Eleven-year-old Galadriel Hopkins (“Gilly” to the plebs she is forced to mix with in foster care) is not known for being cute or cuddly. Instead, she is the girl with the harsh words, mean attitude and, most recently, the really big bubble of gum that blew up in her face. Gilly is not the girl any foster parent in their right mind would want to adopt.
Which is just fine with Gilly because she already has a mother. A real mother. A movie star beautiful mother named Courtney Rutherford Hopkins who misses her and wishes they could be together.
For Gilly, that’s enough. Knowing that somewhere Courtney is wishing for her daughter as badly as Gilly is wishing for her mother can get Gilly through anything.
At least, it could before she arrived at Mrs. Trotter’s front door. Everything about this foster home is wrong. Trotter is fat and ugly. William Ernest, the other foster child, isn’t too quick on the uptake. And (gasp) a wrinkled, old black man lives next door. Trotter and her band of misfits might be more bizarre than Gilly could ever imagine. But could they also be just what she needs? It’s enough to make Gilly hatch an escape plan (or three) in The Great Gilly Hopkins (1978) by Katherine Paterson.
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First things first: The Great Gilly Hopkins was the 1979 Newbery Honor book (The Westing Game won the gold that year). It made it to #55 in Betsy Bird‘s Top 100 Children’s Novels poll. I haven’t been following the poll too closely because the posts overwhelm me, but the segment about Gilly is necessarily relevant to this review. Katherine Paterson herself was also just recently appointed National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.
In other words, everything about this book is a big deal.
Personally, I had very mixed feelings about The Great Gilly Hopkins (although I’m finding that to be true about a lot of children’s classics lately). On the one hand I wanted very badly to be on Gilly’s side and pull for her as an abandoned child that really needs someone to love her in her own right, not as a temporary commodity. On the other hand, Gilly works so hard at pushing people away that, at a certain point, it becomes hard to care too much or cheer too loudly for this girl who is all hard edges and anger.
This next part is going to have spoilers because just about everyone in the entire world has already read this book: Paterson does a great job creating Gilly as a character she is fully developed even though she is loathe to tell readers everything about her less-than-ideal past in the foster system. The book also handles a bold topic: looking at a little girl who is in the foster system not because she is an orphan but because her parent did not want her. The abandonment is extreme and, in the story, becomes palpable even as Gilly clings to the idealized vision she’s created for her mother from a photograph and a note.
That said, I also had a lot of issues with the book. Gilly is essentially racist at the beginning of the story. She does grow and evolve and move past that, but it’s one of those elements that seemed to be added to a book for a wow/edgy factor than for the actual story (in other words, I don’t know that Gilly had to be racist to make the book work). It also seems like race wouldn’t have been such a hot topic by that time–I might be mistaken though since I wasn’t actually alive in 1978.
The adults in the novel also bothered me. A lot. If the grandmother cared so much about Gilly why was she ever in foster care? Miss Ellis was also quite frustrating when she essentially tells an eleven-year-old girl that she screwed up because she wasn’t able to just suck it up until things got better. Really, Miss Ellis, really?
Finally, I found the message of The Great Gilly Hopkins to be really frustrating. Essentially, Gilly has a chance at having a real family with Trotter and William Ernest and Mr. Randolph but she blows that chance by writing to her mother about being unhappy that ruins everything and forces Gilly to lose yet another family. That seemed to translate to saying that children only get punished when they talk about being unhappy because things will only get worse which seemed problematic. (Do you have a different interpretation? Please share it in the comments!)
In summary, The Great Gilly Hopkins remains a bold, moving novel that is ripe for many rich discussions. It is widely honored and beloved by many. It’s also controversial and for some, self included, the allure is not always clear.
*Betsy Bird noted that this cover was one of her least favorite because it was so cutesy but I kind of like it for that same reason. Gilly tries to be tough and mean and push people away, but at her core she’s still a little girl with pigtails who wants someone to love her.
Possible Pairings: Lucky Strikes by Louis Bayard, A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, You Don’t Know Me by David Klass, Holes by Louis Sachar, Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary D. Schmidt, Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli