The Hundred Dresses
Eleanor Estes (Juvenile Fiction)
How did it all start? Maddie wasn’t quite sure, but then she remembers. It started with a girl, Wanda Petronski, who lives on Boggins Heights with her dad and brother. Wanda comes to school every day in the same faded blue dress that doesn’t seem to hang right. She’s quiet and sits in the far corner of the classroom. Nobody seems to pay her much mind, except that her last name is silly and hard to pronounce. She’s practically invisible until that one day when Wanda wanted so desperately to be a part of the group. So hungry for companionship and inclusion. That one day when the other girls were talking about dresses and Wanda said, “I got a hundred dresses home.” Who knew that that one single sentence would have such an effect…not just on Wanda, but on so many more.
Oftentimes, a book or story acts as a balm—more for the author than the reader. It is a last-ditch effort of making things right…of righting a wrong. R.J. Palacio accomplished this through her wonderful and poignant book The Wonder, a novel about a boy with Treacher Collins Syndrome (TCS) where bones and facial tissues develop abnormally. She says that the inspiration for her book came after a chance encounter with a little girl in an ice cream store. In “A Letter to Readers”, Estes’s daughter, Helena, says that her mother’s inspiration came from a classmate who was much like Wanda. An immigrant shunned by her peers and longing to fit in and be liked. Her mother, like Maddie, realized too late that complacency is just as bad as participation and that popularity should never be achieved at the expense of another.
The Hundred Dresses won a Newberry Honor in 1945 and has never been out of print since. There is a very good reason for this. Although it is a mere 80 pages, Eleanor Estes makes every sentence reverberate within our very heart and soul and Louis Slobodkin’s beautiful illustrations give this heartfelt story a vibrant beauty and grace. This is a story that should be shared and discussed with readers of all ages. It reminds us of the power of words and the heart’s amazing capacity to find and offer forgiveness. Children find it difficult to remove the target from someone else’s back for they know all too well that there is a very good chance that the target will find a new home upon their own. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to stand up for what is right. Only later in life do we realize that sometimes the only thing worse than living with shame, is living with regret. In this age of bullying and intolerance, the lessons learned from The Hundred Dresses are still as relevant and important today as they were in 1944. Gratefully, we have Wanda and Maddie who remind us that it is never too late to say, “I’m sorry” and more importantly, “I forgive you.”
*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com
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