The Hundred Dresses by Eleonor Estes
Illustrated by Louis Slobodkin
A literature written specifically for children did not begin to evolve until the 18th century, prior to which children used the Bible for their first primer. Most early children’s books were moralistic tracts written with the goal of instructing values and manners. Towards the end of the 20th century, a different instructional motivation in children’s books took hold in the multicultural social realism movement, with stories purposely written to promote tolerance or create an understanding of adoption, divorce, death, alcoholism, same sex parents, or the trauma of displacement caused by the arrival of a new baby. All books inform, but those written with the goal of instruction may serve an immediate need but rarely enter the pantheon.
An exception is The Hundred Dresses, still as moving and powerful today as when it was written by Eleonor Estes in 1944. Wanda Petronski is a motherless child who is tormented by her classmates because of her poverty, her Polish immigrant roots, and her fanciful claim of having 100 beautiful dresses in her closet. The story is told from the point of view of Maddie, secretly compassionate but lacking in courage, fearful that she herself may be ostracized if she remonstrates with her best friend, the popular Peggy. After Wanda’s family moves from the town, driven away by prejudice and teasing, her tormentors discover that the 100 dresses are beautifully painted designs that reflect an extraordinary talent.
Eleanor Estes presents a sensitive and unshirking portrayal of childhood cruelty. The book is subtly nuanced: through a final gift of generosity, Wanda offers forgiveness to Peggy and Maddie. Yet Maddie never apologizes, despite her professed intentions, and thus there is no comforting resolution for her, no absolution of her shame. She remains haunted by the painful image of Wanda standing alone in a sunny spot by the wall in the school yard, ostracized by the laughing circle of girls.
There is something about Louis Slobodkin’s soft shaded lines, featureless faces, and white space that captures the terrible loneliness of a friendless child. The son of Ukrainian immigrants, Slobodkin was largely a sculptor until a chance vacation encounter with Eleanor Estes resulted in his trying his hand at book illustration. He collaborated with Estes on six of her books, including the Moffats trilogy with which she launched her highly successful writing career.