Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Wanda Gág, Millions of Cats, and One Well-Drawn Life

March 22 - Today's post provided by Janice Floyd Durante at Books of Wonder and Wisdom

Wanda Gág, Millions of Cats, and One Well-Drawn Life
Wanda Gág (1893-1946) chased the “ineffable joy of creation” throughout her life. Along the way, she established a reputation as both a premier printmaker and as the mother of the American picture book. Her ground-breaking classic, Millions of Cats (Coward-McCann, 1928) reflects her vibrant, indomitable approach to life and to art.
“I must put my whole being into the drawing of pictures,” she wrote in her diaries, published as Growing Pains (Coward-McCann, 1940). In Millions of Cats, her first and most influential picture book, Gág (rhymes with “fog”) drew on her childhood store of Old World folktales. She told a delightfully simple story of a very old woman who wishes she and her very old husband had a cat to keep them company. Her husband sets out and finds not one but … you know, of course, all about that furry multitude.
With Millions of Cats, Gág opened up new aesthetic possibilities in children’s literature. She was the first to employ the two-page spread, now an integral part of the picture book. The quirky little book won the 1929 John Newbery Honor (the Caldecott did not yet exist). Its effect, however, continues today. In Wanda Gág: A Life of Art and Stories, Karen Nelson Hoyle wrote, “Wanda Gág  set in motion the American picture book movement with her Millions of Cats. Her significant contribution was integrating the cover, endpapers, illustrations, and story into a complete whole.” 
Of the many striking things about Millions of Cats, it is the sense of energy and movement that most pleases this reader. The text roams parallel to the hills where the old man wanders. On one delightful two-page spread she depicts the man with his hands crammed with kittens, with one camped on his head, others popping up on the burgeoning hills, and more and more forming a long, curvy trail. Not only do the cats look lively, but also the clouds, the hills, the trees, even the fat puffs of smoke that come from the chimney or from the old man’s pipe. Everything seems to vibrate with life.
Gág often pondered the connection between art and life in her diaries. “I used drawing as an instrument to study life,” she wrote. She was both enthralled and mystified by her times of intense artistic focus, describing them as a “wild sort of ecstasy,” “a fierce joy,” and as a maelstrom. While she had many friends, she decided early on that neither peers nor poverty nor romantic love would distract her from her goal of becoming an artist.
The remarkable journey from Gág’s childhood home of New Ulm, MN, to New York City and beyond is beautifully rendered for children in the picture-book biography Wanda Gág : The Girl Who Lived to Draw by Deborah Kogan Ray. The author/illustrator uses evocative excerpts from Gág’s diary to great effect, as she weaves in highlights of the family history, with its roots in the German-speaking area of Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic). Ray’s lively paintings exude color and a full range of emotions. She shows the seven imaginative Gág children drawing and putting on their own plays, inspired by the folktales told by their imaginative parents. Ray also shows a quiet Wanda in the attic studio, observing her father, “happy in his soul” as he allowed himself the freedom to paint for pleasure on Sundays. Then there is the somber death-bed scene, with Wanda holding her father’s hands as he urges her to pursue art: “What Papa couldn’t do, Wanda will have to finish.”
His death from tuberculosis, when Wanda was just 15, might have precluded any chance that the eldest daughter would become an artist. Instead, her resolve strengthened. To reach her goal, she would have to battle poverty, pressure from her provincial neighbors to work as a store clerk, her friends’ conventional expectations for marriage, as well as sexism in the art world and in society at large. Not only did Wanda and all her siblings finish high school, Wanda won a scholarship to study art, first in St. Paul, Minnesota, then at the prestigious Art Students League in New York City.
In that exciting art-filled city, Gág’s expressive drawings, prints, and watercolors earned her coveted one-artist exhibits at the Weyhe Gallery. That’s where a children’s book editor, taken with her vivid images, asked Wanda if she had ever considered writing children’s books. In fact, Wanda had a box full of ideas for children’s stories.
Gág’s success with Millions of Cats led to ten other inventive children’s books, ranging from The ABC Bunny, the first alphabet book to tell a story; to her still-beloved picture books The Funny Thing, Gone is Gone, Nothing at All, and Snippy and Snappy, as well as Tales from Grimm, which she translated from her native German. As she lay dying of lung cancer (although Wanda did not smoke, her longtime partner, whom she married at age 50, did), she continued to work on More Tales from Grimm, published posthumously.
“My drawing moods are the only things I ever wish to be ruled by,” she wrote when she was a 21-year-old art student. Wanda Gág  made her wish come true. And for that, millions and billions and trillions of readers can rejoice.

