Reading guide for The Great Gilly Hopkins

by Katherine Paterson

Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award Laureate 2006

Written by Birgitta Fransson

About the author

American author Katherine Paterson has written about 40 books since making her debut in 1973 with The Sign of Chrysanthemum. This is a historical novel set in Japan, where Katherine Paterson lived for four years when she was young.

Katherine Paterson was born in a missionary family in China in 1932 and when the family eventually moved back to the USA, Katherine felt alien and different. She wanted America to be her home but it felt like a foreign country. She was also a foreigner to her classmates, who ridiculed her clothes and her pronunciation and jeered at the country she came from.

She drew on her experience during this period in several of her books, which are often about children who feel different and “wrong”. Often – as in The Great Gilly Hopkins (1989) and The Same Stuff as Stars (2002) – they are betrayed by their parents and other adults. She does not flinch from writing about difficult topics. In Bridge to Terabithia – her breakthrough book from 1977 – the ten year-old main character Leslie dies and the reader follows the thoughts and emotions of her playmate and best friend.

Katherine Paterson writes psychological stories and is always on the side of the child. However, she not only depicts the present with realism and insight, she has also written a number of historical books, some set in Japan and China, others in the USA. These include Lyddie (1991) about a poor girl working in a nineteenth century textile mill. Her life is depicted in the style of Dickens, and his Oliver Twist is important in Lyddie’s development.

Paterson has also published a number of picture books and books for younger children based on classic fairytales and myths. Her books have been translated into over 20 languages and she has won practically all the American awards there are, plus a number of international awards too, the highlights being the Hans Christian Andersen Medal in 1998 and the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in 2006.

About the book

The Great Gilly Hopkins is one of Katherine Paterson’s many books about children who are going through a really tough time.

Gilly is eleven years old, her mother abandoned her when she was small and she has moved from one foster home to another. Everywhere she has been, she has misbehaved and been forced to move on. Now she is in a new place, a terrible place, she thinks. The house is dirty, the furniture worn, her new foster mother is as thick as a plank and as fat as a hippopotamus.

Gilly longs for and idolises her biological mother and plans to make life tough for her new foster mother. She is angry, tough, hard – and sad inside. But during the course of the book she changes and so does her opinion of her new foster home.

The book is written entirely from Gilly’s point of view and the reader can see that she is often fooling herself and that reality does not really look the way she thinks it does. This gives an interesting ambivalence to the read and a lot to discuss in a group.

The Great Gilly Hopkins has attracted protests in religious circles in the USA. Many people have sought to ban it because it is anti-Christian and because the main character uses bad language. Katherine Paterson, herself deeply religious, has replied that the book is based on the Biblical story of the prodigal son, and that a girl like Gilly Hopkins cannot speak like a Sunday school teacher.

Things to think about and talk about

What would you think of Gilly Hopkins if you met her in real life?

Why do you think that Gilly is so nasty to Agnes and William Ernest?

Why is it so important for Gilly to do well at school and come top in all the tests?

What do you think it would be like to have Gilly in your class?

Why do you think she reacts the way she does when she comes to her new foster home with Trotter? And what is it that makes her gradually change her mind?

The Great Gilly Hopkins was written quite a long time ago (1978) and is set in the USA. Can you tell from the book that it is a different time and a different country? Or could it just as easily all be happening here today?

Is there anyone in the book who you particularly like or are wondering about and would like to know more about?

What do you think of the ending? Is it a good or bad end to the story?

Further reading

Katherine Paterson by Maria Nikolajeva in Författare och illustratörer för barn och ungdom, part 6 (Bibliotekstjänst 2000) (in Swedish)

On being a bridge, thank you speech at the award of the Hans Christian Andersen Medal Opsis Kalopsis issue 1/2001

Oh my world! Katherine Paterson har fått Alma-priset by Birgitta Fransson, Opsis Kalopsis issue 2/2006 (in Swedish)

Katherine Paterson’s website:

This Reading Guide was written by Birgitta Fransson, former member of the jury for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. It was first published in Swedish in January 2012.

Further reading about Katherine Paterson