Died July 15th, 1988 in Hamden, Connecticut
Eleanor Estes wrote eighteen children's books of which four received a Newberry Medal or Newberry Honor and 2/3rds of which are still in print more than sixty years later. Her stories are so firmly rooted in the timeless perspective of a child that they have aged hardly at all.
Born Eleanor Ruth Rosenfield, May 9th, 1906 in West Haven, Connecticut, Estes childhood was thoroughly grounded in an earlier, more rural, simpler time. Estes described growing up in West Haven in her autobiographical entry in The Junior Book of Authors:
The town of West Haven, Connecticut, where I was born, is in a hollow with hills behind it, the New Haven harbor and Long Island Sound lapping against two sides, and a small river meandering along its eastern margin. It was a perfect town to grow up in. It had everything a child could want, great vacant fields with daisies and buttercups, an occasional peaceful cow, and even a team of oxen with whose help cellars for new houses were dug.
There were marvelous trees to climb, woods where there were brooks, and springs, and wild flowers growing. There were swimming and building in the sand and fishing and clamming in the summertime, and ice and snow and sliding down hill in the wintertime, with rowboat exploration of the small river for eels and killies in the betweentime.
Despite the idyllic setting, Estes' childhood was not an easy one. One of four children, her father, a railroad accountant, passed away when she was thirteen years old leaving her mother, a dressmaker, to raise the family. The theme of straightened circumstances and everyone pitching in together, which shows up in many of her books, was a recounting of her own experiences.
Upon graduating high school in 1923, Estes joined the New Haven Library in the children's section and worked up the ranks there till becoming the Children's Section librarian in 1929. In 1931 Estes received a scholarship at the Pratt Institute Library School for a year of study. It was there that she met a fellow student Rice Estes, a South Carolinian and career librarian as well. Upon completing her studies, Eleanor Estes joined the New York Public Library where she stayed until resigning in 1940 to pursue writing full-time. In December, 1932 she married Rice Estes.
The Estes lived in the New York area until 1948, when her husband's career took them to southern California for four years. It was in California that her only child, daughter Helena, was born in 1948. They returned to the East Coast in 1952 and lived in Manhattan, Connecticut and Washington, D.C. as Rice Estes' career dictated, but always gravitating back to Connecticut where they ultimately settled.
All of Estes books are worth reading but she is noted for three key sets of stories; The Moffats series (The Moffats, The Middle Moffat, Rufus M., and very belatedly in her writing career, The Moffat Museum), the Pye series (Ginger Pye and Pinky Pye) and a stand-alone morality tale, The Hundred Dresses. The Middle Moffat, Rufus M., and The Hundred Dresses each won a Newberry Honor award and Estes received the Newberry Medal for Ginger Pye.
The Moffats series is based on a family of four in the fictional town of Cranberry, Connecticut (based on West Haven) in the 1910's. The series has the easy small town feel of Robert McCloskey's Centerburg Tales, the child centricity of The Railway Children, and an antic situational humor all its own. Each book is a series of adventures, chapter by chapter, each reasonably self-contained and without significant sustained plot development over the course of the book. This makes the series ideal bedtime or naptime reading, your child going off to sleep with a smile on their face.
Ginger Pye and Pinky Pye are similarly family centric, but in this series, the action revolves around the family's two pets, in the first instance the dog, Ginger, and in the second, the cat, Pinky. Estes based these stories on actual events with her own childhood pets.
The Hundred Dresses is a really intriguing story that continues to fascinate children (and adults) today. The core story is told primarily from the perspective of Maddie about an outsider, Wanda Petronski who is teased to the point of leaving school. The Hundred Dresses is a descendant of the morality plays and leaves both children and adults thinking deep thoughts and reflecting on their own behavior. And when I say a morality play, I mean that in the old sense of the term and as a compliment. It is a story that first entertains, and then, only indirectly, instructs. Today we have an avalanche of books that are intended to instruct but end up being a beat-you-over-the-head message book with hardly any entertainment. Lots are written, many are purchased, and most sit unsullied on the shelves. You can't help feeling, having read one of these stilted and dreadfully preachy tomes, that you are the victim of authorial moral posturing with little to redeem the book at all.
