by Judy Newman with Alexie Basil
There are children’s books that are beloved by children. There are children’s books that are beloved by adults. And then there are the relatively rare, few books that are cherished by all.
As publishers, we struggle for the right words to define these titles: “Classic.” “Timeless.” “Perennial bestseller.” “Treasured.” “Childhood favorite.” But what does it really mean when a book resonates with so many readers—kids and adults alike—from all backgrounds over a span of decades?
I believe The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson falls in this hard-to-name category of books that strike a deep chord with so many people year after year.
“Without a hint of the prevailing maudlin realism, Paterson takes up a common ‘problem’ situation and makes it genuinely moving, frequently funny, and sparkling with memorable encounters.” —Kirkus Reviews
Since it was first published in 1978, The Great Gilly Hopkins has been repackaged by its publisher, HarperCollins, numerous times:
It has won major national and prestigious awards:
It has sold more than 1.5 million copies and been called:
It has also seen its share of controversy. In Albemarle County, Virginia, a parent complained about Gilly’s use of curse words and because she “takes God’s name in vain.” It turns out the parent hadn’t even read the book, but just flipped through and picked out the objectionable words (such as “damn,” “retard,” “colored,” and “stupid”). Even though the school board and a panel of educators reviewed the book and twice recommended that it remain available in the school library, the school superintendent ordered it banned anyway.
Katherine Paterson responded in an open letter to the Albemarle County School Board, writing, “Though Gilly’s mouth is a very mild one compared to that of many lost children, if she had said ‘fiddlesticks’ when frustrated, readers could not have believed in her and love would give them no hope.”
Because Gilly is a true-to-life character who is complex, it has taken some time for a small segment of grown-ups—like the parent and superintendent in Albemarle County, Virginia—to accept The Great Gilly Hopkins as an enduring and valuable work of children’s literature. It was ranked #20 on the American Library Association’s 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books for 1990–1999. However, it had dropped to #52 on the list for 2000–2009, the most recently available.
So, why? How does Katherine Paterson’s story about an 11-year-old foster child named Galadriel Hopkins become “classic,” “timeless,” a “perennial bestseller,” “treasured,” and a “childhood favorite”?
My good friend and longtime editor Emma Dryden says that all great children’s books are essentially about finding home:
“I’ve been editing children’s book manuscripts for over 30 years, and I’ve found over the course of that work that at the heart of every story is a young character’s deep desire to find their rightful place in the world, to find their true home. Home can and does mean different things to different characters. For a very young picture book character, home can mean feeling safe, feeling brave, or feeling secure in a new experience and with family or friends nearby to support them. In works for older readers, finding home can mean facing and gaining mastery over fears, defying expectations set by others to honor one’s greatest needs, gaining confidence, overcoming challenges, and finding what they need inside to feel ready to move into more autonomy and toward adulthood. In story, a character’s on a journey to find self. When the self feels safe and strong, that character has found their home. And this is what makes stories so important and pertinent to young readers, who are on journeys to find themselves and their place in the world.”
And that’s what Gilly Hopkins searches for throughout the story. Home.
We all know—or were ourselves—kids like Gilly. Defiant, angry, self-defeating. And even if the kids in our lives are not living in exactly the same circumstances as Gilly Hopkins (like foster care), there are parts of her that most kids can identify with and relate to.
I cringe with sadness every time I read the part about how supersmart Gilly convinces herself to do well in school and then, all of a sudden, stops doing her work so she can really confound her teachers. But of course, she is only hurting herself.
She would work madly until she had not only caught up with but passed them all, and then she’d skid to a total halt. That kind of technique drove teachers wild. They took it personally when someone who could obviously run circles around the rest of the class completely refused to play the game. Yep. And in Miss Harris’s case that was just how Gilly wanted it taken.
—From “William Ernest and Other Mean Flowers,” The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson
It isn’t until Gilly is placed in larger-than-life Mrs. Trotter’s dusty house in Thompson Park, Maryland—after years of rejection, moving, loneliness, anger, and disbelief—that she finally confronts something she cannot beat down: love.
What was she doing here in this old car with this strange woman…when she could be home with Trotter and William Ernest and Mr. Randolph who really wanted her? Who—could she dare the word, even to herself?—who loved her. And she loved them.
—From “Jackson, Virginia,” The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson
Mrs. Trotter, Mr. Randolph, and William Ernest are some of my favorite characters in children’s literature. The three of them—an overweight widow, a traumatized little boy, and an older blind black man who lives next door with hundreds of books—love Gilly. They do not tolerate her prejudice, they refuse to let her fail, and at last, they give her a true home. A home she can live in while she is there, and a sense of home she can take with her, to sustain her forever.
We all have seminal characters and experiences in our lives. The different ways a home can feel stood out to David Vozar from a young age.
“I was very lucky to grow up in a neighborhood with a lot of kids around my age. On Spring Street (where I lived), there were only six houses but 15 kids in elementary school. We would take turns playing at each other’s houses.
“It was always so strange for me to see how other families live with their unique rules and styles. After a while, I knew what to expect and would quickly adapt to each family’s acceptable behavior.”
My parents still live in my childhood home in Newton, Massachusetts. This past weekend, my sister, my kids, my husband, and I went to visit and celebrate my dad’s 88th birthday. He blew out the candles on his cake from the same chair at the head of the table in our dining room as he has for decades. Much has changed. Of course we are all older. But being there always feels like home.
I have read The Great Gilly Hopkins several times. I listened to the audiobook and I watched the movie starring Kathy Bates as Trotter. Every time I do, I wish I could have dinner with these characters and feel the warmth of their embrace for Gilly. I wish I could meet Gilly, whose intelligence, spunk, and ability to change and overcome her own prejudice—and thrive—remind me of the real power of love to save lives. And how we, as adults, have the most important responsibility of all: to ensure that every child has a place in their heart they can call home.
I know that for many children the safety and community they find in their classrooms with their trusted and beloved teachers—like the wonderful Miss Harris in The Great Gilly Hopkins, and like many of you—is often a version of home.
I hope that by offering Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins as our Dollar Deal this week—along with an interview with Katherine Paterson herself, a kids’ discussion group with the Book Boys to share with your class, and even a poetry class activity inspired by The Great Gilly Hopkins—we can help you bring this classic, timeless, and beloved bestseller to as many children as possible.
As always, I am eager to hear any feedback you have. Feel free to write to me anytime at JNBlog@scholastic.com.
This Book Is Available from Scholastic Book Clubs