Wanda Petronski is the quietest kid in Classroom 13. Her classmates pay attention to her only when they want to bully her — for her funny last name, her shabby clothes and, most of all, her absurd claim that she has “a hundred dresses” all lined up in her closet.
Little do they know that Wanda really does have 100 dresses: They’re just made out of pencil and paper rather than cloth, and she drew them all herself. Wanda’s drawings win the class art contest, but not before her father pulls her out of school. Her classmates feel terrible for having driven her away, and two of them — Maddie and Peggy — must try to find a way to make things right.
If you’re a kid, this story may sound a little familiar. Maybe you’ve been bullied or seen a classmate get bullied for the way he dresses or the way her name sounds. Maybe you are the person who does the bullying. Wanda and her classmates could be students at your school, or at any school today.
But these characters are actually as old as your grandparents. They come from the book “ The Hundred Dresses ” by Eleanor Estes, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this month.
Estes was inspired to write the story because of an incident from her own childhood: She had seen a girl in her class get bullied for being different, and, like Maddie, she regretted not standing up to the bullies.
“As my mother grew older, she just felt really badly about the way that little girl had been treated and isolated,” explained Estes’s daughter, Helena. “She thought, ‘Well, there’s only one thing I can do. . . . I can write a story.’ So she did.”
Seven decades later, “The Hundred Dresses” remains a popular book for kids. Since it was published in 1944, it has never been out of print — in fact, Mary Alice Garber, a children’s book specialist at the D.C. bookstore Politics & Prose, said that she sells a copy of the novel at least once a month.
“It’s a lovely book,” Garber said. “And unfortunately, bullying continues to exist, so it’s a topic that still resonates.”
The bestselling kids chapter book today, “Wonder” tells the story of a 10-year-old boy named Auggie who gets bullied because his face is deformed.
Stories are an especially good tool for encouraging kids not to bully, said “Wonder” author R.J. Palacio, because they promote empathy — the ability to understand or share someone else’s feelings.
“Most kids don’t understand that when they laugh at a mean joke or make someone feel left out, that’s bullying, because it’s hard to imagine what the person on the receiving end is feeling,” she said. “Stories are a great way for kids to give themselves some distance and think about the feelings of others.”
Instead of calling “Wonder” an anti-bullying book, Palacio considers it pro-kindness. The characters in the story struggle with things that upset them, but they all try to “choose kind,” in the words of Auggie’s teacher.
“Choosing kind sometimes means going out of your comfort zone. It takes some courage,” Palacio said. “But it’s always the right thing to do.”
These days, many schools are using “Wonder” and books like it to talk about bullying. Nona Ransom, a teacher at Brightwood Education Campus in the District, said stories provide a helpful jumping-off point for talking about bullying and set a good example of what to do when kids see bullying.
That’s what inspired Ransom to write her own anti-bullying book, “Beware! There’s a Bully in Room 203.” The teachers at Brightwood read Ransom’s book to their classes, and students say it has helped them understand how to deal with bullying in their own lives.
“I learned that you should not be a bully, because you’ll hurt people, and then they won’t want to be your friend,” said Joseph Dela Torre, a fourth-grader at Brightwood.
Fellow fourth-grader Hanah Ousman agreed. She added that other books written from the perspective of a bully have shown her why someone might choose to be a bully in the first place — and that helps her empathize with the bully and the victim.
“A lot of the time, it’s because they feel hurt about something, and they want to put that hurt on somebody else,” Hanah said.
If it seems like the word “empathy” is coming up a lot in this article, that’s because it’s so important.
Emily Bazelon, who spent more than three years researching bullying for her book “Sticks and Stones,” said that teaching kids empathy is one of the most important ways to deal with bullying. Not only does the ability to empathize make kids less likely to be bullies themselves, but it also inspires them to do small acts of kindness that make victims of bullying feel less alone.
“It’s the perfect antidote,” Bazelon explained.
Unlike “Wonder” and “The Hundred Dresses,” “Sticks and Stones” tells the stories of real people who were bullied, rather than fictional characters. But Bazelon believes that good stories — both true and make-believe — can help combat bullying and its effects.
After all, stories remind us of how many people share our experiences.
Brightwood fifth-grader Andrew Sanchez said his favorite series, “The Odd Squad” by Michael Fry, helped him feel better about being taller than almost everyone in his class, because it’s about a character who also looks different.
“When you read a story and it strikes true to you, that validates whatever is going on in your life,” Helena Estes said. “You can say, ‘Oh, wow, that person is just like me. I’m not alone.’ ”
More recommended reading about bullying.