Pictures of Hollis Woods

by Patricia Reilly Giff

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Themes in Patricia Reilly Giff's novel Pictures of Hollis Woods


Themes in Patricia Reilly Giff's novel Pictures of Hollis Woods include the search for family and belonging, the impact of trauma, and the significance of art in expressing one's emotions and identity. The protagonist, Hollis, navigates her past and present struggles while discovering the importance of connections and finding a place where she truly feels at home.

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What are the themes of Patricia Reilly Giff's novel Pictures of Hollis Woods?

The importance of family is a very significant theme in the Pictures of Hollis Woods. The novel tells the story of twelve-year-old foster child Hollis Woods who is looking for a forever family after being dumped in a park called "Holliswoods" when she was only one hour old. Hollis is very good at drawing, and her drawings reflect her desire for a loving family. In fact, her story is reflected through fourteen drawings. When she is six-years-old and her class is asked by their teacher to draw something that begins with a "W," Hollis draws a family. This is because a family is something that she "wishes" for.

I opened my mouth to say: How about W for wish, or W for want, or W for "Wouldn't it be loverly," like the song the music teacher had taught us?

As she is moved from foster home to foster home, Hollis becomes an unhappy and troubled child, and when she is placed with the Regan family, who she thinks of as the perfect family, she runs away because she doesn’t think she is good enough for them. When she is placed with Josie, an older, single, woman, Josie is happy and tries to forget about the Regans and her drawing which depicted a mother, father, brother, and sister. In the final picture, Hollis is back with the Regan family and is happy.

I have a new last name now. It's Regan. I love the sound of it. I haven't forgotten Hollis Woods, who wanted and wished, fresh as paint, a mountain of trouble, so I sign my drawings using the new names. They all belong to me.

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What are the themes of Patricia Reilly Giff's novel Pictures of Hollis Woods?

One of the themes of the story is the huge gap that often opens up between self-perception and the truth. Because of her experiences, Hollis has developed serious self-esteem issues. We can see this in the very first chapter of the story, when Hollis explains that she doesn't want to look at the mustard woman, as she doesn't want her to see inside her soul. The implication is that there's something unpleasant lurking deep inside Hollis' soul that she doesn't want anyone else to discover.

It isn't just what's on the inside that bothers Hollis either. In chapter 3, she can't bring herself to look at her reflection in the mirror, as she'll see the scar she sustained from the accident on Old Man's Mountain. By not looking at herself in the mirror, Hollis can pretend that the whole incident never happened.

Later on in the story, we witness yet another example of Hollis' distorted self-perception when she unfairly blames herself for messing up her placement at the Regans'. And yet the Regans had loved her unconditionally and expressed their appreciation for Hollis' prodigious talents as an artist. But it was all to no avail. Hollis' self-perception is so distorted by her low levels of self-esteem that she's unable to feel about herself the way that other people do.

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What are the themes of Patricia Reilly Giff's novel Pictures of Hollis Woods?

The themes in the novel Pictures Of Hollis Woods include:

1)The importance of friendship in promoting a sense of belonging.

As the story progresses, Hollis comes to see that Josie and Beatrice are her friends. They are not there to judge her, but to help her realize that she is in a safe place. Both the cousins include Hollis in their favorite weekly rituals, especially their Monday night Chinese take-out dinners. Josie even incorporates Henry the cat into Hollis' circle of friendship. She is surrounded by warmth in a place where even the cat is her staunch defender:

"You don't have to worry about Henry. Henry's ready to stick up for you whenever the chips are down."

I had to laugh thinking about Henry in boxing gloves fighting for me.

2)The healing power of art.

Both Beatrice and Josie are former art teachers. They encourage her not to be afraid to allow her art to heal her with its honesty and its simplicity.

"But when it's down there on paper, and you look at it, really look, you'll see the way things are."

"Drawing is what you see of the world, truly see."

Hollis comes to realize that she has to accept who she is in order to find her place in the world; to that end, art becomes a vehicle for self-awareness.

3)The importance of unconditional love in a child's life.

When Hollis finally comes face to face with her foster brother, Steven, she is shocked that Steven was able to figure out her location. Steven tells her that his family received a letter from the agency asking about Hollis' whereabouts. Hollis becomes emotional and doesn't understand why the family would want her back when there were so many arguments during her stay. Steven tells her that she 'doesn't know about families yet.' He tries to reassure her that every family has its own idiosyncracies (behavioral characteristics peculiar to an individual or a group of people) and in his family, he and the Old Man tend to argue a lot.

Despite the arguing, Steven and his father love each other. This is unconditional love, and Hollis comes to understand that conflict in a loving family need never be a marginalizing experience. The story ends with the birth of her new baby sister, Christina, and the Regan family adopting her as one of their own.

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What are the themes of Patricia Reilly Giff's novel Pictures of Hollis Woods?

The central idea of Pictures of Hollis Woods by Patricia Reilly Giff is the unconditional love of a family. Hollis Woods is an orphan who has rarely experienced such unconditional love, and therefore, she doesn't really understand it. She also often thinks that she is not worthy of such love, so she resists it when she finally does find it. Let's look at these ideas in more detail.

Hollis has been shifted from foster home to foster home for her entire life. When she is eleven, she goes to live with Josie Cahill, a former art teacher, who recognizes Hollis' talent for drawing and comes to love the girl. Hollis loves her and will do anything to keep Josie safe (she has the beginnings of dementia) and stay with her.

There was one other family that Hollis came to love the Regans, Izzy and the Old Man and their son, Steven. But Hollis ran away from them even after they planned to adopt her because of an accident she thought was her fault. She believed she “messed up the family” and that they could never love her after that. Hollis, of course, is wrong, for she does not fully understand that love can indeed be unconditional.

When Hollis needs a place to hide with Josie so her social worker will not take her away, she goes to the Regan family's summer house in the mountains. Hollis cares for Josie, but she comes to realize that Josie is not really happy away from home. Hollis is getting ready to be “tough” again, take Josie home, and accept yet another foster family when Steven shows up. He has been watching out for Hollis and Josie the whole time they have been at the summer house, and now he convinces Hollis that the Regans still love her and want her to be their daughter. Hollis has never had a family, he says, so she just doesn't “know about families yet.” But the Regans will teach her, and Hollis finally agrees.

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What theme does the plot of Pictures of Hollis Woods suggest?

I would argue that the story plot of Patricia Reilly Giff's Pictures Of Hollis Woods suggests themes of family and loyalty.

Having grown up in the foster care system, Hollis has no real understanding of family until she is fostered by the Regan family, with whom Hollis immediately feels safe. Over the course of a summer, she becomes close to the Regan family, who soon ask if they can adopt her. Her sense of belonging, however, is still fragile enough that when her foster brother, Steven, is injured in a car crash that Hollis perceives to be her fault, she runs away. However, family ties run deep, even if they are not biological, and Hollis learns later on in the novel that Steven has been watching over her from a distance as she takes care of Josie at the Regan's summer house.

The theme of loyalty is evidenced by Hollis's growing concern for Josie. After being placed in Josie's care following her sudden departure from the Regans, Hollis realizes that Josie is slipping into dementia. As she is unable to bear the thought of leaving Josie after the social services agency learns that, thanks to her dementia, she hasn't always been ensuring that Hollis is in school, she makes a plan and runs away with Josie to the Regan's summer house. It is her sense of loyalty to someone who has been kind to her that renders Hollis unable to abandon Josie.

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