Posted by: jeannineatkins | November 10, 2008

One Hundred Dresses (and What are Those Girls Wearing in their Hair?)

My children’s literature class discussed One Hundred Dresses, a chapter book by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Louis Slobodkin, who I learned was an elevator operator before making his name as an artist, and sometimes let the door get stuck between floors to get in some reading time.

I liked this book when I read it along with my daughter when she was eight, and I liked it rereading it for class. But some of my students made me give it a sharper look. When I asked if anyone would want to change the end, two hands shot up. Fast. The mean girls, they felt, were let off the hook too easily. Reesha was most articulate about the lack of justice, and how the short novel trivialized forgiveness and dismissed the complications and wonder of real friendship. There should have been confrontation. At the very least, Fran said, Peggy should have heard someone say: I don’t like you.

Althea brought out the way Wanda, the girl who’s teased, is written about only in the past tense, as a figment of memory, and thus becomes a shadow character: is that itself a putdown? We discussed morals and peer pressure and how they enter books for young readers. I mentioned an observation from my daughter’s first grade teacher years ago, who studied the dynamics of popularity among girls and concluded that a lot came down to what they wore in their hair. She could observe the tops of heads and often figure out who was bent on coming out on top. This statement seemed to strike a chord. Many memories of barrettes and hair ties and bands came flooding out into this female dominated room.

This might be a good writing exercise: memories of pony tail holders and butterfly clips, hierarchy and power and envy. Go for it, if you want! What did you want to wear in your hair when you were six or eight?


  1. And the book with the ending exactly the way it is right now kicked off this amazing conversation!!
    Maybe a writing group exercise for this book would look like… write your next story without the yummy satisfied ending.
    Great post!

  2. Thanks. We’ll be reading the Secret Garden next and I’m sure there will be some outcries with that ending; I’m going to be asking them to map out the structure and feel free to change the final pages.

  3. What an interesting idea: social hierarchy via hair accessories. I’m going to have to think about that one. Wow.
    (I never read ONE HUNDRED DRESSES but I appreciated the comments re the mean girls. I’m so glad your students felt the need for consequences)

  4. It has, literarlly, been decades–maybe even a quarter century, since I read this book. I love the comments from your students. I think it reflects on how differently things WERE done in schools way back then and how they’re done now.
    At six or eight, I wanted a page boy. Was NOT going to happen! 🙂

  5. The author, Estes, based the book on a memory that still hurt; these things don’t just slide. And yes, glad to learn from students who love justice.

  6. Gosh, page boys.
    So much is the same — the mean girls, the followers, the outcasts, but some things do change and all in all, I think, I hope, somewhat for the better.
    It is interesting reading Bridge to Terabithia which we’ll discuss tonight. It’s a great book, but re abuse at homes, for the “villain;” schools would handle that totally differently now (then the code of silence, which makes my skin crawl to know used to happen).

  7. Wow, I haven’t thought of 100 Dresses in a long time. I loved that book.

  8. Yes, I love seeing the growth in consciousness — and Slobodokin’s gallery of dresses!

  9. Jeannine: I read that book 100 times and now it is upsetting me I can’t remember the ending. (Were the pictures hanging in a room? On laundry lines? I can’t reeeememmmber. Oh no.)
    I have the book in the house but packed away in a box from the recent move. I wish I could look at it right now.
    Where are you teaching and how old are your students?
    I wore pigtails or a pony tail every day. (My mom would do my hair in the morning. She would ask me: “One or two?” and my decision would be my hair-do for the day. After she fastened my hair in the rubber bands with big shiny balls, she tied big thick ribbons around the rubber bands. What a look!) It took years for my hair to calm down after I stopped wearing it gathered into a tail. {}

  10. I like starting the day as you describe with a decision — one or two. I remember those elastics with shiny balls! They did seem so much cooler than plain old rubber bands my mom used before.
    I’m having fun teaching at Mount Holyoke College!

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