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.
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I put the phrase life lessons quotes because it is a new phrase that has been introduced into children's literature and I take issue with it. I'll be honest, I loathe children's books that set out to teach "life lessons." I've never liked The Berenstain Bears books and refused to read them to my children and I avoid celebrity authored picture books like the plague because of the usually poor quality of writing and the fact that they are frequently moralistic and teach-y. 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 it's art, which is a book's ability 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. And, ultimately I think it's kind of unfair for us, as knowing adults, to slip our kids these life lesson books and expect them to learn something. We should be teaching and leading by example and talking with our children about these things. Often, part of the beauty of a great book is discovering it on your own and the self-discovery that comes with the reading.
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.