Such is not the case with Estes' The Hundred Dresses. Here you have a tale that gently leads children to reflect on how their actions impact others, consider how insidious unconscious prejudice can be and think about the magnanimity of the human spirit.
Wanda Petronski is a Polish immigrant living in the wrong part of town, speaking a slightly fractured form of English, wearing the same dress to school everyday and wanting to be liked by others, but not knowing how to fit in. Peggy is "the most popular girl in the school" and is wealthy and pretty. One day when, all the girls are admiring a friend's new dress, Wanda, trying to be part of the action, exclaims that she has one hundred dresses at home in her closet. This is her downfall. Led by Peggy, all the girls begin a sustained running joke at Wanda's expense about the hundred dresses at home.
Estes shows her mettle as an author by making it clear that Peggy is not a "bad" person per se. The game Peggy develops that so tortures Wanda, is, to her mind, really just a game. 'Peggy was not really cruel. She protected small children from bullies. And she cried for hours if she saw an animal mistreated. If anybody had said to her, "Don't you think that is a cruel way to treat Wanda?" she would have been very surprised.'
This subtlety is in contrast to so many of the message books today where the author is very explicit, Person/Group X - Good, Person/Group Y - Bad: X - Victim, Y - Oppressor. Estes takes away the easy, and therefore, not real world of binary morality and instead develops a real world with which children and adults can engage. Actions and decisions are not necessarily clear or considered, things happen that we don't intend to happen, there are consequences we don't anticipate, there are wrongs we can't right. Sometimes all we can do is learn and go forward.
The tension in the tale arises from Maddie, Peggy's good friend. Maddie is not well off either, but better positioned than Wanda. Maddie is delighted to be Peggy's friend, but she is distressed to see how Peggy is treating Wanda. Distressed as she is, Maddie can't bring herself to criticize Peggy's actions for fear that she will jeopardize her own social standing and possibly even become the target of the teasing. Maddie realizes that she is, perhaps, in the worst position of all: she realizes something bad is happening but does nothing about it. Not only is her (in)action bad but the motivation for inaction is worse. She does nothing for fear of jeopardizing her standing. Her own considered judgment of her behavior is that "She had stood by silently, and that was just as bad as what Peggy had done. Worse. She was a coward."
One of the marvelous things about The Hundred Dresses is how complimentary Louis Slobodkin's illustrations are to Estes' text. Early in the story, there is a powerful demonstration of this. Estes' writes "And the girls laughed derisively, while Wanda moved over to the sunny place by the ivy-covered brick wall of the school building where she usually stood and waited for the bell to ring." On that page is a suffused picture in black ink and pink wash of a little girl in just such a position who is the very picture of wrenching isolation and loneliness. For children, whose senses are so much less calloused than those of adults, those words with that picture can be extremely moving, picture and text amplifying each other.
Wanda moves away, but her parting gift to the class of tormentors is the collection of one hundred pictures of dresses that she had drawn, with two in particular marked out for Peggy and Maddie. There is more to it than that, but this is a story of remarkable layers, meaningful and moving at each layer. Bullying, mean-girl behavior, prejudice - this is a story that makes children consider the consequences of their behavior but without all the posturing, moralizing and victimhood that so often abound.
Estes' writing style is noted for being very strong on character and description but rather inattentive to plot development. This is not entirely a bad thing. Her well rendered characters grip the imagination of children as do the wonderful descriptions of things and events. The fact that the plots are not overly complex and developed, make it much easier to follow along in a read-aloud bed-time story. Estes demonstrated through all her books an uncharacteristically strong ability to adopt the perspective and world view of a child and this is the source of much of their humor as the children clear-sightedly and with unerring logic grasp the wrong end of the situational stick every time. The Moffat and Pye books are great books for making children laugh, at the protagonists and themselves as they see the children doing that which they themselves have so often done before with inauspicious outcomes. These stories create a model for tight and supportive families and children being children and are always told in a fashion such that there is a positive resolution without any saccharine.
