The Hundred Dresses, by Eleanor Estes (illus. Louis Slobodkin)
Wanda Petronski lives on the wrong side of the tracks. She comes to school every day in the same ratty blue dress. She sits in the back corner of the classroom where the rowdy boys sit. But she’s too unsure of herself to be rowdy. The popular girls don’t pay Wanda a lot of attention except for a game they play every morning in the school yard:
“Wanda,” Peggy would say in a most courteous manner, as though she were talking to Miss Mason or to the principal perhaps. “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, and the little girls would stop playing hopscotch and listen.
Every day she wears the same dress, but every day she claims to have a hundred dresses in her closet, “all lined up”–velvet, silk, every color, every style. The girls’ persistence in tormenting Wanda every morning is matched by Wanda’s persistence in her outlandish sartorial claims–not just a hundred dresses, but fifty shoes, then sixty, plus hats and coats to match.
Eleanor Estes’s portrayal of schoolroom dynamics–especially the not-quite intentional hurts that children do to one another–is spot-on. There is so much sadness in this little eighty-page book, which was first published in 1944. Wanda has no answer for the popular girls whose lives are so easy by comparison–only those face-saving claims that are all the more humiliating for their overt falsehood. A hundred dresses, all lined up.
I have heard forgiveness defined as “The fragrance that the flower leaves on the heel of the one who crushed it.” I could never quite make sense of that idea until I read the end of The Hundred Dresses. Wanda’s generosity toward the girls who have so sweetly bullyragged her is genuinely moving. I hope you’ll get hold of a copy and read it for yourself.