Top 100 Children’s Novels #63: The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson
The first book that I ever bought for myself. It blew my mind. – Stacy Dillon
Many people count Bridge to Terabithia as their favorite Paterson novel; while it’s definitely a book that I admire, The Great Gilly Hopkins is one that I’ve returned to several times. The ending may be heartbreaking, but a pat ending would have ruined the truth of the story. – Jennifer Schultz
Sometimes I’ll challenge the kids in the bookgroup I run with a difficult question. “Name me a children’s book where you don’t like the hero right from the start.” I tried this on them the other day as we were discussing The Secret Garden and they came up with a couple good suggestions, including this book. “Gilly’s racist!” one of them pointed out. I agreed with them that she was at first. A racist protagonist in a children’s book takes a particularly skilled writer. One that knows where the story is going. So it is that Katherine Paterson, our past Ambassador of Young People’s Literature, makes an appearance on this Top 100 list at last.
The description from Katherine Paterson’s website reads: “At eleven, Gilly is nobody’s real kid. If only she could find her beautiful mother, Courtney, and live with her instead of in the ugly foster home where she had just been placed! How could she, the great Gilly Hopkins, known throughout the country for her brilliance and unmanageability, be expected to tolerate Maime Trotter, the fat, nearly illiterate widow who is now her guardian? Or for that matter, the freaky seven year old boy and the shrunken blind black man who are also considered part of the bizarre ‘family’? Even cool Ms. Harris. Her teacher, is a shock to her.”
There is a sadness in the creation. In American Writers for Children Since 1960: Fiction, Paterson says that her book was “a confession of sin.” She refers to the fact that she once took in some Cambodian children, who were placed in her home for only two months. Paterson felt that she had been “regarding two human beings as Kleenex, disposable,” so that she decided “to think, what must it be like for those thousands … of children … who find themselves rated disposable?” Her website says the same thing, but in a different way. “I wrote Gilly after I’d been a foster mother for a couple of months and didn’t feel as though I’d been such a great one, so I tried to imagine how it might be to be a foster child. How would I feel if I thought the rest of the world thought of me as disposable?”
Of course, having a complex female protagonist like Gilly has its downside. Unsurprisingly the book was ranked #20 on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books for 1990-2000. Again, I’d love to see a similar list made up for 2000-2010. Gilly challenges have been far and few between in the last ten years, I’d wager.
Said American Writers for Children Since 1960: Fiction of the book, “The Great Gilly Hopkins is Paterson’s funniest book, but heartbreak is never far beneath the humor. Though the novel’s major thesis may be, in Gilly’s words, that ‘the world is woefully short on frog smoochers,’ its ending is characteristically hopeful.”
It won the only 1979 Newbery Honor, beaten in that particular year by Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game. And if something had to beat Gilly, I’m glad it was that.
- It was turned into a CBS Afternoon Playhouse special in 1981. No word on how it was. Tyne Daly was in it, though. And it was used on the cover of one of the paperback jackets:
In all my years, there are few covers I’ve seen that I loathe quite as much as this next one.
It’s the cutesiness of it all. *shudder* Far better the Spanish.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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