The Hundred Dresses, by Eleanor Estes, is just a slim book, eighty pages with illustrations and generous white space. It's quick and easy to read. But it is also hard to read, because it is about the careless bullying that privileged and secure children can dish out to kids who are poor, different, or outsiders.
Peggy is the well-off and popular girl. She is one of the de facto leaders of the girls in their classroom. Her best friend Maddie would say she was not a cruel person. She "protected small children from bullies and cried for hours if she saw an animal mistreated." But Peggy was the one who had started the game of making fun of Wanda Petronski.
Wanda was very poor, from the slum area of town, and had a strange last name and accent. Mostly the other children ignored her; even the teacher seemed to have not taken any interest in her progress. Until one fine day when Wanda made the mistake of joining the circle of girls as they admired a classmate's elegant new dress. For a moment, she seemed to feel like she fit in and was emboldened to say the words that would be the fuel for all the unkind teasing to come: "I got a hundred dresses home."
It instantly became a habit for Peggy to wait for Wanda at the start of each school day and "have her fun," asking Wanda to describe them and why she never wore any of her hundred dresses to school. The other girls would join in, but Maddie mostly listened, uncomfortable, but never sticking up for Wanda. Maddie was in a precarious position with her status. She understood that Peggy, in spite of being her best friend, could turn on her and make her suffer the same fate, since she did not have the security and standing of her friend.
The most poignant passages of the book deal with Maddie's inner dialog, as she struggles with wanting to stop Peggy's "game," and the fear of being ostracized herself, and with her pain as she realizes how hurt Wanda and her family were by their treatment.
There is a small light at the end of the book to ease her guilt, but no shining moment to make it all better. I looked up Eleanor Estes and discovered that she wrote the book to help her overcome some of her own guilt from being involved as a child in an episode like this. I think we all can look back at at least one example where we wish we had been more kind, or been stronger in protecting the weak from a bully. Perhaps this well-written and interesting story can be the book that helps children understand some forms that bullying takes and that sometimes, one can be just as complicit when standing by silently.
I bought this library discard at a thrift store for under a buck.