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53 pages 1 hour read

Eleanor Estes

The Hundred Dresses

Fiction | Novella | Middle Grade | Published in 1944

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

The Hundred Dresses is a children’s book by Eleanor Estes that was originally published in 1944. It includes pen-and-ink illustrations by Louis Slobodkin. In 1945, it was awarded the Newbery Honor, and it continues to be a popular book in elementary schools. A 2004 survey of third-grade teachers found that the book was a popular choice for reading aloud in the classroom, and a 2007 survey by the National Education Association named it one of the Teachers’ Top 100 Books for Children.

This guide is based on the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt print edition.

Content Warning: Though not explicit, The Hundred Dresses does address bullying of a child partially based on her Polish identity.

Plot Summary

The Hundred Dresses is set in a small-town school in Connecticut. It is told from the perspective of Maddie, and focuses on a girl named Wanda Petronski, a Polish immigrant from a poor family. Peggy, the most popular girl in school, and her best friend Maddie wait outside in the morning for Wanda’s arrival. Peggy often teases Wanda. On this day, the girls are planning on taunting her again; however, Wanda does not show up for the third day in a row.

Wanda lives with her father and older brother. She has only one faded dress that barely fits, and this is what the girls tease her about the most. However, Wanda insists she has 100 dresses at home, even though the other girls laugh at her obvious lie. Maddie doesn’t want to tease Wanda but goes along with it because all of her friends do it. She is also poor but is lucky enough to be good friends with Peggy who gives her hand-me-down dresses and invites her to parties. Maddie is afraid that if she tells the other children to stop teasing Wanda, they will begin to tease her.

Thinking back to the first day Wanda talked about the 100 dresses, Maddie remembers that it was a bright sunny day. One of her classmates, Cecile, showed up in a new red dress that all the other girls admired. Wanda claimed to have a dress just like it at home, as well as many others, but said she only wore them for parties. The other girls laughed at her, and Maddie regrets not speaking up then, when the teasing started.

A drawing contest is announced at school. All the girls are asked to draw dresses, and the boys are asked to draw motor boats. The contest is an annual event that Peggy usually wins. Maddie begins to plan her dress and forgets about Wanda for the time being.

When Peggy and Maddie arrive at school on the day of the contest, they are amazed to see their classroom filled with drawings of beautiful dresses. There are 100 of them in total, and they were all submitted by Wanda before she mysteriously disappeared. She is the clear winner of the drawing contest. The girls walk around the room and look at the drawings, and Maddie recognizes some of the dresses that Wanda used to describe to them. Peggy admits that Wanda is a great artist.

A letter arrives from Wanda’s father, Jan. In it, he says that Wanda is leaving the school permanently; the family is being discriminated against for their Polish ethnicity and has decided to move to the city. Maddie feels awful and wants to apologize to Wanda. To her relief, Peggy agrees. However, by the time they get to Wanda’s home, she is already gone. The family has moved, and the girls can’t find anyone who knows where they have gone. Peggy is defensive about her actions, saying that she never meant to hurt Wanda, but Maddie feels guilty for failing to speak up when she knew Wanda was being teased.

Later, Peggy and Maddie write Wanda a letter to tell her that she won the contest. They never receive a response. Maddie assumes it is because Wanda is still mad at them. On Christmas, a letter finally comes. In it, Wanda writes that she wants her classmates to keep her drawings of dresses since she has already made 100 more. She even specifies which drawings should go to Peggy and Maddie.

Maddie takes her drawing home. Upon examining it more closely, she realizes that the girl wearing the dress looks like her. Excited, she compares notes with Peggy, who realizes Wanda also drew a picture of her. Maddie hopes that the drawings mean that Wanda forgives them for their cruelty; she vows to never be a bystander to bullying again.

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By Eleanor Estes