Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Theological Themes in Children's Literature: The Hundred Dresses

I read Eleanor Estes' book The Hundred Dresses for the first time just a couple of years ago.  I had read all of the Moffat books as a young girl and saw this one in the bookstore one day, attracted by the lovely cover art by Louis Slobodkin.  I took the book into the bookstore's cafe, read it in about thirty minutes, and then bought the copy.

The story is about a little girl named Wanda Petronski.  She wears the same faded blue dress to school every day, but she cleans that she has a hundred beautiful dresses at home -- all lined up in the closet.   Of course the other students don't believe her, and even make fun of her.  Wanda Petronski doesn't have any friends.  She lives with her father and her brother in a part of town that the other students are afraid to go.

The Hundred Dresses is about Wanda, but it is also about two little girls:  Maddie and Peggy.  Maddie and Peggy are best friends.  Peggy is one who teases Wanda about her hundred dresses.  Maddie does not join in but feels guilty because she doesn't stand up for Wanda.  In part, she is afraid because she is poor, too.  She wears hand-me-down clothes, and she fears that if she says anything, Peggy will begin to tease her as well.

The story is told from Maddie's point of view, and, at least in part, backwards, beginning from the day that Maddie and Peggy first notice that Wanda has not been coming to school.   There is something gentle and truthful and simple about the way the story unfolds, the expected cruelties and the unexpected kindness.

In the end we find out that Wanda is not just a poor girl with one faded blue dress.  There is more to her than meets the eye, and in the course of the small book her truth worth is revealed.

Maddie struggles with knowing what is right and not doing it, with not standing up for Wanda, and later with feeling that she will not have the opportunity to make it right between herself and Wanda, never be able to do something good to make up for her misdeeds, never be able to say she's sorry, because Wanda has moved away and she will never be reconciled.  But as it turns out, it is Wanda who makes it right -- in a small, poignant act of grace.

The mystery of each person, the repentant heart, and the free gift of grace -- all these themes are effortlessly present in Eleanor Estes' graceful story.


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