Review: The Great Gilly Hopkins

“The trick was in knowing how to dispose of people when you were through with them, and Gilly had plenty of practice performing that trick.” page 51

The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson.
HarperTrophy, HarperCollins, New York, 1978.
Historical fiction, 178 pages.
Lexile:  800L  .
AR Level: 4.6 (worth 5.0 points)  .

At eleven years old, Gilly Hopkins already has a reputation for being unmanageable and a talent for moving homes.  She has no interest in living with the Trotters and is determined to pull out all the stops to get out of this latest home.

The Great Gilly Hopkins resized

I feel so conflicted about this book.  On the one hand it seems to play into every old stereotype about foster care.  The majority of Gilly’s homes are careless at best.  But let’s start with some of the positives first.

Paterson must have had at least some knowledge of foster care, because there are some things she gets right.  The difficulty of transitioning from one home to the next, the reluctance to love a new family, the battles over personal care and confusion over standards are all common.  The dedication is to an adoptive child, so perhaps she learned about foster care through first-hand experience.

Many things about Gilly’s emotional arc feel right – her hero worship of her long-gone mother, her self-sabotage when she’s getting close to people in a particular home, her need for control, her drive to elicit responses and get attention by irritating others (because negative attention is better than none).  I especially appreciated the ambivalent ending – so many books about foster care end with an adoption as the happy ever after cure-all, which is not reality and merely perpetuates the white savior/orphan narrative already so prevalent.

So many other aspects of this are no longer accurate.  In the 1970s, the best case scenario that some children could hope for was to have a stable long-term home like Mrs. Trotter agree to take them in, and they would live as foster children until they turned 18 or a biological relative came to claim them (which may or may not be better than the home they were in at the time).  Since the 1997 legal changes, there is now a timeline in the USA which provides for children to have a permanent home within two years.  Realistically, there can be delays and it’s not unheard of for children to still be in care after 4 or 5 years, but there is a plan in place and a goal for them to be either reunified with a parent, enter guardianship or adoption with a relative, or if those are not possible, to be adopted out of foster care.

The problem with this particular book is that, while it might have been accurate in the 70s, it definitely isn’t accurate today.  It also isn’t very clear that this is historical fiction from the 1970s.  Sure, there’s a reference to a home having a color (rather than black and white) television, and none of the computers or telephones ever present in modern life.  But the Trotters and most of the other people Gilly interacts with are very poor, so it’s entirely possible that a young reader would still assume this was in the very recent past.

And that gives us entirely the wrong idea about many aspects of foster care.  Foster children and adoptees are not represented much in the popular media, and when they are, it’s rarely #ownvoices and common for the “representation” to instead take the form of stereotypes and well-worn tropes.  In fact, this well-intentioned book might have inadvertently been the source of some of those problematic repetitions.

Let’s step away from the foster child dimension for a minute and talk about another form of stereotype – racism.  Gilly is racist and behaves abominably towards a blind African-American neighbor, classmates at her integrated school, and especially an African-American teacher.  I think this was the first time that I’d ever read a book used in modern classrooms where the main character was intended to be sympathetic and also racist.  She does develop somewhat away from this opinion, but it’s never overtly challenged.

Not only does Gilly behave horribly, but she also seems to get away with most of it because she’s a foster child.  Sure, Mrs. Trotter tells her to knock it off, and her friendship options are limited since she won’t join any mixed-race circles, but her teacher doesn’t give her any consequences for her hate speech, and her neighbor is still happy to pursue friendship and compliment her.  I get that behavior expectations are different for foster children, but cringed reading this play out over and over.  I especially felt horrible for African-American foster children who might be given this book by well-intended adults because “it’s about foster care” only to find slurs aimed at their physical appearance and a vision of foster care nothing like what they’ve experienced.

Can I recommend this book?  Not really.  I think this might have some limited uses for discussion and could be useful to some foster children, but I definitely don’t see this as a whole class read or a book that I would generally suggest.  Oh, and the review is long enough already that I won’t go into these, but just a mention that there are Christian themes (Mrs. Trotter is a Christian) and some strong language.

Author: colorfulbookreviews

I work in a library by day and parent the rest of the time. I am passionate about good books representing the full spectrum of human diversity for every age group and reading level. This blog is my attempt to help parents, educators, and librarians find the best children's books authored by or featuring characters of color.

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