Friday, August 13, 2010

Why Does a Tomboy Relate to THE HUNDRED DRESSES?

A few weeks ago Veronica Roth said that she was planning to blog about favorite childhood books and invited others to blog with her. While I’ve thought about, discussed, and made notes about books since I last posted here, I (quite obviously) haven’t refined any of my thoughts enough to post them. Happily, her suggestion nudged me in just the right way and I raised my hand to say I’d re-read something, too. There was no backing down, I’d made a commitment on a public forum. Veronica coined the word ‘accountabilibuddies’ for those of us who agreed to post about a favorite childhood book today. Thanks for the nudge, acountabilibuddy!

I’m certain that I first read THE HUNDRED DRESSES in the months before I turned eight and moved for the 9th time. (Yes, nine moves in eight years. That can happen when you’re a military brat.) Though I don’t remember my first read, I have memories of seeing the book in at least two libraries, and reading it in two bedrooms. If those memories are accurate, it helped me get through leaving Churchland Academy in Virginia and starting Peterson Elementary in Alaska.

In brief, Eleanor Estes’s Newbery-honor book (published in 1944) is about the teasing a girl from a poor, immigrant family endures from her schoolmates. Despite the fact she wears the same faded blue dress to school every day, Wanda Petronski claims to have one hundred dresses lined up in her closet. No one believes her, but no one offers her friendship or seeks out the truth about her statement. Only after her family abruptly moves (due to discrimination) do her classmates find out that Wanda is a skilled artist who had drawn a hundred dresses. While her main tormentors, Maddie and Peggy, feel guilty enough to send Wanda a letter, they never apologize. Wanda, however, is gracious enough to gift two of the drawings to the girls whose final response is, “She must have really liked us anyway.”

Why would this story with its heavy-handed moral of acceptance, understanding, and forgiveness join the literary landscape of my childhood? How could this quiet, outdated story have such resonance? And why would tomboy Heather read and re-read a book about dresses?

If I encountered THE HUNDRED DRESSES for the first time today, I would argue that my elementary-school self would not have liked it. It’s didactic. It’s underdeveloped. It’s clearly a girl book. A story about mean girls and dresses? No thanks.

And I’d be wrong. This book was a touchpoint in my childhood. I didn’t need more information about Wanda or her life at home. I filled in those blanks myself because I already kind of knew her.

I connected to the story because the quiet girl in the faded blue dress was familiar. I had learned that misspeaking could haunt you on the playground. I knew what it was to be the weird kid nobody really spoke to. I understood that if you might be moving again anyway, there didn’t seem to be a point to making friends. I had been uncertain of my place in the landscape of the school and neighborhood. I definitely didn’t understand the clique of girls who had the luxury of life-long friendship, but I knew all about being on the outskirts, uncertain about whether those girls were teasing or genuinely offering friendship.

I wasn’t Wanda, but I understood her well. And I still do.