bu-review for kids: the great gilly hopkins by katherine paterson

by vanessagobes

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I picked up The Great Gilly Hopkins last week at the library because it was recommended by Girl Scouts of America as a good read for Brownie scouts.  I did not expect this fiction novel by Katherine Paterson to offer up a great lesson in compassion for my BUBs.  (I also did not expect to be crying my eyes out over a book written for 10-year-olds, but that happened, too.)

Gilly is an angry 11-year-old who’s been shuffled from foster home to foster home since she was a baby.  She is guarded, sassy, manipulative, proud, prejudiced and destructive.  But under all of that difficulty is a little girl who desperately wants to belong and be loved.  The characters are fantastic, the plot is simple yet powerful.

The language is a little mature for my kids – ages 4,6,8 – but I read aloud and substituted darn for damn and heck for hell.  There was also a point when I had to stop reading the book altogether and offer an in-depth history lesson on racism in America.  (Gilly’s racist mindset is challenged by two black characters, her neighbor and her teacher, who are likely the most well-educated characters she meets.)

I found that my youngest child slipped in and out of attention – and the room – occasionally asking me why Gilly doesn’t live with her mother.  He was obviously disturbed by my description of the foster care system, hence the repetitive questioning.  My middle daughter was also disengaged.  She fell asleep twice while I was reading.  Other nights she ignored Great Gilly altogether and buried her face in Pokemon comics or math workbooks.  But Gilly provided an extraordinary lesson in compassion for my 8-year-old and me… tandem paradigm shifts.

If you are looking for a Buddhist or bu-curious lesson to teach your kids, ask them to point out moments when folks in the story practice compassion, forgiveness and/or acceptance.  It is also a wonderful opportunity to talk about deeper Buddhist ideas, too – basic karmic law, or cause and effect, and Buddhahood, that beautiful shining gem that exists in each one of us, just waiting to be polished.

Here are some great times to stop the story and discuss the above mentioned ideas:

  • the way Trotter consistently interacts with a grizzly-behaved Gilly
  • the assumptions Gilly makes about Trotter based on her physical description
  • how Mr. Randolph responds to Gilly after discovering her indiscretion
  • Ms. Harris’ reaction to Gilly’s card
  • the point Gilly decides William Earnest is her brother
  • the way Gilly took care of everyone over Thanksgiving

I’d also suggest stopping any time you see your child crying and asking him or her how they are feeling and what they are thinking.  In retrospect, I wish I’d done this more, because PG and I spent a lot of time whimpering and blowing our noses through the last third of the book.

Here’s a list of questions that would be great to ask after reading the book:

  1. When do you think Gilly realized she loved Trotter, W.E. and Mr. Randolph?
  2. Why do you think Gilly wrote letters to W.E. filled with lies and false stories?
  3. Do you think it was very hard for Ms. Harris to stay composed when Gilly gave her that terrible card?  Do you think you could have done that?  Why is it important to stay composed?
  4. Was Gilly a bad kid?  Why or why not?
  5. Was Trotter a good Mom?  Why or why not?
  6. Have you ever thought bad things about somebody because of the way they look, like Gilly did?
  7. What do you think is the meaning of Mr. Randolph’s favorite poem?  (Go through it with them line by line.  When they’re done, tell them what you think it means.)
  8. Why and how do you think people were able to forgive Gilly, even when she behaved so badly?
  9. What do you think Gilly learned from living at Trotter’s?  Could you see her applying her lessons in Jackson, Virginia?  Will Gilly be OK without her Courtney?

Last thing to share, Mr. Randolph’s favorite poem, written by William Wordsworth, which sings to my spirit:

“There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,

The earth, and every common sight,

To me did seem

Apparell’d in celestial light,

The glory and the freshness of a dream.

It is not now as it hath been of yore: —

Turn wheresoever I may,

By night or day,

The things which I have seen I know can see no more.

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:

The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,

Hath had elsewhere its setting,

And cometh from afar:

Not in entire forgetfulness,

And not in utter nakedness,

But trailing clouds of glory do we come

From God, who is our home.

Thanks to the human heart by which we live,

Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,

To me the meanest flower that blows can give

Thoughts that do often lie to deep for tears.”

Love it.

From mine to yours,

Vanessa