One of the most influential kids' books has been in print for almost a century.
While headlines worldwide have proclaimed that the early version of Mickey Mouse has entered the public domain, another work has sailed a bit under the radar. The 1928 illustrated children’s book Millions of Cats pioneered combining graphics and book design with a story. It is also now in the public domain in the United States as well as countries where copyright extends 70 years or fewer after the death of the author. That means anyone can now reproduce the text and images.
Author Wanda Gág pioneered images spread over two facing pages. The book used folk-style line illustrations combined with hand-drawn text by her brother Howard. The text flows around the curves of the pictures. This style was new at the time, and required that the book would always have to printed in the same horizontal format to keep the full effect.
The simple but rather odd story revolves around an elderly couple that wants to adopt a cat. The elderly man finds “hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats” in his search of the nearby area. The phrase recurs throughout the text. The cats manage to drain an entire lake and denude a hill of grass while following him.
The couple has to narrow this giant mob down to one cat, as they can’t feed all of them. All of the cats fight over which one is the prettiest, and in the end only one of the trillions of cats is left: a kitten that stayed out of the conflict because it felt it wasn’t as pretty as the others, and didn’t try to compete. The couple takes it in and it grows up to become a beautiful cat.
The book was a runner up for the John Newbery Medal in 1929, though it is often mistakenly cited as the winner. The actual winner was The Trumpeter of Krakow, a young adult historical novel by Eric P. Kelly that is also now in the public domain. The annual medal goes to the most distinguished contributions to American literature for children.
The book has been in print ever since it was first published, and is still included on several must-read lists. Signed copies command a hefty price. The tale was included in the 1992 TV series Shelley Duvall’s Bedtime Stories, with James Earl Jones – the voice of Darth Vader – narrating.
Author Wanda Gág is an unfortunately forgotten artist from the U.S. state of Minnesota. Her father, Anton Gág (also spelled Gaag), was also an artist. He passed away from tuberculosis in 1908 when Wanda was 15 years old. His last words, in German, were: “What Papa couldn’t do, Wanda will have to finish.” This set a high bar for the youngster.
Her studies eventually took her from Minnesota to New York City, where she worked as a commercial artist designing gift boxes, children’s crosswords, and one-off sketches. Around this time, she adopted the accent over he letter “a” in her last name instead of the umlaut she had been using.
Millions of Cats grew from a story she created to entertain her friend’s children. It was not her first book, but her previous effort was a how-to guide for making batik art at home. Her other credits for original stories include Gone is Gone; or, the Story of a Man Who Wanted to Do Housework. This early feminist work from 1935 finds a farmer changing places with his wife as he thinks that just pottering around the house is easier than working the farm. He finds out that he is mistaken.
She was fluent in German from her childhood, and also illustrated her own translations of Grimm fairy tales. When Disney came out with the animated version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, she came out with a more faithful illustrated translation of the original fairy tale. It was a runner up for the Caldecott Medal, an annual award for most distinguished American picture book for children.
She passed away in New York City in 1946 from lung cancer at the age of 53. In total she was the runner up for the Newbery award and the Caldecott Medal two times for each, and earned several posthumous honors.
Her childhood home in New Ulm, Minnesota, is now a museum and educational center. A statue of her smiling playing with a cat is at a library in the same town. Her prints and other works are in the collections of several institutions including the Whitney Museum and the New York Public Libray. The Minnesota State University Moorhead each year gives out the Wanda Gág Read Aloud Book Award to a book aimed at children under 8 years old.
You can read about other overlooked cat illustrators in our previous articles on British painter Louis Wain, Austrian-American author Käthe Olshausen-Schönberger and post-card illustrator Eugen Hartung.