family, middle grade

Middle Grade Must-Reads: What About Will?

What About Will? (G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers)
Written by Ellen Hopkins

In 2021, the United States saw a 35% increase in opioid deaths. Over 100,000 people died during those 12 months from overdoses. Data from the CDC appears to show a decline from March 2022 onward, which is good news. However, the numbers are still too high, and the victims are often children, particularly teenagers. If you are an educator, then the chances you have at least one student affected by this health epidemic are relatively high. Younger siblings and relatives watch someone they admire succumb to addiction and not receive the help & understanding needed to overcome it. Author Ellen Hopkins tackles this by penning a very intimate story for middle graders in a rather unexpected format.

What About Will? is another of Hopkins’ novels-in-verse, a story told through poetry and showcasing how the style & structure of this particular form of writing can illuminate the human condition in powerful ways. The poetry here is not rhyming but free verse, allowing Hopkins flexibility as the story develops. That story centers on Trace, the younger brother who is passionate about baseball. His older brother Will had been a star football player at the high school until an injury sent him to the hospital. When he was released, Will behaved much differently. He found it physically challenging to smile anymore. He suddenly felt intense insecurity about himself; anger lashed out at anyone foolish enough to cross his path. But now Trace realizes his brother is sneaking around and taking drugs to try and control his physical & emotional pain.

Told from Trace’s perspective, What About Will? doesn’t hold back on the cruelty of a loved one under the influence of drugs. Still, it refuses to throw the troubled teen under the bus or erase their humanity. We are given good memories of Will and see him in moments of clarity. The boys’ parents are a significant factor in Will’s difficult recovery. They have split up, and mom is touring as a musician, barely calling home. Dad has a new lady friend, which is confusing for Trace, who often becomes the target of his brother’s constant annoyance. There is a hopeful ending here, but not before things get pretty scary. Will pushes things too far in a moment of despondence over a future he can’t imagine for himself. 

This is an excellent book for those middle-grade readers trying to make sense of their world. To withhold books like these from students is to do a massive disservice to them. Nothing in What About Will? feels inappropriate to share with a middle-grade student unless the teacher/parent’s focus is shielding their students from reality. The sooner we are honest with our kids about the state of the world, always at a developmentally appropriate level, the better the chances are they will grow into a solid maturity that helps them handle the difficulties that will come their way. It’s also important to humanize addiction. Someone who uses drugs to numb pain is not a monster but a human who needs help.

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