Ellen Hopkins’s latest release, Closer to Nowhere, is her first middle grade novel in verse. I’ve been a fan of Hopkins’s young adult work for a long time, so I was excited to see what she would do with the middle grade level, and I was not disappointed.
The story is told through the perspectives of two protagonists, young cousins who suddenly find themselves living together. One cousin, Calvin, is neurodiverse and finds himself in a new home, in a new neighborhood, following the death of his mother and imprisonment of his father. The other cousin, Hannah, is a typical young girl who now finds herself coming-of-age amid the disruption of Calvin’s arrival. She must also navigate the fallout this arrival has on her parents’ marriage.
What Hopkins always does well is create distinctive character voices and motivations, even–or perhaps especially–when writing her stories in free verse. This time is no different. Although their stories intertwine intimately, Calvin and Hannah are two very different young people and they relate their perspectives on these events in wholly unique ways. Calvin playfully presents the readers with a “fact or fiction” take on whatever is happening in the moment, while Hannah introduces her narratives through the lens of “definitions.” On their own, these might not be such extraordinarily interesting or novel ways of allowing a character to interact with his/her audience; however, in tandem, these are excellent devices for creating personality and definition for the two leads.
Hopkins is also a profoundly daring voice in young people’s literature. I mentioned in my brief Amazon review of the book that hers is a necessary presence in this genre. She understands young people very well, but she also knows how to communicate very adult issues, those we would like to pretend do not concern our young people, in ways that are relatable and realistic for young readers, and older ones. What Hopkins does here with themes of prejudice, parental neglect, neurodivergence, and good old fashioned coming-of-age, is absolutely wonderful.