Adult Eyes on a Childhood Book

“I found an old book at my house,” my aunt said. “One you mentioned in your memoir. Do you want it?”

I hadn’t read The Hundred Dresses since second grade at Yoder School. But when I opened the book again almost sixty years later, I was instantly drawn in like I had been as a child.

Why? What is the book’s power?

Partly it’s the mere suggestions of scenes created by the illustrator. Louis Slobodkin uses watery images and negative space to invite readers in to finish the paintings in their minds. And his art matches the writing style of Eleanor Estes—strong, spare, and deceptively simple. Estes, too, ignites the reader’s imagination.

But mostly the power is in the theme. The story is based on Estes’s childhood memory of how her classmates mocked a Polish girl who wore the same hand-me-down dress every day. Estes never ridiculed the girl, but she stood by as others did. And her writing shows her penitence.

Rereading this childhood book gave me a chance to ponder the scope of my life. My second-grade resolve to defend justice, for example, has followed me. But as I read about Maggie (the bystander in the story), I recalled, too easily for my comfort, times when I remained silent because speaking out could have shifted mocking to me.

As I reread The Hundred Dresses, I also thought of my students—those who were bullies and their targets and the many, many who had been bystanders. I wish I had used this book with my students.

They would have found Estes’s characters to be real people, like themselves. And they would have seen each other in these characters. To all of them—the bullies, the targets, and the bystanders—Estes offers hope. She shows, after all, that for Peggy (the bully) tenderness is possible, that Maggie (the bystander} grows strong enough to act, and that Wanda Petronski has extraordinary gifts to share.

The story that inspired this book is over a hundred years old. As you read, you’ll find the signs of those times—words like jolly, games like marbles, practices like ironing, and gender-specific assignments like boys designing motor boats while girls design dresses—but the issues are current. And a look at bullying through the lens of another time can help students reflect on their own times.

The Hundred Dresses is a book for young children with a message for all ages. It’s too late for me to offer it to my middle school students. But I plan to use it as an opening exercise in a teacher-education class I’m teaching soon.

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