so different from the rest. Every time I try, I just keep screwing it up.” Soon afterwards, he does screw up big time, and part of his struggles shed light on issues that many amputees and veterans have to deal with.
Towards the end, he starts to accept what happened in Afghanistan and see a path forward. Josh says, talking to a close friend who died when he lost his leg, “I’m scared shitless, man. Because if I’m really gonna do this, really live my life, I’ve gotta leave you behind. I can hear your voice right now, even though you’re not here. I know exactly what you’d say: Good luck. Shoot straight. Don’t get dead.” Pretty good advice, I’d say. Many young men I work with don’t have many models of how to do this either. All the more reason to have books like I’ll Meet You There to show them a way.
Sky struggles with her conflicting needs to get out of her dirt poor town and to make sure her mom is going to be able to survive without her. It’s through Sky’s story that the novel digs into alcoholism and the lives of really poor communities in a way reminiscent of Eleanor and Park. The novel shows alcohol ripping families and relationships apart.
Sky, however, is a great character. She’s not perfect, but that’s another reason to like the novel: both main characters have mistakes to make and growing up to do. Sky’s happens when she gets drunk and drives into a ditch. Thankfully, she has a solid mother-figure, Marge, who runs the Paradise Motel, where both Sky and Josh work, to guide her. Marge is always there for some wise words. Towards the end, they have this exchange: “’I’m leaving soon,’ I said. ‘Yes, you are.’ She leaned against a tree, giving me one of her soul-searching looks. ‘But it’s not one or the other, sweet pea.’” For me, these words are at the heart of the novel: being an adult is not black and white, is not either staying or going; being an adult is about making the best, often messy, choice you can given the circumstances.
I’ll Meet You There is a book for more mature readers. Yes, the characters have sex. Yes, they say bad words. Yes, they get drunk. Yes, they do dumb things when they get drunk. But haven’t most people? It is certainly one teachers and librarians should have alongside books like Trish Doller’s Something Like Normal to hand to reluctant high school readers and anyone interested in a real story about real people trying to figure out how to grow up.
Kara Rosenberg teaches high school English and history in Vermont and is currently on the Green Mountain Book Award (Vermont’s book list for YA readers) committee. She lives in Montpelier with her husband and two sons and was late getting to this review because she was busy working on Harry and Hedwig costumes for an 8-year-old who has just started his first forays into the joys of Hogwarts.