Suggested Discussion Questions
for Wanda Gág: The Girl Who Lived to Draw
Teachers and librarians can use Ray’s picture-book biography (for ages 8-10) to enhance children’s appreciation of creativity, community, and perseverance.
1.  Hold up the two-page spread showing the children acting out a play. Ask, “How did the family encourage the children’s creativity?”
2.  Wanda spoke only German until she went to school. How do you think it would feel to enter a school where you were expected to learn a new language?
3.  What did Wanda mean when she said her father was “happy in his soul” while painting in the attic? What kinds of activities make you feel this way?
4.  Why did Papa urge Wanda to look at the world in her own way?
5.  At bedtime, Wanda’s mom read her Grimms’ fairy tales. What kinds of books do you like to hear read aloud?
6.  Wanda wrote that many of her childhood memories centered on the “Grandma folks.” How did those experiences with older relatives contribute to her development as a person or as an artist?
7.  Wanda described her “drawing fits.” Have you ever been so engaged in an activity that you lost track of time? What were you doing? How did you feel?
8.  Why do you think Papa told Wanda she would have to finish what he could not do? What effect did this have on her goals?
9.  Why did the neighbors urge Wanda to quit school and get a job? Do you think you would have resisted, as Wanda did? Why or why not?
10.  How did Wanda manage to help her family survive while at the same time developing her artistic talent?
11.  Wanda’s motto became “Draw to live, and live to draw.” What did she mean by that?
12.  How did the art school and the culture of New York City assist Wanda in developing her own artistic style?
13.  Wanda was able to take advantage of the opportunity to create children’s books partly because she had a “Notebook of Ideas.” Do you have some kind of notebook or journal where you keep some of your ideas? What do you enjoy about that?
14.  How did Papa’s advice that Wanda see the world in her own way help her to succeed? What other qualities helped her? 

Works Cited
Gág, Wanda. Growing Pains: Diaries and Drawings for the Years 1908-1917. New York: Coward-McCann, 1940. Reprint, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
Hoyle, Karen Nelson. Wanda Gág : A Life of Art and Stories. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, 2009.
Ray, Deborah Kogan. Wanda Gág : The Girl Who Lived to Draw. Viking, 2008. (for ages 7-10)

     Children’s Books by Wanda Gág

The ABC Bunny. New York: Coward-McCann, 1933. Reprint, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.
The Funny Thing. New York: Coward-McCann, 1929. Reprint, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
Gone is Gone, or The Story of a Man Who Wanted to Do Housework. New York: Coward-McCann, 1935. Reprint, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
Growing Pains: Diaries and Drawings for the Years 1908-1917. New York: Coward-McCann, 1940. Reprint, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984. (for ages 12+)
Millions of Cats. New York: Coward-McCann, 1928.
More Tales from Grimm. New York: Coward-McCann, 1947.
Nothing at All. New York: Coward-McCann, 1941. Reprint, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.
Snippy and Snappy. New York: Coward-McCann, 1931. Reprint, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs. New York: Coward-McCann, 1938. Reprint, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.
Tales from Grimm. New York: Coward-McCann, 1936.
Three Gay Tales from Grimm. New York: Coward-McCann, 1943.

Further Reading for Children
Swain, Gwenyth. Wanda Gág: Storybook Artist. St. Paul, MN: Borealis, an imprint of the Minnesota Historical Society Press. (Ages 9-12)
O’Hara, Megan, ed. The Girlhood Diary of Wanda Gág, 1908-1909: Portrait of a Young Artist. Mankato, MN: Blue Earth/Capstone, 2001. (Ages 8-12)
Further Reading for Adults
“The Classic Tales of Wanda Gag.” http://www.upress.umn.edu/Gag/Gagindex.html  The University of Minnesota Press provides summaries, images, and descriptions of the Wanda Gág books it reprints and sells.
“Minnesota Storytime: Reading Guides.” http://www.minnesotahumanities.org/resources/MNMillionsofCats.pdf Tips on using “Millions of Cats” in the classroom or library.
Winnan, Audur H. Wanda Gág: A Catalogue Raisonne of the Prints. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993. Reprint, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999. Fascinating details on Gág’s artistic development and legacy, complemented by a wide range of photographs of her work.


  1. I'm going to have to check out Millions of Cats and read it again with new appreciation. I love being a children's librarian. Not a day goes by that I don't learn something. Thanks for your insightful post.

  2. Thanks for reminding me about Millions of Cats, which I often read to my daughters years ago. Thank you, Paula Morrow, for directing me to this blog. I'm going to subscribe.

  3. Thanks so much for this post! When I was a book-loving, art-loving, cat-loving child my sister came home from the library one day with Millions of Cats, and I was enchanted by it. I'm so glad to learn about the picture book biography of Wanda Gag, and am looking forward to reading it!

  4. Millions & millions & millions of thanks!
    To this WH blog & Janice Floyd Durante.

    We all owe so much to the tenacity & kindness & brilliance of Ms. Gag.

    On a personal note, as a babe to 13 yrs. old, I grew up in her rural New Jersey area, but didn't know a whit of detail about Wanda Gag, until I took a wonderful class in storytelling at Hollins University a few years back. We were asked to adapt a beloved picture book into a story that we would tell & I chose Millionas & .... by Ms. Gag.

    This is a wealth of material on her huge talent & life path, which I'm so grateful to read.