June 11

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All About What About Will by Ellen Hopkins

Twelve-year-old Trace and seventeen-year-old Will used to be best friend brothers. It was Will who taught Trace to ride a bike, skate, and snowboard. But Will doesn’t do those things anymore. Trace understands it’s because of the brain injury his brother suffered playing football. He’s scared of getting hurt again. But there’s something else going on. Something more. Trace loves his brother. But Will’s turning into a stranger, someone Trace isn’t sure he wants to know.

Like many of my books, What About Will is inspired by kids I’m close to. My husband and I are currently raising a third generation. Gen One: our adult children—two sisters and an older son. The girls were tight growing up, but not especially close to their brother. Gen Two: our adopted son—raised an only child, with the perks and disadvantages that go along with that. Gen Three: our grandchildren. And with them, we are witnessing the relationship between brothers almost five years apart.

The older boy came to us with PTSD, the result of early childhood trauma. His meltdowns, inquisitive mind, truth stretching, and gigantic heart are very much elements of Cal, the main character in my first middle-grade novel, Closer to Nowhere.

This book,to quote my author note, “is a tribute to the younger of the two, who has grown up in the very long shadow of his troubled brother. To love someone and watch them struggle is hard. It’s even more difficult when your own accomplishments too often go unrecognized because the spotlight is shining on someone else’s problems. And yet, you soldier on, earning straight A’s, pitching Little League no-hit innings, and singing your way through every day, because that is who you are.”

Trace and “K,” the inspiration for his character, don’t live in the same town or go to the same school. Their parents and friends are different. Neighbors, teammates, and dogs, too. They do have in common a quirky sense of humor; delight in discovery and learning new things; obsessions with music and baseball. And a deep love of family.

For Trace, this means trying desperately to fix what’s been broken: his parents’ marriage; his brother’s fractured friendships; and most of all, Will’s lust for life, which has been crushed by his injury. Now, seventeen months post-accident, Trace begins to notice things that signify Will’s in real trouble. He’s ditching school. Stealing. Driving erratically. And what are those pills he’s taking? Will’s standing on the figurative precipice. But Trace is afraid if he speaks up, it might just push his brother over the edge and shatter their family completely.

Trace’s old best friend, Bram, and new best friend, Cat, not to mention the nosey, but oh-so-wise next-door neighbor, Mr. Cobb, all counsel him to confide in his parents. Trace promises he will, but by the time he does, it’s almost too late.

Too often we question our instincts, hoping we’re wrong about things we see. It’s easier to overlook problems than to face them head-on. On the flip side, many times we believe we can solve those problems alone, rather than asking for help. But sometimes we really do need others to offer perspective, support, and love.

Eventually, Trace realizes he’s in way over his head:

                        I feel like a kite

                        come loose from its string

                        and its tail tangled up

                        in a very tall tree.

                        No way to rescue it

                        unless a perfect

                        whisp of wind

                        plucks it just right,

                        sets it free.

When Will’s rash actions almost cost him his life, Trace understands some secrets are too big to keep. He asks Will if he remembers the time they were snowboarding, took a wrong turn, and ended up at the top of a really steep run. Trace was afraid to go down, but Will insisted sometimes you have to have faith in yourself, step over the edge, and take the plunge. Trace tells his brother:

                        “I did. Actually, I put my faith

                        in you. I took the plunge. I fell.

                        But I picked myself up and made it

                        to the bottom. Then we went

                        back up and took the run again.”

                                    And you fell again.

                        “But I didn’t the next time.

                        I figured out my mistakes

                        and corrected them.”

                                    Yeah, well, you’re pretty

                                    smart. For a dumb kid.

                        “So, you took a wrong

                        turn. You can fix it.”

Then he admits to himself:

                        But now I see.

                        I can’t.

Ellen Hopkins is a poet, former journalist, and the award-winning author of twenty nonfiction books for young readers, fourteen bestselling young-adult novels, and four novels for adult readers. This is her second middle-grade novel. Ellen lives with her extended family, two brilliant German shepherds, and a couple of ponds (not pounds) of koi in the eastern shadow of the Northern Nevada Sierra.

WHAT ABOUT WILL by Ellen Hopkins (Putnam; on sale September 14, 2021)

From #1 New York Times bestselling author Ellen Hopkin’s comes a new heartbreakingly tender middle grade novel-in-verse about the bonds between two brothers and the love they share.
Twelve-year-old Trace Reynolds has always looked up to his brother, mostly because Will, who’s five years older, has never looked down on him. It was Will who taught Trace to ride a bike, would watch sports on TV with him, and cheer him on at little league. But when Will was knocked out cold during a football game, resulting in a brain injury–everything changed. Now, sixteen months later, their family is still living under the weight of “the incident,” that left Will with a facial tic, depression, and an anger he cannot always control, culminating in their parents’ divorce. Afraid of further fracturing his family, Trace begins to cover for Will who, struggling with addiction to pain medication, becomes someone Trace doesn’t recognize. But when the brother he loves so much becomes more and more withdrawn, and escalates to stealing money and ditching school, Trace realizes some secrets cannot be kept if we ever hope to heal.