Ellen Hopkins knows a lot about addiction. Many of her young adult novels are about that very subject, and addiction’s deleterious effect on families is something she knows all too well. In “What About Will,” Hopkins writes about a younger brother who had a lovely family until he didn’t.
Trace Reynolds is twelve, and his older brother Will is the kind of older brother most kids only dream about. Even though Will is five years older, he has taught Trace to ride a two-wheeler, taught him to snow board, and taken care of him in myriad ways. Trace has known that Will loves him and would always be there for him. But after Will is in a horrible collision during a football game, everything changes.
Some young readers might not know about TBI, traumatic brain injury, and this will open their eyes to the possible dangers of contact sports. After Will’s injury, he’s in an induced coma to protect his brain. But he has permanent injury to his facial nerves, and the result is that he can’t smile. He also has invisible damage to his brain, including uncontrollable anger. Will becomes withdrawn and depressed. He’s no longer the loving big brother that Trace grew up with.
At the same time, their mother has taken her band on the road and is no longer living with them. In fact, their parents have divorced although we don’t realize that until well into the story. Their father works at a casino (they live in Las Vegas) and he often doesn’t get home until well after the dinner hour, so the kids are on their own for meals. WIll has stopped caring about anything, so Trace is pretty much on his own. His other interests keep him busy, though. He’s in a gifted program at his school and he’s on a Little League team for baseball.
Hopkins tells Trace’s story in verse, and because she is so adept at this form of storytelling, we are able to understand Trace’s feelings while Hopkins provides dialogue to keep the action moving and offer insight into the various characters. It’s not just about addiction, though that is the focus of the action. Hopkins details what happens during the breakup of a family, when the children’s mother decides that her music career is more important than being a mother. She becomes distant, and while she does appear when there is an emergency, Trace comes to realize that she can’t be counted on. His father, working as hard as he does, comes to a realization as well. While Trace had been trying to tell his father about Will’s problems throughout the story, his father dismissed Trace’s concerns. He comes to realize that he needs to listen more, and he reassures Trace that he did the right thing to come to him.
Hopkins also comments on loneliness. Their neighbor lives alone, and over the course of the story, Trace comes to learn more about him and his life. And at a crucial part of the novel, that information may just be what saves Will’s life. Hopkins’ message is that we need to make connections with others around us, not just friends from school or work, but neighbors. Another important set of characters centers around a new addition to Trace’s Little League team, a girl from California. The boys aren’t used to the idea of a girl on their baseball team. She proves that she has the stuff, and one kid questions why her father, a former major leaguer, taught her baseball, saying, “Doesn’t he have any sons?” She simply responds, “He has two sons. He says I have the talent.”
That character, Cat, serves as a foil to Trace’s family. She, too, has a brother with an addiction problem. So we see that it’s not only families in turmoil, with a working father and a missing mother, that might have problems. Cat’s family might appear perfect on the surface — wealthy, doting father and mother, three kids. But they also know the heartbreak of addiction.
Hopkins’ message is that it is cruel to turn one’s head away when something is wrong. We need to face the issue and confront it head on. Trace tried to do that, but he didn’t have the support he needed from either parent. But in the end, both parents come through to the best of their ability. And Hopkins gives us a story that is an important one for kids to read. To know that children have power, not necessarily to make changes, but to tell the truth. To make those in charge see the truth. And not to stop trying when that message is ignored or brushed off.
That’s a message that kids need to hear. Because their truth might not be about a sibling in trouble, it might be about climate change, or abuse. It might be about a neighbor in trouble, or a dog in need. It might be that they want to help with pollution or wildlife. Whatever their truth is, kids need to know that they have the power and the ability and the responsibility to get their message out.
Please note: This review is based on the advance reader’s copy provided by G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, the publisher, for review purposes.