I was surprised to find out that my library’s selection for the November book discussion was a classic picture book, The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes. I wasn’t there when they chose the book, and, as it turned out, I wasn’t able to make it to the discussion this week, so I’m not sure what was behind the choice. But I did read the book, for the first time ever, and enjoyed it.
Just in case you are as clueless as I was and have never read this well-known 1945 Newberry Honor winner, it is basically a warm and timeless story about bullying. Wanda Petronski is different from her classmates. She has an odd name, she lives far from town in a small house out in the country, and she wears the same worn, blue dress to school every day. Another girl, Peggy, teases Wanda every day, asking her how many dresses she has at home, and every day, Wanda answers by saying she has a hundred dresses at home, beautiful dresses in all colors.
Peggy’s best friend, Maddie, goes along with this daily routine, but inside, she feels uncomfortable about it because her family doesn’t have much more money than Wanda’s. One day, Wanda doesn’t come to school, and her classmates find out her family has moved to a larger city where they won’t be seen as different. Maddie is gripped with guilt, and even Peggy wonders if maybe she shouldn’t have teased Wanda. The girls write to Wanda and eventually come to understand exactly what the hundred dresses meant to her.
It’s a warm, tender story with a very important lesson. Although the 1940’s book is a bit dated in some minor ways (like all the girls wearing dresses to school!), it is surprisingly relevant today. In fact, bullying is a hot topic for both parents and kids right now, and this gentle story presents an ethical dilemma just as pertinent to today’s kids: Are you just as accountable for the consequences of bullying as the kid doing the bullying if you stand by and say nothing? This book is as appropriate and enjoyable for modern elementary-aged kids as it was over 50 years ago.