The Hundred Dresses
by Eleanor Estes (1944) is a great book to inspire discussions about the nature of friendship, the ethics of being a bystander, and questions about what moral duties we owe to others. I have used this book with students from ages 8-18, usually taking three or four classes to read it together and talk about it.
The story is about a young girl named Wanda Petronski, a Polish immigrant living in a small town with her father and brother. She wears the same dress to school every day. One day she tells a group of students, who have been admiring another girl’s new dress, that she has a hundred dresses at home. This is the beginning of the “hundred dresses game,” in which every day a group of girls asks Wanda how many dresses (and hats and shoes) she has, and the girls laugh at her answers. The story is told from the perspective of Maddie, one of the girls in the teasing group, who has qualms about what is going on but never says anything. The story is a moving depiction of the conflicting feelings faced by someone who is participating in or witnessing something that they sense is morally problematic, but who do not want to risk their own friendships and reputations by speaking up.
These are some of the questions I have used to facilitate discussions about The Hundred Dresses:
• Why do you think that Wanda didn’t have any friends?
• Why do you think that Wanda said that she had a hundred dresses in her closet? Was she lying?
• Was the “hundred dresses game” a cruel way to treat Wanda?
• Why was how they were treating Wanda bothering Maddie?
• Why was Maddie afraid to speak to Peggy about her feelings about making fun of Wanda? (pp.34-35)
• Maddie thinks to herself that standing by silently while Peggy teased Wanda was worse than Peggy’s teasing. She thinks she was a coward because she had known that teasing Wanda was wrong and had not done anything to stop it. Was she a coward? Why didn’t she do anything? (pp. 48-49)
• How do you think Peggy and Maddie felt when they saw Wanda’s drawings?
• Why did Wanda move away?
• Are Peggy and Maddie friends? What is a friend?
• Maddie says that nothing will ever seem good to her again because she’d always know that she made Wanda move away. (p. 61) Do you think she is right?
• Peggy says that teasing Wanda about the hundred dresses probably gave her good ideas for her drawings, and maybe she wouldn’t have won the drawing contest otherwise. Do you think that this makes sense? (p. 62)
• Maddie decides that she is never going to stand by and say nothing again. (p. 63) Do you think that this is a good rule? Do most people “stand by and say nothing?” Why or why not?
• When Maddie and Peggy receive the drawings Wanda made, Peggy concludes that Wanda really liked them and that everything was all right. Maddie isn’t so sure about that. (p. 76) What do you think? Why was Maddie still sad?
• Was writing a letter to Wanda the right thing to do? What would be better: to write a friendly letter to Wanda, as Maddie and Peggy did, or to write a real apology letter? Why?