Eleanor Estes passed away in her home state of Connecticut, July 15th, 1988.
The Moffats by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Louis Slobodkin Highly Recommended
The Middle Moffat by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Louis Slobodkin Highly Recommended
Rufus M. by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Louis Slobodkin Highly Recommended
The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Louis Slobodkin Highly Recommended
Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Eleanor Estes Highly Recommended
Pinky Pye by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Edward Ardizzone Highly Recommended
The Witch Family by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Edward Ardizzone Suggested
The Alley by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Edward Ardizzone Suggested
Miranda The Great by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Edward Ardizzone Suggested
The Tunnel of Hugsy Goode by Eleanor Estes and illustratde by Edward Ardizzone Suggested
The Moffat Museum by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Louis Slobodkin Suggested
The Curious Adventures Of Jimmy Mcgee by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by John O'Brien Suggested
The Moffats by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Louis Slobodkin 1941
The Middle Moffat by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Louis Slobodkin 1942
Rufus M. by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Louis Slobodkin 1943
The Sun and the Wind and Mr. Todd by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Louis Slobodkin 1943
The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Louis Slobodkin 1944
The Echoing Green by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by NA 1947
The Sleeping Giant and Other Stories by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Eleanor Estes 1948
Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Eleanor Estes 1951
A Little Oven by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Eleanor Estes 1955
Pinky Pye by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Edward Ardizzone 1958
The Witch Family by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Edward Ardizzone 1960
Small but Wiry by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Louis Slobodkin 1963
The Alley by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Edward Ardizzone 1964
Miranda the Great by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Edward Ardizzone 1967
The Lollipop Princess: A Play for Paper Dolls by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Eleanor Estes 1967
The Tunnel of Hugsy Goode by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Edward Ardizzone 1972
The Coat-Hanger Christmas Tree by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Susanne Suba 1973
The Lost Umbrella of Kim Chu by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by acqueline Ayer 1978
The Moffat Museum by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Eleanor Estes 1983
The Curious Adventures of Jimmy McGee by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by John O'Brien 1987
UPDATE: November 6th, 2008
From Esme Raji Codell's Educating Esme. Codell relates her experiences as a first year fifth grade teacher in a new Chicago inner city school. One anecdote pertains to Estes.
After lunch each day I read aloud to them. We push the desks out of the way, pull down the shades, and turn off all the lights, except for an antique Victorian desk lamp I have. It is a very cozy time.
I was reading them The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, about a Polish immigrant girl who is so poor that she wears the same dress to school every day but insists that she has a hundred dresses lined up in her closet. The girls tease her mercilessly until she moves away. Her antagonists discover that she really did have a hundred dresses . . . a hundred beautiful drawings of dresses. Oh, God, it took everything not to cry when I closed the book! I especially like that the story is told from the teaser's point of view.
Well, everything was quiet at the end, but then Ashworth asked if he could whisper something in my ear. He whispered, "I have to tell the class something," and discretly showed me that he was missing half of a finger. It was a very macabre moment but I didn't flinch.
I faced him toward the class and put my hands on his shoulders. He was trembling terribly. "Ashworth has something personal to share with you. I hope you will keep in mind The Hundred Dresses when he tells you."
"I . . . I only have nine and a half fingers," he choked. "Please don't tease me about it." He held up his hands.
The class hummed, impressed, then was silent as Ashworth shifted on his feet. Finally, Billy called out, "I'll kick the ass of anyone who makes fun of you!"
"Yeah, me too!" said Kirk.
"Yeah, Ash! You just tell us if anyone from another class messes with you, we'll beat their ass up and down!"
Yeah, yeah, yeah! The class became united in the spirit of ass-kicking. Ashworth sighed and smiled at me. The power of literature!