KBR team member Jo Burnell had the pleasure of interviewing author Katherine Paterson about her novel The Great Gilly Hopkins, first published in 1978. The 2015 movie based on the book (starring Sophie Nelissa, Kathy Bates, Julia Stiles and Octavia Spencer and Glenn Close) has recently been released on DVD.
Gilly’s story was written more than two decades ago but it is as relevant today as it was in the 1970s. What is your secret to creating timeless tales?
I don’t know if I have any secret. I have inside me the child I was and her very intense feelings. I think that is what connects to young readers. Our hearts haven’t changed as much as our technology.
Your characters jump off the page and into our hearts. Do you have particular techniques that help you create such vibrant, rounded characters?
I learned long ago that the deeper I go inside myself, seeing both the good and the bad, the deeper my reader will connect from his/her own life’s experience. The reader is always my co-author.
Many tales for readers in the middle primary school years have happy endings. I was both shocked and deeply satisfied by the ending you allowed for Gilly. Did you wrestle with various options before settling for this?
I knew, sadly, that Gilly could not go back to Thompson Park. She must move on and share what she had learned there from Trotter, W.E, Mr. Randolph, Miss Harris and even from Agnes. The book is sort of a journey from anger and selfishness to love and compassion. My college English professor wrote me after he had read it and said it was “Pilgrim’s Progress for children.” I do love the movie ending, though, and I think viewers will as well.
The Great Gilly Hopkins is a gritty heartfelt tale. Getting the balance for this readership is a tightrope. What advice would you give writers wanting to transcend the pedestrian in middle readers?
It’s always a miracle to me that children respond to what I have written, especially those children whose life is hard. I’ve had wonderful responses from young adult prisoners and children in juvenile detention centres. Foster children love Gilly, as do children who for whatever reason feel themselves unloved. I say to writers wanting my advice that you forget about what’s selling at the moment and look into your own heart for a story. The Japanese character for the idea 'work' has a heart with a sound coming out of it. For me, the idea for a book, is a sound from my heart.
Katherine Paterson is the author of more than 30 books, including 16 books for children and young people. She is a vice-president of the National Children's Book and Literacy Alliance and was the 2010-2011 National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, both in the US. She is perhaps best known for her award-winning novel Bridge to Terabithia. The film adaptation of Katherine's novel The Great Gilly Hopkins, first published in 1978, will be available on DVD and Digital from late March. Visit Katherine Paterson's website for more information about her books and literacy projects.