The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson

gilly-hopkinsThe 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


  1. I remember liking this one too when I was a kid. Does it feel dated? It sounds dated, from the descriptions. Why was it challenged?

    on September 28th, 2009 at 5:46 am
  2. This sounds like a wonderful book – thanks for posting Natasha, I had never heard of it. You bring up excellent points – parents should take these opportunities in books such as this to sit with their child and talk to them about what happens in the book.

    on September 28th, 2009 at 6:48 am
  3. I remember this one! Will have to pick it up for Booking Daughter and read it with her!

    on September 28th, 2009 at 7:00 am
  4. This is one of those books that I read as a child and totally forgot about until I saw your post!

    on September 28th, 2009 at 7:11 am
  5. I read Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved earlier this year and quite enjoyed it. It made me want to read more of her work.

    on September 28th, 2009 at 8:40 am
  6. (sorry, Natasha, I see know where you told us why it was challenged! Must learn how to read…)

    on September 28th, 2009 at 8:52 am
  7. Rebecca – No, it doesn’t feel dated. I had to go look at the copyright halfway through to see when it was written and I was surprised.

    Sheila – Better for a parent to discuss issues like this then the neighbor kids. Kids will pick up on things one way or another.

    Julie – I’m sure you’ll both enjoy it and it will give you some things to talk about.

    Stephanie – I never read this one as a child. It’s fun to rediscover books.

    Word Lily – I have Jacob Have I Loved on my shelf but haven’t read it yet. Some day . . .

    on September 28th, 2009 at 1:10 pm
  8. Wonderful review, Natasha. I love reading Newberys but hadn’t heard of this one. It sounds good and that picture of Gilly on the cover is adorable.

    I used to teach a high school study skills class that was paid for by the state. All the kids were Youth-In-Custody, which meant they were in foster care. It was so hard on these kids and yet what alternative did they have with their parents in prison? Sad situation. It just breaks my heart.

    on September 28th, 2009 at 2:11 pm
  9. Sounds like a beautiful, heartwarming story!

    on September 28th, 2009 at 2:13 pm
  10. I find it sad to think of people who have nothing better to do than scuttle round banning things! Gilly sounds great, and I have only heard good things about Katherine Paterson. Another one you might like is The Pinballs, by Betsy Byars.

    on September 28th, 2009 at 2:30 pm
  11. I just bought this book out of my daughter’s scholastic catalog. I grabbed it for my Newbery Challenge, which is partially inspired by you, Natasha. I know if I don’t make it offical, I will never do it!

    It amazes me what gets some books banned. Especially when it’s things about prejudices that are clearly demonstrating why said prejudice is wrong. The other one that gets me is historically relevant language. I refuse to censor what my kids read in books. I do, however, make sure I know what is going on in a book so we can talk about it if there are questions.

    I have to share…we were reading Ramona Quimby, age 8 by Beverly Cleary and she makes a reference to a typewriter. Both my girls said at almost the same time, “A typewriter? What in the world is that?”…and then I felt reaaaaaaally old!

    on September 28th, 2009 at 3:27 pm
  12. You make a valid point. All of Gilly’s wrong behaviors are addressed. It really makes for a good teaching discussion.

    It reminded me of something that happened at church a few weeks back. We had a visitor in sacrament meeting who happened to be a black man, and also sitting right in front of us. My son blurted out loud, “look at that black guy with a black head!” Even though I thought my son knew of different races, apparently he hadn’t had a close encounter with an African American before. I guess our region is mostly Caucasian. So even though I was super embarrassed, it gave me a chance to have a discussion with my son about it after church.

    on September 28th, 2009 at 11:47 pm
  13. I read this book when I was in school. All I remember is that she was a foster kid, and I think I do remember her being slightly rebellious or something.

    But you’re right — I think it’s all about knowing the content and then deciding if it is right for our child and having the tools to discuss it with them.

    And sometimes seeing wrong choices in action DOES teach better than a lecture.

    on September 29th, 2009 at 6:09 am
  14. Another one of my favorites! I love reading your reviews, you make me want to go back and read this book again. I really don’t understand why people ban books at all…especially this one!

    on October 1st, 2009 at 9:10 am
  15. Not sure if it’s because it was banned or not but I don’t remember ever hearing about this one before. Sounds like a good story though!

    on October 2nd, 2009 at 2:54 am
  16. [...] The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson [...]

    on December 30th, 2009 at 9:33 pm

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