Two teenagers take off in a whirlwind journey and a quest for answers in Jennifer E. Smith’s second book for young adults, You Are Here. Along the way, they find out a little about each other and a lot about themselves.
Emma Healy and Peter Finnegan, both on the brink of their 17th birthdays, embark on a road trip—in matching Mustang convertibles—that will change their lives and their feelings for each other forever. Emma, a middle-of-the-road student and self-admitted misfit, has never quite understood how she is related to her academic-obsessed parents and multi-degreed, uber-successful siblings. She has always felt that there was a missing link in her life—until she finds a clue to a dark family secret hidden away in the attic.
On the other hand, Peter, a study geek and history buff, fits in with Emma’s family just fine—but not his own. His widower, police officer father cannot understand why Peter would ever want to leave their small upstate New York town or why he is obsessed with historic battlefields and far-off places instead of just being happy where he is. First separately, then together, Emma and Peter set off on a spontaneous road trip to find out for themselves who they are and where they belong.
Smith’s coming-of-age story, told intermittently through the eyes of both Emma and Peter, is remarkably insightful, heart-wrenchingly sad and laugh-out-loud funny. Through both Emma and Peter, we learn how the loss of someone you never really knew—in Emma’s case, a twin brother, and in Peter’s, a mother—can leave scars that run surprisingly deep. We see how an uninvited three-legged hitchhiker (a mangy but hilarious dog) can unlock hidden talents and emotions in a person. We witness how a friendship born out of patience, understanding and a little bit of teasing can lead to unexpected first love. And we see how the open road and a fresh perspective can help two teenagers find a new path to happiness.
Smith got her start in the publishing world working in a literary agency in New York City shortly after graduating from Colgate University in upstate New York, a location she later used as the setting for You Are Here. She had wanted to be a writer since the fourth grade, and after helping others get their starts in the literary world, Smith took the plunge into writing herself.
Having perused volumes upon volumes of adult literary fiction, Smith was anxious to focus on another genre. “That’s what steered me to young adult books,” the author recalls in an interview. “It’s a different world from adult, and it was nice to sit down and be the writer for once.” It also helped that she was a longtime fan of the genre. “I loved Where the Red Fern Grows and Bridge to Terabithia,” Smith says, “and I wanted to write a book that I would have liked to read when I was a kid, something wholesome and heartfelt.”
Smith’s first novel for young adults, The Comeback Season, was inspired by her love of baseball. A Chicago-area native, Smith was watching a Cubs baseball game on TV when she got the idea for the book. “I wrote the first two paragraphs of the novel right then—and they are the same now as when I wrote them,” she says. In fact, the book took her a mere four months to write. “It was a once in a lifetime experience,” Smith says, “and such a wonderfully easy process.” From there, Smith was convinced that YA was the right market for her. “The more I learned about YA books and the wonderful outpouring from kids and teachers, the more hooked I became.” She especially loves hearing from her readers. “The emails I have received have been so gratifying,” she says. “Kids have an unabashedly honest response to people’s work, and that’s the best part.”
After The Comeback Season was published, Smith went back to school to get her master’s degree in Creative Writing at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. While there, she started working on her second novel, You Are Here. “It was great to take a year to really focus on writing and traveling,” Smith recalls, “and it was nice to have a new perspective.” When Smith returned to New York, she went back into publishing—this time as an editor—and had to finish the book “on the side.” “I love my job,” Smith says, “and it’s been great to see the industry from all perspectives, but it does make writing a little slower.” Still, she hasn’t been that slow: she finished You Are Here in nine months.
The author’s experiences traveling through Europe and studying abroad leant a theme of perspective to the book as well. Her characters seem to be able to “find” themselves once they have stepped out of their normal comfort zones. For Emma, it takes tracing her family’s history back to her birth and visiting her long-lost brother’s grave to find out that she is the glue that has always bound her eclectic family together. For Peter, it takes a road trip to Gettysburg and a view from outside his small town’s limits to realize that where he actually wants to be is home.
Smith’s own journey is taking her further into the YA world, with two more books already underway. In addition, she’s promoting You Are Here with local readings, school visits and guest blogging for various YA sites. All the while, she is keeping her “day job with homework,” as she calls it, and continues to edit manuscripts for the adult literary world by day and write wonderful stories for her young adult audience by night. With her sophomore title already poised to take the YA world on an incredible voyage, Jennifer E. Smith has arrived.