Posted by: jeannineatkins | April 16, 2008

The Haunted Writer and The Hundred Dresses

I grew up reading The Moffat family series by Eleanor Estes, but read her Newbery Honor (1944) The Hundred Dresses first as an adult. It’s a slim book that I’d recommend to Jama Rattigan who’s celebrating April with cups of tea: here’s a book you can actually read over a cup, so put aside James’s Portrait of a Lady! The Hundred Dresses has tender illustrations by Louis Slobodkin, a sculptor who started illustrating children’s books after marrying a children’s book author. He was also friends with Estes, who grew up in a big family in West Haven, CT, cared for by a widowed mother. Eleanor Estes worked in libraries until tuberculosis forced her to stay home. She found time then to write and launched her career.

Her one child wrote an introduction to the more recent editions of The Hundred Dresses. She claims her mother’s inspiration for the book about class, guilt, forgiveness, and what we’d now call mean girls came from her life. A girl was teased, then left town before Eleanor ever had a chance to speak up for her. The Hundred Dresses is told mostly from the point of view of Maddie, a girl who keeps quiet during teasing, feeling her own precarious position. If she speaks up, will the other girls note her clothes are hand-me-downs, too? We see the social hierarchies that get set up within a school: Maddie notes that she’s poor, but at least she has a mother and kids can pronounce her last name, unlike Wanda’s. She tries using silence to feel safe.

The Hundred Dresses ends with questions. We’re not sure whether Wanda forgives or of the extent of the guilt of those who hurt her. Some students wished for a clearer declaration of right and wrong for readers to take away. Others argued that ambiguity is the lesson. How often do we wonder what became of others who may have been hurt by our words or silences? How often may our own unresolved guilt change us more than a lesson spelled out or a punishment from outside? And one student noted that the book says that seeking forgiveness is never too late. Isn’t that what the author did?

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Responses

  1. Hundred Dresses
    Good morning, Jeannine. Thanks for mentioning one of my favorite books. I’ll pass on a story about it: my daughter is involved in community theater (she’s 11). Several months ago, we had Lisa, one of the director/teachers of this children’s theater, over for dinner. I introduced Lisa to THE HUNDRED DRESSES, and she took it home, read it, and loved it. She now uses it in her school workshops for kids on bullying, bystanders, and social pressures… the kids dramatize the story and discuss. It’s amazing to see how much life and relevance this powerful little book still has!

  2. I’m also an Eleanor Estes fan! Haven’t read The Hundred Dresses in awhile — and of course hearing you talk about it, I simply must.
    Sounds like your class had a very interesting discussion. I never considered the impact of unresolved guilt in this story. Hmmm . . . thanks for the heads up!

  3. Re: Hundred Dresses
    I’m glad you love this book, too, and thanks for sharing that story, which I’ll pass on to my students. They asked if it had been ever made into a film, which it hasn’t to my knowledge or thankfully not forced into an afternoon tv special. But this kind of theater seems just right, with its open invitation and getting-inside-you-and-lingering message.

  4. Yes, and I have to go back and reread the Moffats! Hoping they hold up as well as this does….

  5. Re: Hundred Dresses
    What do you teach, Jeannine?

  6. Re: Hundred Dresses
    I’m very lucky to be able to teach children’s literature at Umass-Amherst this semester. If you click on teaching children’s literature on my LJ links you can read more about a few of the other books we’ve read.

  7. Re: Hundred Dresses
    Your class sounds wonderful, Jeannnine. Do you teach every semester, and do you ever have visitors come and sit in?

  8. Re: Hundred Dresses
    Hi, Mary, visitors are welcome, but, sadly, budget concerns mean I teach this only once every year or two. Thanks for asking!

  9. Louis Slobodkin
    Greetings,
    I enjoyed reading your review of The Hundred Dresses and various comments here. It’s wonderful that this book is still being taught and discussed in school. I also want to alert you and your readers to my Louis Slobodkin website, which is at: http://www.slobodkin.org.
    Carol Reid

  10. Re: Louis Slobodkin
    Carol, thank you so much! I loved following the link — it was like opening to the double page spread of all those dresses. Most of my students feel One Hundred Dresses would be so much less powerful without the art,and I agree. Thank youQ


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