Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes

The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, illustrated by Louis Slobodkin

Rating: 5 stars

This should be required reading for first and second grade kids. Obviously girls will be drawn to the book more than boys (for the most part, excuse my sexism) because of the title and cover, the talk of dresses throughout the book, and because the three main characters are all female. But the lesson of being kind to and showing empathy towards others are for everyone--boys and girls, grown ups and kids alike. 

The story starts off with an empty desk.  Young Wanda Petronski is not in school today, and Maggie and her pal Peggy wonder where she is. Together and separately they remember Wanda, and how she wore the same "shabby but clean" dress to school every day. But one day, when all the girls in the class stood together to admire a new dress that belonged to a different classmate, Wanda blurted out, "I have a hundred dresses at home." All eyes turned towards Wanda.  

Wanda repeated her words firmly.
"I got a hundred dresses at home."
She soon became the subject of fascination, and a gentle teasing, a light but constant ribbing--nothing as hideous as the bullying nonsense that, horribly, plagues playgrounds around the country these days. In the end, the girls find out that Wanda's family--recent Polish immigrants--have moved to the big city where their odd name and thick accents will blend in more, stick out less. Her father writes a note to her class explaining the situation. The teacher chides her class, saying that she sure hopes they were kind to these people. 

Peggy and Maggie feel guilty (though this word, interestingly, never appears in the book).  They realize that they were unkind. They know it right away (because they've got these things called consciences, and are humble enough to realize when they've done something wrong).  A drawing contest that Peggy expects to win helps illustrate the point further--all the girls submit one dress for the competition, but Wanda submits 100 brilliant drawings of 100 brilliant dresses.  Everyone, especially the two girls, are impressed.  
There must have been one hundred of them all lined up!

They can't "make it right" by apologizing because Wanda is gone.  Instead, Maddie comes up with a conclusion and makes a pledge: "She was never going to stand by and say nothing again."

The book is great and, despite being written in 1944, is very timely for four reasons:

1. Empathy is learned.  The lesson: "Be kind, always" is so true. Kids need to be taught and adults need to remember that we never know what someone else is going through--from just a bad day or perhaps their parent is dying from cancer. 

2. The story is about Polish immigrants, and all my ancestors are from Poland.  That fact only enhances my love for this book!  I love that Lorelei (third generation) understands a little the teasing that some of her ancestors endured when they first arrived. 

3. The language in this book is wonderful--there are huge words that even chapter-book-inhaling Lorelei doesn't know. Exquisite. Admiration. Stolid. Exaggerated politeness. I get the sense that we're expecting less of our children's vocabulary these days...and so I appreciate the word choice in this book.

4. Maggie and Peggy have to sit with the uncomfortable feeling that they did something wrong and can't apologize for it, can't make it right. That's just the worst feeling ever: to have ended something abruptly or horribly and not be able to go back and make things right.  What a good lesson in doing things well the first time.

I loved this book--it is my favorite book I've read with Lorelei so far.  It is wonderful for 5-10 year olds. Or 37 year olds, like me.

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