The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes

  • Title: The Hundred Dresses
  • Author: Eleanor Estes
  • Illustrator: Louis Slobodkin
  • Publisher: Harcourt Brace
  • Year Published: 1944
  • ISBN: 0152051708
  • List Price: $16.99
  • Page Count: 96
  • Age Range: 6-10
  • Genre: fiction
  • Award(s): Newbery Honor Book

Author information: Eleanor Estes (1906-1988) wrote many books for children, including three Newbery Honor books and one Newbery Winner, Ginger Pye. She became a children’s librarian and later began writing books based on her life growing up in a small town. The Hundred Dresses was loosely based on her life, with her identifying with the Maddie character who watched a girl be bullied and did nothing to stop the bullying. In writing this book, Estes hoped to encourage others to stand up to bullies in a way she did not. Unfortunately, due to the age of this title and the death of the author more than 25 years ago, it was not possible to find any interviews or comments in Estes’ own words.

Reviews: Because of the age of the title, it was not possible to find contemporary reviews of this book. However, there are many modern discussions of this book, most of which are favorable. The National Education Association named this book #84 on a list of Teacher’s Top 100 Books for Children, and NPR chose it in 2012 as one of its monthly book picks, saying that it was a classic and had a great moral about accepting others and being kind. This book also has four stars on Goodreads with over 14,000 votes.

Readers annotation: Wanda tells her classmates that she has 100 dresses at home, even though she wears the same one every day. When they discover what she meant by this statement, they learn a valuable lesson about being kind to others.

Summary: Wanda is a poor Polish girl who wears the same dress to school every day. Peggy, a girl at her school, teases her every day because once she said that she had one hundred dresses in her closet at home. Every morning, Peggy waits for Wanda on the way to school and asks her mocking questions about her dresses to make the other girls laugh, and Maddie, Peggy’s friend, says nothing even though she thinks it is wrong to make fun of her. One day, there’s an art competition, and all of the students show up to class to find one hundred drawings of dresses around the classroom, and Wanda is announced as the winner of the competition. Unfortunately, Wanda’s family decided to move due to the harassment each family member was facing in the community, and Maddie and Peggy feel guily for treating her so poorly. They write her a letter apologizing and letting her know she won the competition, and the book concludes with Wanda writing her old teacher to let everyone know she’s happy with her new life and bequeathing unto them her beautiful dress drawings.

Evaluation: The strength of this novel lies in the tenderness with which each of the characters is portrayed. Wanda is shown as a lonely girl who doesn’t have any friends because she is “different”, Maddie is shown as conflicted about how she treats Wanda but she’s too afraid of what other girls would think of her to say anything, and even Peggy, the leader of the bullies, is shown to feel regret when she realizes what she’s done, and her motivations for bullying seem to stem more from her insecurities and confusion than a true desire to hurt someone else. All of these girls are relatable and honest portrayals of how young children act, and Estes does a phenomenal job showing how girls can be unintentially cruel to one another. The moral at the end of the book highlights the fact that when you act poorly, you don’t always have the opportunity to make things right, which is a valuable lesson that will resonate with most readers. The soft illustrations of the book match its tone and reinforce the ideas and morals presented in the text without becoming overwhelming or distracting.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 4/5  This book examines the relationships between young girls and the effect that bullying can have both on the victim and the bullies. The writing is tender and the artwork complements the tone of the work. The moral at the end of the story is hearwarming and will stick with readers.
  • Popularity4/5  Bullying is still a relevant subject for today’s youth, and this book explores this subject with tenderness and heart. Readers will sympathize with Wanda and relate with Maddie’s decision to cave to peer pressure and remain silent.
  • Appeal factors: friendship, bullying, happy ending.

Read-alikes: 

  1. For readers who enjoyed the bullying aspect of this book, Each Kindness by Jacquelin Woodson would be a good fit. It also deals with the issue of young girls being mean to a girl who is different, and once that girl stops coming to school, the others feel remorse for treating her poorly. This is a more contemporary (2012) look at the same dynamic that Estes explored seventy five years ago.

Book talk ideas: Start by talking about bullying and asking for some examples of bullying that the kids have seen or experienced. Ask if they think bullying is still a problem, and if so why, and ask if it’s just as bad to stay quiet when you see bullying as doing the actual bullying. Say that the premise of this book is a poor Polish girl who is bullied by the other girls at school. Without giving away the reveal, say that she is teased because she claims to have one hundred dresses in her closet at home and that when the girls finally understand what she meant by this statement, they realize how poorly they’ve treated her and regret their actions.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Do you agree that Maddie’s silence was just as damaging as Peggy’s mocking comments? How? If not, why?
  2. Is bullying still a problem? How has it changed since what Wanda dealt with in the story?
  3. What did you think about the ending? What do you think happens to each of the characters when the book is over?

Reason for reading: I read this book because I loved Eleanor Estes as a child and have never read this book. I saw it on a few lists for Newbery award books and her name stuck out as me, as well as the slightly mysterious synopsis on the back of the book. I had expected there to be a different twist based on the synopsis, such as her having so many dresses because her mother had died or because her family used to have money and no longer did, but I enjoyed where Estes went with the premise and found it poignant and still relevant to today’s readers.

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