I have been paying attention to National Public Radio’s book club for young readers called the Backseat Book Club. The title stems from the practice of reading in the backseat of cars, which was a habit of many young readers once upon a time. Last month, one of the February selections was Eleanor Estes’s 1944 classic The Hundred Dresses. The book centers on two girls named Peggy and Maddie who have been mean to their Polish immigrant classmate Wanda Petronski. They mocked Wanda because in addition to her “funny” name, she came to school everyday dressed in the same blue faded cotton dress. After Wanda offered one day that she had one hundred dresses in her closet, Peggy, the most popular girl in school eagerly pounced on what appeared to be a clear fabrication. Maddie was not so eager to taunt Wanda. In fact, she felt bad about the teasing but felt too vulnerable to stop it because she herself was poor and did not want to bring attention to this fact. After a school drawing contest, Wanda Petronski makes the winning submission of the one hundred dresses she had illustrated with all of the detail she described in the bully sessions with her classmates. Peggy and Maddie want to apologize but Wanda Petronski’s family moves before they actually get the chance.
One of the reasons why I like reading young people’s literature is because the stories tend to have as their focus very noble struggles, like how to have courage or on how to be kind or generous. The Hundred Dresses definitely has such a focus but there were things about the work that I found incredibly disturbing. A part of the work’s power comes from its ability to unflinchingly depict Peggy and Maddie’s ugliness towards Wanda, but ugliness is hard to look at. Oh, they are so mean to that child and there are no adults around to perceive it. This lack was one of the aspects of the story that I found so disturbing: Where are the adults who should be available to offer moral guidance to these children? Where are the adults who might serve as witnesses to this awful behavior? I found myself wondering whether or not they were absent because they, like Maddie, were afraid. At one point in the narrative when Maddie tries to negotiate her own fears about being exposed as poor, she describes how she wore her friend Peggy’s old clothes but that her mother disguised them with new trimmings so that no one would recognize the dresses as the same. Such a gesture shows an awareness of how cruel children can be, but more specifically, how cruel Peggy could be. Why wouldn’t Maddie’s mother caution her against a friendship with a girl she thought would tease her for wearing her old clothes? Why wouldn’t Peggy’s mother talk to her about having empathy and compassion for people who may not have as much as she has? I have a friend who keeps less fortunate children in her son’s mind by not only making him donate old toys before he can have new ones but by also making him select a new toy for a little boy whose parents may not be able to afford one at the same time that he selects one for himself.
I thought that an important aspect of my education as a child was being made aware of poverty. I remember collecting and saving money for poor children and being encouraged to consider their needs when I might have otherwise been wasteful. Adults were instrumental in this education. As I read The Hundred Dresses, I wondered where the adults went. Where were they as those children tormented Wanda? What are they so afraid of?
I also found Old Man Svenson’s role in The Hundred Dresses peculiar. He’s presented as an outcast who lives in the community where poor and marginal people like the Petronskis live. When Peggy and Maddie decide to go to Wanda’s house to apologize, they encounter this figure of legend in the flesh. Even at this juncture, Mr. Svenson remains ostensibly unattractive:
“Everything about Svenson was yellow; his house, his cat, his trousers, his drooping mustache and tangled hair, his hound loping behind him, and the long streams of tobacco juice he expertly shot from between his scattered yellow teeth.”
Once the girls are safely past him, they ask when the Petronskis moved and we’re told this:
“Old man Svenson turned around, but said nothing. Finally he did answer, but his words were unintelligible, and the two girls turned and ran down the hill as fast as they could. Old man Svenson looked after them for a moment and then went on up the hill, muttering to himself and scratching his head.”
What did he say? Why can’t we hear him? Why are the girls running? Why are they continuing to judge people in light of what they learned in the face of their judgements of Wanda? Isn’t a part of what they learned about Wanda is that you can’t know everything about who someone is based on how they look? So why does it matter that Mr. Svenson is so yellow?
Although I think we’re supposed to finish reading The Hundred Dresses believing that it ends happily, I’m not too sure that it actually does. The presentation of Mr. Svenson and the girls’ response to him suggests that they are still in need of moral guidance. Peggy and Maddie see themselves in Wanda’s drawings but they do not end the story discussing their fears and concerns with adults. Children are not better off being left to draw their own moral conclusions. It seems to me that they need guidance here and in this story, they don’t get any and this troubled me.