When poverty becomes an impulse for creativity – The Hundred Dresses, a powerful story on obstacles, kindness and acceptance

Eleanor Estes, The Hundred Dresses. Illustrated by Louis Slobodkin

Published 2004 by HMH Books for Young Readers (first published 1944), 80p

 

Although it was first published in 1944, The Hundred Dresses still speaks of many childhood dilemmas, complex and substantial issues that concern children today. Dealing with migration aspects, behaviour matters, racial discrimination and interpersonal development, the story transmits powerful messages.

In the beginning of the book there is a Letter to Readers signed by Helena Estes, the author’s daughter, in which she explains the connection between facts and fiction:

Years ago, I asked my mother why she had written the story. She told me about a classmate in her elementary school who had been taunted because she wore the same dress to school every day, and because her Polish name was unusual and difficult for many to pronounce. My mother was in school during World War I, and Polish names were uncommon then in the small town of West Haven, Connecticut, where my mother grew up and where the story takes place.

The story centers on Wanda Petronski, a Polish immigrant girl who lives with her father and her brother in a poor suburb in Connecticut. She is quiet, at school sits in the corner of the room where the boys with bad marks use to sit and she is always mocked by other children.

Wanda did not sit there because she was rough and noisy. On the contrary she was very quiet and rarely said anything at all. And nobody had ever heard her laugh out loud. Sometimes she twisted her mouth into a crooked sort of smile, but that was all.

Wanda is different; she has strange accent and funny name. Besides, she wears the same faded blue dress every day at school. In a period of post-war human uncertainty, without a mother to support her, Wanda faces the cruelty of her community, especially the mockery of her two classmates, Maddie and Peggy. Sometimes Maddie is concerned about their attitude and regrets their behaviour but she cannot oppose the group’s position.

As a reaction to all the mean remarks and also as a consequence of her precarious existence, Wanda claims she has one hundred dresses at home, all lined up in her closet. Very soon the obvious lie is transformed into a game as every day the girls ask Wanda details about her dresses and mock her. Then the teacher involves the class into a drawing contest and the girls need to design their dresses. Wanda draws not one but one hundred dresses, her dresses. She wins the contest, the whole class acknowledge her talent and feel remorse for all the mockery but it is too late to apologize as Wanda’s father has decided to move to another town.

There is an exchange of letters between the class and Wanda which demonstrate her kindness and immense sense of forgiveness. Maddie and Peggy are offered two of Wanda’s drawings and they recognize themselves in the pictures.

letter

Migration is still a wide world phenomenon; it is not the process of traveling that is the most difficult component but the adaptation. Very often children use their imagination to overcome the burdens and pain of their new life. The hundred dresses is an original definition of hope, dreams and compassion.

Complement The Hundred Dresses with Michael Morpurgo’s I Believe in Unicorns or discover magic in a story by Tomi Ungerer.

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