fiction favorites…The Hundred Dresses

The Hundred Dresses, by Eleanor Estes, illustrated by Louis Slobodkin

Wanda didn’t have any friends.  She came to school alone and went home alone.  She always wore a faded blue dress that didn’t hang right.  It was clean, but it looked as though it had never been ironed properly.  She didn’t have any friends, but a lot of girls talked to her…”Wanda,” Peggy would say in a most courteous manner…”Wanda,” she’d say, giving one of her friends a nudge, “tell us.  How many dresses did you say you had hanging up in your closet?” 
“A hundred,” said Wanda.
“A hundred!” exclaimed all the girls incredulously.
“Yeah, a hundred, all lined up,” said Wanda…
Then they’d let her go.  And then before she’d gone very far, they couldn’t’ help bursting into shrieks and peals of laughter…And finally Wanda would move up the street, her eyes dull and her mouth closed tight, hitching her left shoulder every now and then in the funny way she had, finishing the walk to school alone.

Wanda Petronski is a poor, motherless girl from a Polish-immigrant family, who lives in the shabby district of Boggins Heights.  Sadly, she  is also the victim of merciless teasing by a pack of school girls led by Peggy, the most popular girl in school.  It all starts when Wanda incongruously claims to have 100 fabulous dresses all lined up in her closet — silk dresses, velvet dresses, emerald green and elegant Cinderella blue dresses — and now the mocking is Peggy’s daily dose of fun.

Maddie is best friends with Peggy.  But Maddie is also poor, and sensitive to Wanda’s plight.  She is a conflicted girl –deeply unhappy about the taunting that goes on, yet scared spitless that if she stands up for Wanda, she will become Peggy’s next victim.  So, she remains silent.

The story opens with Wanda Petronski missing from school, and the spectre of Wanda’s absence haunts us, and Maddie, throughout the story.  For, Maddie and Peggy and all the other girls in school discover, too late, what they’ve missed seeing in Wanda — a hidden talent, an artistic soul; unfortunately Wanda has already been driven from their midst by their cruelty.  Wanda is gone, and the amends Maddie would like to make are now impossible.

This is a short, powerful story about cowardice and bullying, about painful regrets and new resolves, about loneliness and fear, and the toll that cruelty takes on both the victim and the guilty party.  It is a story about looking at people with eyes of compassion.  It is not a story with a tidy, happy ending; rather it allows the reality of what is too-often our experience — regret — to rest quietly and achingly in readers’ minds.  Very current, though it was written in 1944.  Lots to talk about and think about in this one.  Great book club selection.  Ages 8-9 and up.