Last week I borrowed The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes from the library and read it that afternoon cover to cover. It is just a short little book – short but powerful. It tells the story of a girl who is teased by her classmates because she wears the same dress to school every day, but claims that she has one hundred dresses in her wardrobe at home. She eventually leaves the school, and her classmate feels terrible for the way she treated her.
I had seen this book at work, and had assumed that it was a recent release due to the bright, bold illustrations on the cover. I had never really thought more about it, thinking it was a fluffy girly story. However, since it is on the list of 1001 Children’s Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up, I decided to read it. I discovered that it was actually written in 1944, and is definitely not a fluffy girly story. It is about something all children go through – the feeling of being outside, the feeling of being alone, the pressure of fitting in, the fear of standing up to someone, of defending someone in case bullies turn on you. But it isn’t written in a preachy way. I think this is because Eleanor Estes based the story on her own experiences – when she was at school there was a girl who had an unpronounceable foreign name, and she wore the same dress to school everyday, and she was teased about it. Then she moved away, and Eleanor Estes felt terrible about it because she could never apologise for the things that she and her classmates had said.
Sometimes the best stories come out of a very real place. By writing a story that essentially happened, the author is able to capture a certain quality of realness that some stories are not able to grab because they aren’t real. People are always saying ‘write what you know’. I think this might be why. Despite being written in 1944, the story doesn’t reads as old-fashioned, apart from some minor details. It could easily be set in 2012. There are always children who feel different, who don’t fit in, or who get swept up with the behaviour of their classmates, and wish afterwards they had behaved differently (there are plenty of adults who feel this way too, I’m sure!). This is why, I believe, children still write to Eleanor Estes’ daughter, telling her that they loved her mother’s book, as she tells us in the introduction to the book.
Stories stick around for a reason. When they come from something real, they strike a chord with us, a chord that chimes the same no matter how long ago the story was first written. This is why books become classics – because although the world around us changes, people stay the same. Capture the essence of someone, and that character can last forever.