Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Hundred Dresses (Newbery)

There’s been a lot of attention recently given to the culture of “Mean Girls.” Mean Girls, Queen Bees and Wannabes…whatever you call them, the aggression and occasional cruelty of girls’ friendships and relationships has been the subject of several recent nonfiction books. However, as Eleanor Estes’s The Hundred Dresses, a 1945 Newbery Honor book, shows, mean girl culture is hardly a new thing.

Wanda Petronski is unlike the other girls in her class. While other girls have new dresses and shoes, Wanda wears the same faded blue dress every day to school. When Wanda tells the girls that she has a hundred dresses hanging in her closest, they all snicker at her, and thus begins their regular verbal bullying of Wanda. Wanda maintains her story, but it isn’t until she is no longer in the classroom that the students realize the truth behind her story.

A Hundred Dresses is often taught in early elementary grades as an example of the effects of prejudice and teasing. Although the story might seem old-fashioned to some readers, the taunts of the girls will ring true. Although Polish ethnicity is not something that is looked as being different anymore, children will be able to relate it to modern day situations.

I have some quibbles with the ending (everything seems to be easily forgiven), but I think that telling the story through one of the reluctant teasers is a brilliant choice. Maddie is not as enthusiastic in her teasing as are other girls, but she goes along with it because everyone else is doing it. Her feelings of guilt are wonderfully explored and very realistic. Despite whatever (minor) quibbles I have with the book, A Hundred Dresses is a terrific read and a great springboard for discussions about cliques, teasing, and prejudice.

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