“Gilly,” said Miss Ellis with a shake of her long blonde hair toward the passenger in the back seat. “I need to feel that you are willing to make some effort.”
Galadriel Hopkins shifted her bubble gum to the front of her mouth and began to blow gently. She blew until she could barely see the shape of the social worker’s head through the pink bubble.
The copy of Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins that I’ve just finished re-reading (a first edition paperback from 1978 that I bought in one of my favorite used bookstores) has an illustration of this pink bubble obscuring Gilly’s face, but I think the version I would’ve read as a kid was the one on the right:
I’m kind of fascinated with all of the different covers there are for this book. Pig-tailed or with short-boyish hair, after the first edition, she always seems to be standing defiantly, staring down the reader who would dare to pick up the book. The first cover is more childish, playful, while in the later poses, she has an aura of real menace and strength about her. Usually, she’s blonde, although in two teacher’s guides I found from 2000 and 2004, she’s brunette.
While I know I read The Bridge to Terabithia as a kid, and liked it, The Great Gilly Hopkins had more resonance in my memories. Once again, like with Maniac Magee, what I remembered most was a general tone or mood and not a lot of specific details. I remembered that Gilly was a foster kid, a tough cookie, someone who I admired as a kid because I was shy and she was bold. I didn’t remember that she’s a manipulative bully and pretty racist (at least at first), willing to prey on the weaknesses of everyone around her, much like the kid in Problem Child. Now that I’m an adult, it’s easy to see through Gilly’s swagger to the damaged girl who is, most of all, incredibly smart and ambivalent about people, especially adults. She’s essentially Kanye West for the middle school set, hyping herself up till she believes her own legend. She’s fronting.
Re-reading as an adult, this is obvious from the second page when Gilly thinks “Cripes….The woman was getting sincere. What a pain.” But, it must have unfolded slowly for me as a kid until that last page, the gut-wrenching phone call with Trotter. Gilly has a journey and kids get to go on it with her, realizing that their perceptions of people and events are not always accurate and that life is tough, with mixed blessings and lots of pain. It’s weird because while that seems like a grim lesson for Gilly and the kid reader to learn, while the end isn’t a pat and easy happy ending, Gilly’s growth is beautiful.
It feels raw and real in a way that children’s literature so often doesn’t, maybe because Paterson grew up in China, the daughter of missionaries, and moved thirteen times in thirteen years growing up. Maybe this background helped her imagine and understand the isolation and defensiveness of a foster child.
Considering that it’s four years older than I am, The Great Gilly Hopkins has actually aged pretty well, (except maybe those bits about flower children). I think it must still speak to kids and that it wouldn’t take much to make a movie adaptation feel current. So while I wasn’t surprised, I was pleased to discover that there is a film adaptation due soon, with Kathy Bates and Danny Glover. Even more happily, it’s directed by Stephen Herek, who directed some of my favorite movies in the 90s and who I got to work with a few years ago on The Chaperone. The story’s in good hands.
One last interesting thing is that the area where Gilly lives with Trotter, William Ernest and Mr. Randolph is very close to the part of the country where Alice McKinley from Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s Alice series (first published in 1985) grows up. I was already grown when I first started reading the Alice books and while they’re special to me, they tend to feel unrealistic and very dated, which might speak more to where I was in life when I started reading them. Regardless, you couldn’t find two more different girls than Gilly and Alice, but it’d be interesting to imagine a world in which they interacted, since they have no doubt both been influential to generations of girls.