Arts and Leisure

Eleanor Estes Assuages Her Childhood Guilt

When Eleanor Estes was growing up in West Haven, Conn., her classmates mocked a Polish girl who wore the same hand-me-down dress every day. The girl claimed she had a hundred dresses at home. That just made the bullying worse.

Eleanor Estes

Eleanor Estes

Eleanor Estes always felt guilty she hadn’t defended the girl. Years later, she would do something about it.

Eleanor Estes was born Eleanor Ruth Rosenfeld on May 9, 1906, to Louis Rosenfeld, a bookkeeper, and Caroline Gewecke Rosenfeld, a seamstress. Her father died when she was young, and her mother’s dressmaking supported the family. After graduating from high school, Eleanor became a children’s librarian at the New Haven Free Library.

In 1931, she attended the Pratt Institute library school in New York City on a scholarship. There she met her husband, Rice Estes. They both worked as librarians, and he became a professor of library science.

In 1941, Eleanor Estes was confined to bed with tuberculosis. She began writing children’s books about the Moffatt family, based on her own family. The fictional town of Cranbury was based on West Haven.

In 1944 she wrote The Hundred Dresses to atone for her silence when her classmate was bullied. “As an adult, once she had become a writer, she figured that the only thing she could do was to write her story,” her daughter Helena, also a children’s librarian, said in an interview with NPR.

Eleanor Estes The_Hundred_DressesThe story is about a girl named Wanda Petronski, a Polish-American who is mocked for her funny last name and her worn blue dress. When Wanda claimed to own 100 dresses, her classmates cornered her every day and demanded she describe them. Wanda’s father took her out of the school because of the bullying. Wanda had entered the classroom drawing contest with 100 beautifully drawn dresses. She won, and her remorseful classmates sent her a letter of apology.

The book has never been out of print. In 2007 it was named one of the top 100 books for children by the National Education Association.

Eleanor Estes wrote 19 children’s books, considered classics, and taught at the University of New Hampshire Writer’s Conference. She died July 15, 1988 in Hamden, Conn.

You can buy The Hundred Dresses in the New England Historical Society’s online store here. Photo of “Eleanor Estes” via Wikipedia

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