by Eleanor Estes
First sentence: “Today, Monday, Wanda Petronski was not in her seat.”
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I read this gook first when I was eight. I don’t remember what my exact thoughts were, but it made enough of an impression on me that I’ve read it again several times over the years (and this is from a person who doesn’t often reread). That is partially, I think, because it takes about a half hour to read from start to finish now. But it’s also because it’s a story that packs a punch, even in its simplicity. Make that because of its simplicity.
The story (if you don’t already know it) is this: Wanda Petronski is poor, Polish, and a bit of an outcast in a WASPish town. The girls, especially the popular ones like Peggy, don’t pay her much attention, until one day when they’re admiring a beautiful dress on another girl. Wanda, for whatever reason, speaks up and says she has 100 dresses hanging in her closet. This incites much astonishment and incredulity on the part of the other girls, and Peggy begins teasing her. Maddie, Peggy’s best friend, is a bit uncomfortable with this — she’s not exactly well off herself — but does nothing. Then two things happen: first, Wanda’s father moves the family to the big city to get away from the small-town racisim. And second, Wanda wins the drawing-contest. With her 100 dresses.
Yes, it’s a simple story. The language is simple. The girls are simple, caricatures really. Peggy is a bully, but a human, believable one. She doesn’t do anything that I couldn’t see myself as doing, if I were in the same situation; it’s human nature to pick apart people’s stories. That doesn’t mean it’s good. And Maddie is the poor girl who has managed to make it with the in-crowd, staying silent because she knows her popularity (which is more important than sticking up for some Polish girl) is on the line. There’s no delving into their psyches, no trying to understand the why behind the girls’ actions; there’s just the fact that they make fun of Wanda, who takes it.
The thing that has bothered me for years, and bothered me again on this rereading, is the end. (Sorry for the spoilers. You’ve all read it already, right?) When, after the contest, the girls in the class are allowed to take Wanda’s drawings home and Maddie and Peggy discover that theirs are pictures of them. Then this: “What did I say!” said Peggy. “She must have really liked us anyway.” I’m not sure I understand what Estes was trying to get at. Why does Wanda do this? Did she think it would make the girls change their minds, help them act nicer to others? Does she actually really like them?
I don’t know if I’ll ever know. But I’ll still probably read this lovely, slim novel with the haunting watercolor illustrations over and over again.