YA novelist Ellen Hopkins, known for her gritty stories in verse about drug addiction and other tough topics, will make her debut for middle-grade readers next year after signing a two-book deal with Stacey Barney, executive editor at G.P. Putnam's Books for Young Readers, who won North American rights in a five-house auction brokered by Laura Rennert at Andrea Brown Literary Agency.

“It is my fervent hope that this novel will foster empathy and compassion in young readers, and I am profoundly grateful to Penguin for championing my move into middle grade territory,” Hopkins said.

Barney will edit the first book, Closer to Nowhere, which is scheduled for publication on October 6, 2020. It’s a personal story based on Hopkins’s experience raising her grandson as her own daughter struggled with drug addiction.

“We couldn’t be prouder to be publishing Ellen’s debut middle grade novel in verse,” Barney said. “Ellen has always been a powerhouse writer. We are so excited to bring her magic to a middle-grade audience.”

Closer to Nowhere is told from the alternating perspectives of two cousins: Hannah, a popular young gymnast, and Cal, who comes to live with Hannah’s family after his mother dies and his father is sent to prison. It shares some autobiographical details with the subject of Hopkins’s bestselling YA novels in verse, about the fallout from a teen’s addiction to crystal meth.

“The story I told in Crank is still evolving,” Hopkins said. The inspiration for Cal is her daughter’s son, who was placed in Hopkins’s care six years ago at age nine when he was in fourth grade. “He had severe behavioral problems, daily meltdowns, and lots of acting out,” Hopkins said. “He would pull up his hoodie and just check out and as a result he got the ‘freak’ label at school. Making friends was really tough.”

After a lot of interventions and therapy, Hopkins’s grandson was diagnosed with having post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of early childhood trauma. Hopkins wanted to write about his issues for kids who were the age he was when he came to live with her—late elementary school—because she felt it was important to give younger kids some insight into what the “odd” kid in the classroom might be going through. “It would make such a difference if they had some understanding of why the kid in the corner is acting the way he is and why he can’t stop it.”

But she struggled. The subject matter was so heavy. Hopkins said she knew she needed a way to lighten it up. She wrote the story in prose first. That didn’t work. Finally, an idea came from her in, of all places, the shower.

“[My grandson] never really wanted to talk,” she said, “but he would make up stories, just big whopping lies, and I realized that was how he pulled himself out of real life, out of what he was going through.” Some of his stories were so entertaining, Hopkins realized she could use that as a plot device to add much-needed humor to an otherwise serious story.

Her grandson is now in high school and after years of therapy, counseling, and support, has gotten his outbursts under control. “It shows you that this kind of stuff can be fixed but it takes a lot of work,” Hopkins said. She addresses the importance of writing real kids’ stories in an author’s note. “It’s important for people to realize I’m not making this up,” she said. “This is a brilliant young man with a good heart, deserving of the friends he’s had difficulty finding, and he’s only one of countless kids who are bullied because of something beyond their control.”