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#17. The Great Gilly Hopkins

September 9, 2012 1 comment

Gilly Hopkins is a character with spunk. You know this within the first few lines of the book. She’s daring, bold, and unrepentant – the kind of girl most people would view with envy, admiration or fear. She’s also a child who has been in the foster care system for eight years. She has learned the hard way not to grow attached to people. Worse, she has perfected the art of acting out – to keep people away.

When Gilly first arrives at Maime Trotter’s house in Maryland, she gets up to all of her old tricks (these are very fun to read), hoping to show the people she meets that she’s the one with all the power and they can’t affect her. She also determines that she will find her way to her real mother in California by any means possible. There are some very entertaining consequences. By the end of the book, however, Gilly has learned her lessons and opened her heart up to the people she first referred to as “weird,” “lardy,” and “retarded.”

Only one aspect of the book affected me really negatively – the fact that Gilly made several blatantly racial remarks and never took them back. When she is asked to lead an old colored blind man, for example, she shrinks back and responds, “I never touched one of those people in my life.” Half of the kids in her new class are black and Gilly refers to them as “low-class idiots.” She writes poetry filled with racial slurs and slips the offensive card into her black teacher’s textbook. As I encountered each of these racial incidents, I tried to justify their presence by telling myself that the book was set in the late seventies, so the author was merely “holding a mirror up to society.” Perhaps Gilly was to learn an obvious lesson at the end – that the color of a person’s skin did not determine who they were or something along those lines. But this never happens. It is obvious that Gilly grows to love the people she had discriminated against at first but there are no words that effectively take back her offensive remarks. In any other book, this lack of explicit detail could be viewed as a good thing – “show, don’t tell” – but in a children’s book, it is a shortcoming. Subtleties are often lost on children, and so I found myself asking: are these the kind of sentiments that I would like my child exposed to? My answer was definitely no. Not unless it was in a classroom setting with a teacher who could facilitate a candid conversation about race. And then I felt some genuine disappointment. The book is very well-written, funny, with wonderful pacing and a realistic ending. I would even consider it re-readable – except for this one fatal flaw. Disappointment tastes bitter – it has changed my original 4.5 star rating into a 3 star one.

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Categories: Katherine Paterson

#13. Bridge to Terabithia

August 18, 2012 Leave a comment

The first time I watched Bridge to Terabithia, I wept. Not right away, not in front of my family who would scoff (although no one seemed to be able to look right at the television screen during the last twenty minutes). I wept in the relative safety of my room – great heaving sobs that did not make me feel better. Why? Why? I kept repeating. And my sister wandered in and said to me, “I told you not to watch that movie. That is the saddest book I have ever read.”

Now I watched Bridge to Terabithia years and years ago, but the story line was still fresh in my mind when I picked up the book a few hours ago.

Jess Oliver Aarons is a little boy who has four sisters and not very many friends. He spends all summer running in the field near his house so that he can be the fastest runner in the fifth grade. On the first day of school, however, an unusual girl named Leslie Burke (who has just moved next door to Jess) beats Jess and every other boy in the race to win the title of fastest runner. Although it seems unlikely at first, Jess and Leslie become really good friends and in time create a magical kingdom in the woods close to where they live. Leslie calls the kingdom Terabithia, and in Terabithia, the two have many wonderful adventures, vanquishing their foes and receiving love from their imaginary subjects. Jess has never been happier; he finds himself growing bolder than he’s ever been. Leslie has found a true friend. And then something tragic happens.

I can’t tell if you’re reading this and already know what the tragedy is – but I can tell you what reading the book (while knowing what was about to happen) felt like. On the plus side, whenever the author described a pivotal scene, that part of the movie flashed through my mind’s eye, enhancing my reading of that paragraph or chapter. On the negative side, whenever something sad was about to happen, several feelings built up in my chest: part-dread, part-tension and part-hope – maybe the movie had taken a few liberties with the actual story line, maybe!

Unfortunately, the movie was quite faithful to the book. As I came to the final chapters, I found myself crying again – not dramatically, this time, but with a quiet, adult resignation.

Katherine Paterson’s narrative style is easy, graceful. Two things are clear from the beginning: the story was written for a young audience and it was written a long time ago (judging from the old expressions sprinkled all over the dialogue). Still, the writing is funny and honest and it is not afraid to treat little children’s feelings seriously. Even better, the book does not end on a tragic note. There is evidence of the beginning of healing. There are also a few glimpses of hope.

This is a powerful story, made even more powerful by the fact that it was based on a true story – that of the author’s son, David, and his best friend, Lisa.

Five stars – for the simple reason that I cannot remember the last time a book made me cry.