The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson, a 1979 Newbery Honor, is such a sweet book with wonderfully sweet characters. Gilly Hopkins is going to stay with me for a long time. Gilly’s transformation that takes place between the opening and closing pages of this book is bittersweet. I felt happy and sad for her at the same time. Stories about foster children always tug at the heartstrings and this one was no exception.
Gilly has been bouncing around in foster care homes for as long as she can remember. She has a rough exterior and she won’t allow herself to get close to anybody. Because what’s the point? She’ll just be gone soon anyways. But she’s smart and bright. She does well in school just to prove everybody wrong and at the height of her success she purposely stops trying. She feeds off of being able to control her surroundings and being able to manipulate those around her.
Gilly is in yet another new home. One that she obviously will not tolerate. How could she with Maime Trotter, her obese foster mother, her new brother William Ernest who cowers at the slightest look in his direction, and the blind man next door who loves poetry – but that’s not the worst of it – he’s black too. Gilly carries around a photo of her mother Courtney and knows that one day she will come and get her. But when she finds herself beginning to care about her new family, she realizes that she better abandon them before they abandon her and she devises her own escape.
Gilly begins as a little girl with many prejudices and a rough exterior that she won’t let anybody through, as well as a heart that doesn’t want to be broken again. She only wants one thing and that’s to be wanted. But it’s the one person that she wants the most that doesn’t want her in return. And when the chance comes will she realize that she was only chasing a dream?
A beautiful story about breaking through walls and the softening of the heart. I highly recommend it.
I read The Great Gilly Hopkins as part of Banned Books Week (I’m reading one banned book a day) and it was in the top 25 of most often challenged books from 1990-2000. And to tell you the truth, it felt pretty obvious while I was reading what some parents would find offense about. This includes Gilly’s language particularly the use of the words “damn” and “hell.” But she is always reprimanded for it, she knows it’s wrong and the language is specifically used to illustrate the background that Gilly came from and how she changes. Her character simply wouldn’t be the same without it. Another reason is that Gilly is prejudice against her black school teacher and her black next-door neighbor Mr. Randolph. Although Gilly doesn’t think much of them, both characters are portrayed in nothing but the best light. At the end of the book, both are people who Gilly love dearly. It’s an example of how prejudices are overcome once you actually get to know somebody. And really, that’s something that is supposed to be wrong? Hmmm . . . she also steals money. So that could be another reason. A ridiculous one at that. (Edited to add – I found it ridiculous because she was made to return the amount and pay it off by doing chores). SmallWorld Reads has some great commentary over at her blog about Gilly’s language that is worth checking out.
All valid reasons for having a parent know what their children are reading so they can discuss things like how words can effect people or prejudices are wrong. I think it’s sad that somebody would rather try to remove it from a library’s collection instead of using the opportunity to engage their child with meaningful dialogue and teachable moments.
Links of interest: Katherine Paterson website. Other Paterson books reviewed by Maw Books: A Midnight Clear, Selected Christmas Stories, Bridge to Terabithia (often challenged as well).
Genre: Juvenile Fiction, approx ages 9-12.
Publisher: Harper Collins. June 1987. (Copy I read and cover shown here is from Scholastic reprint 1995)
Paperback, 160 pages. ISBN 0064402010
The Great Gilly Hopkins is available from your favorite independent bookstore, Powell’s, and Amazon