The Hundred Dresses, A Little Book with a Long Impact by Lila Quintero Weaver
Certain children’s books reach us right where we live and hold us for a lifetime. The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, which was a Newbery Honor Book in 1945, was already a dusty classic when it stole my heart in the mid-1960s. Even so, it’s one book I can’t speak about dispassionately—not when it shines such a powerful beam into my past and present.
As most readers may recall, the story of The Hundred Dresses focuses on a social outcast named Wanda Petronski, a girl who wears the same faded dress day after day but announces that she has one hundred dresses at home. In response, a classmate named Peggy leads the other kids in a daily ritual of mockery aimed at Wanda. Eventually, it comes to light that those hundred dresses are actually drawings of dresses. But by the time the children realize their cruelty, the Petronski family has moved away.
To my eight-year-old self, Wanda Petronski presented a near-mirror. I, too, was a shy outsider skilled at drawing, with a name not many could pronounce. I was an immigrant kid in a small Southern town where precious few immigrants lived and no other Latinos besides my family. At a time when children’s book seldom featured Latino characters or children from other cultures, Wanda offered me a rare kinship.
And Wanda and I shared yet another connection, one that felt even more shameful to me. Her family was very poor. Mine, while not in the lowest bracket, was much less well-off than those of my middle-class friends. With a wardrobe consisting mostly of hand-me-downs and one pair of leather shoes meant to last me the entire school year, my choices felt sparse and humble.
The years passed. I grew up and forgot about the story until I had a daughter of my own. That’s when, reading The Hundred Dresses aloud to her, I discovered that the decades had brought a shift in my perspective. Although Wanda still haunted me and filled me with compassion, I now felt a surprising and discomfiting connection with Maddie, the narrator of the story and Peggy’s main sidekick. How had I looked past the fact that Maddie also wore hand-me-downs, which her mother took pain to disguise by sewing on new trimmings? Was it because, unlike me, Maddie was an insider—Peggy’s close friend, with no funny name to contend with? Or was there something deeper that made me reluctant to connect with her?
Identifying with Wanda meant seeing myself as blameless. Identifying with Maddie meant admitting to myself that I was complicit. In the face of Peggy’s meanness, all Maddie has to offer is a feeble, unspoken wish: “If only Peggy would decide of her own accord to stop having fun with Wanda.” As an adult, I recognized Maddie’s failure of conscience and, though I shrank form it, I knew that I, too, had acted as Maddie does, looking the other way when popular classmates mocked certain other children for their social awkwardness. My chief worry had been protecting my own fragile hold on acceptance.
Let’s face it. While the mirror that Maddie holds up is an uncomfortable one, I think that too many of us can identify with her and her wish that the Peggys of the world would decide of their own accord to be kind. But by recognizing ourselves in Maddie, I think that we have an opportunity to come of age and to make different choices, to decide deep in our bones that this will not happen. A bully will never change unless faced with fierce and unrelenting resistance. It’s up to us to square our shoulders and demand of Peggy: stop it.
Lila Quintero Weaver was born in Argentina but grew up in Alabama, where she still lives with her husband. She is the author-illustrator of Darkroom, a graphic memoir. My Year in the Middle is her first book for young readers.