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The Hundred Dresses

Classic Children's Book About Bullying

About.com Rating 4.5 Star Rating

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Cover art for The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes
Houghton Mifflin

Overview

Though written in 1944, the timeless classic and Newbery Honor award winner The Hundred Dresses still finds relevance in today’s world. With simplicity and elegance, the book addresses themes of how we treat each other that are still applicable nearly seventy years after publication. Add to that gorgeous watercolor illustrations by Caldecott Medalist Louis Slobodkin, and you have an excellent, quick read for all children (even if the main characters are girls) ages 8-11.

The Hundred Dresses: The Story

To her classmates, Wanda Petronski, a Polish immigrant, is a quiet strange girl. She lives with her father and older brother on Boggins Heights, she talks funny, and she seemed to only own one dress. But the girls in her class, especially the popular ones like Peggy and her best friend Maddie, never pay any attention to her. That is, until one day when they're admiring Cecile’s gorgeous red dress and Wanda, in an unusual show of confidence, confides to Peggy that she has “got a hundred dresses at home.” Peggy is amazed; how could someone who wears the same dress every day have a hundred dresses at home.

And thus begins the “dresses game,” in which Peggy (with Maddie in tow), and sometimes some of the other girls, pummel Wanda with questions: how many dresses? how many coats? how many shoes? And while they feign niceness, and while Wanda shyly answers, Maddie knows that they’re being mean. She knows that Wanda’s not too different from herself: She wears hand-me-down clothes, and her family isn’t exactly rolling in the money. But Maddie justifies not defending Wanda. After all, she wouldn’t be so silly as to make up stories about a hundred dresses and then go tell everyone as if it were true. So, Maddie does nothing but stand by uncomfortably, letting Peggy tease Wanda. Besides, she reasons, they never make Wanda cry.

Then, one day, Wanda doesn’t show up to school. It takes a couple of days for the girls to miss her, but Maddie’s kind of glad Wanda isn’t there, if only because it means she doesn’t have to watch Peggy tease Wanda. Then comes the announcement for the winner of the school design contest, for which the girls designed dresses. Wanda, who submitted a hundred different drawings, won. But, unfortunately, Wanda has moved away to the big city, because, according to her father's note to the school, he wants to get away from people who think their name is funny and are unkind to them.

This prompts Peggy and Maddie to check out Wanda's home, to see if they’ve really moved. They find a clean empty house, small and ill-equipped to handle the elements. Afterwards, Maddie makes a decision. She will never again let people be teased and stand by and let it happen. Even if it costs her friends. To assuage their consciences, they write a letter to Wanda, telling her that she's won the writing contest. In response, around Christmas, Wanda writes the class, thanking them for the letters, and telling the teacher to let the girls in the classroom have her dress drawings. She specifies two particular drawings for Maddie and Peggy to have. When they get home, they discover that Wanda drew the girls in the pictures to look just like them. “What did I say!”, Peggy says. “She must have really liked us anyway.”

My Recommendation

Sometimes, the best way to get a point across, especially one about treating people kindly, is the simplest way. That fact is why The Hundred Dresses, even after nearly 70 years, continues to speak to children. Estes’s easy prose makes it accessible to the younger readers, and the simple story makes her anti-bullying point come across loud and clear.

Perhaps the only complaint about this slim novel is that the characters, except for Maddie, are merely caricatures, lacking in motives and complexity. The story is told from Maddie's point of view and the reader is never privy to how Peggy and Wanda really feel. However, by doing this, Estes makes them accessible to everyone; there are elements of Peggy, Maddie and Wanda in every child, and everyone will find something in Estes's message of kindness and compassion. I highly recommend The Hundred Dresses for children ages 8 to 11.

About the Author Eleanor Estes

Eleanor Ruth Rosenfield was born in 1906, the third of four children, in Connecticut. She met her husband, Rice Estes, after becoming a Caroline M. Hewins scholar and studying at the Pratt Institute in New York City. They married in 1932. She was an assistant children’s librarian until being stricken with tuberculosis. She turned to writing as a part of her recovery, putting down stories from her childhood as books for children.

Eleanor Estes won three Newbery Honor awards - for The Middle Moffat, Rufus M., and The Hundred Dresses - and a John Newbery Medal for Ginger Pye in 1952. She passed away in 1988, having written 19 books for children, and 1 adult novel. (Source: http://www.theweeweb.co.uk/public/author_profile.php?id=532) Her papers are kept at the University of Minnesota (http://special.lib.umn.edu/findaid/xml/CLRC-25.xml) and the University of Connecticut (http://doddcenter.uconn.edu/asc/findaids/estes/MSS19970049.html)

About the Illustrator Louis Slobodkin

Louis Slobodkin, who was born in 1903 and died in 1975 was not only an an artist. He was also an illustrator and author of a number of children's books. Slobodkin won the 1944 Randolph Caldecott Medal for Many Moons, which was written by by James Thurber.

Slobodkin received his art education the Beaux Arts Institute of Design in New York City and became a well-known sculptor. He first became a children's book illustrator when his friend, Eleanor Estes, asked him to do the illustrations for The Moffats. He went on to be a part of the creation of more than 80 books. In addition to the books about the Moffats and Many Moons, a few of his children's books include Magic Michael, The Space Ship Under the Apple Tree, and One Is Good but Two Are Better. (Sources: The Northwest Digital Archives (NWDA): Guide to the Louis Slobodkin papers 1927-1972 and Association for Library Service to Children)

More Recommendations, From Your Guide Elizabeth Kennedy

Jake Drake Bully Buster, a short novel about a fourth grader's experience with being bullied, is another good book for this age group. The Skinny on Bullying, a nonfiction book directed at middle schoolers, is a good book for younger kids and an adult to read together and discuss. For more books for middle grade readers, see Bullies and Bullying in Kids' Books for Grades 4-8 and Teens. For more information about bullying, see the About.com Bullying site.

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