Tuesday, January 8, 2019

"The 100 Dresses" by Eleanor Estes

There are some stories that I think of as Important.  I don't remember the first time I thought of a story that way, but I know that by the time I read this, probably around the age of ten, I already had the idea that some stories were Important.  Capital I, bold letters, and all.  

Important stories are ones that each me to look at some aspect of my behavior or the world around me in a new and different way.  They teach a moral lesson, but without preaching.  It's hard to teach moral lessons without being preachy -- as an author, I know that full well.  But some stories pull it off beautifully.  This is one.

(What other stories have earned the label Important over the years?  To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  A Light in the Forest by Conrad Richter.  Movies like Rebel Without a Cause, Blackboard Jungle, A Gentlemen's Agreement, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?)

It's a very simple story.  A group of schoolgirls tease Wanda Petronski every day.  She's poor, she wears the same shabby dress every day, and she claims to have a hundred dresses in her closet at home.  Wanda never gets angry about the teasing, never reacts in any way but to eventually walk away.  One girl, Maddie, is self-aware enough to eventually realize that she joins in teasing Wanda because she's afraid if she doesn't, they'll tease her instead.  The book as a whole focuses on Maddie's journey from timid joiner to resolute individual.  It accomplishes this with 78 pages, half of them filled with illustrations.  It's a masterful example of sparse storytelling with nothing extra, nothing unnecessary.  A good story, well-told.  Which is my favorite kind.

Oddly enough, I remembered this book ending differently than it does.  I've been convinced for years that Wanda died at the end, and that's how they discovered the truth about her hundred dresses.  But she doesn't.  I'm really wondering now why I thought that.  Huh.

I read this as part of the 2019 Newbery Read Along hosted on Instagram by @lollipopsandlyrics and @happylittlebirdy.  If you also love classic children's fiction, please join us!

(My bookstagram)
Particularly Good Bits:

Wisps of old grass stuck up here and there along the pathway like thin wet kittens (p. 53)

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It: G.  Appropriate for all ages, though most appreciated by first grade on up, I think.


This is my 25th book read and reviewed for my second go-round with the Classics Club!  I'm halfway there!

14 comments:

  1. I read this story a long time ago - probably when I was ten, too. :)

    I really need to revisit it because I'm sure a lot of the nuances went over my head.

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    1. Eva, I'm not sure they did, as it's a pretty straightforward story. Worth revisiting, though.

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  2. I remember starting this once when we were in a library, but never got to finish it! I really should one of these days.

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    1. MC, it's a quick enough read you could probably finish it your next trip!

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  3. I read this book when I was 19 or 20, I think? And I immediately and virulently hated it . . . like, I couldn't imagine any OTHER emotional reaction than "I absolutely hate this book." So it is really fascinating to me to hear that not everybody hates it, and that you in fact liked it a lot.

    I'm not exactly sure why I hated it, although it's interesting to note that when I told my mom (who knows me really really well) how much I hated it, she just nodded and said "yep, I thought you might." So clearly it is Not My Sort of Book.

    I remember that I really didn't like being in Maddie's POV because I couldn't relate to her at all and I thought she was irredeemably awful. That's probably not true, objectively, but I still FEEL that way about her. Her character motivations make zero sense to me, so from my angle, it looks like she's just being horrible for the sake of being horrible.

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    1. Jessica, wow. That's pretty fascinating.

      I think I like it because I can understand Maddie. She's shy and awkward, not violently so, but enough that she's not obviously a Cool Kid. And the most popular kid in school is her friend, but she knows that's tenuous, and so she reacts out of fear and worry, or rather, she doesn't act at all because of that. But gradually, she realizes that standing by and doing nothing to stop a bad thing is just as bad as participating, so she... learns and grows and changes and matures. And by the end, I'm proud of her.

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    2. See, I'm glad you told me that because it helps me to understand Maddie better, as a person. And now that you point it out, I can see her growth throughout the story; which is a good and valuable thing. You're right, it's important that she eventually changes.

      My first reaction was "If she wants friends, why doesn't she ditch Popular Girl and make friends with WANDA?" I guess I react that way because I was always such a massive loner as a child and teen, and when I did make friends it was almost always with other loners who also had no friend network because that's who I was naturally drawn to.

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    3. Jessica, okay! I'm glad I did too, then.

      Like you, I have often existed on the fringes of groups. I am by nature very slow to form friendships, and the times when I have leapt ahead and said, "I will be friends with that person!" have not gone well. So I haven't exactly had any experiences like Maddie's (and I've actually been in Wanda's shoes a few times), but I can understand how easy it would be to end up in Maddie's role.

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    4. I wonder if this is because you're older than me and have experienced more, so it's easier for you to imagine other people's perspectives? Like Maddie's?

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    5. Jessica, maybe? But imagining myself in other people's shoes is something I can't remember NOT being able to do, even as a kid.

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  4. I have never read this, and yet, I see it on reading lists everywhere. I'm going to order it right now from the library and read it w/ my daughter. : )

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    1. Ruth, I hope you and your daughter have a lovely experience with it! I find it so meaningful and sweet.

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  5. I never heard of this book but it sounds delightful ( especially since it is chock full of illustrations! ).

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    1. Metzingers, oh, it's such a delight! Do yourself a favor and find it.

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