8.24.2008

The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, illustrated by Louis Slobodkin 80 pp RL2







The Hundred Dresses, written in 1944 and winner of the Newbery Honor, performs the amazing feat of teaching a "life lesson" without being didactic and dull. I put the phrase "life lessons" in quotes because it is  phrase that has been introduced into children's literature in the last generation or so and it rubs me the wrong way sometimes. I'll be honest, I loathe children's books that set out to teach "life lessons." Most celebrity authored picture books, besides the poor writing, are frequently moralistic and teach-y and advertise their "life lessons" right on the cover. While I do think that there is a book (or three) in the world that can address any and every life issue, I think that the value of the book lies in the ability of a book to capture an experience, to craft it into a story and to make you feel and think things that you didn't before you read it. In my experience, children's books that propose to teach a life lesson are devoid of these qualities. 


The Hundred Dresses tells the story of Polish immigrant, Wanda Petronski who wears the same faded but clean dress to school every day and is made fun of when she tells her classmates that she has one hundred dresses in her closet at home. When the winners of the class drawing contest are announced, the children learn that Wanda really did have one hundred dresses - one hundred drawings of dresses - and that she has won the competition. However, she cannot collect her medal because her family has moved to the big city. Mr Petronski sends a note to Miss Mason, the teacher, telling her that in the big city, "No more holler Polack. No more ask why funny name. Plenty of funny names in big city."


Although Wanda is the center of the story, what makes this book work is the fact that it is told through the eyes of Maddie, a conscientious classmate of Wanda's who goes along with the teasing, initiated and driven by her friend Peggy. The thoughtfulness and realizations that Maddie has as the story progresses are simple but powerful. And the ending wraps up the story in a bittersweet but satisfying way.


1 comment:

Jeremy said...

Hey, I wanted to thank you for this recommendation as well -- I read it to the girls as a bed-time story over a couple of nights and they really enjoyed it. Charming and with a great message (without being too preachy).