Wanda Gág and her Millions of Cats

April 4, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, journalism, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

Illustrator-genius Wanda Gág (pronunciation: rhymes with “bog”) must have liked cats. Her most famous book was Millions of Cats, published in 1928 and for many years as much a part of a child’s literary shelf as Goodnight, Moon or Where the Wild Things Are are today.

Millions of Cats was not only a wildly popular book (which still sells well today), but it was also a breakthrough in the design of children’s books.

Before it was published, the standard format of children’s books was to have a page of text facing a page of illustration. In Millions of Cats, Gág placed the large, hand-written text on the same page with the illustration. A child just learning to read did not have to switch back and forth from page to page to try to connect the text with the pictures. Gág also considered the double-page spread a single unit, and her illustrations often stretched across these two pages.

These were simple changes and ones that we take for granted today, but their impact on children’s books was profound.

Gág was born in 1893 into a close-knit community of German speakers in New Ulm, Minnesota. Her father was a photographer who died of tuberculosis when she was 15. Despite her family’s poverty, she continued her education, and when she graduated from high school, she became a teacher. That lasted for only about a year because Gág was much more interested in art than teaching.

She attended art school in Minneapolis and won a scholarship to the Art Student League of New York in 1917. By 1919 she was living in New York and working as a commercial artist. She had a particular interest in working with children’s books. She also developed a series of illustrated crossword puzzles for children that was syndicated in several newspapers. In addition, she successfully exhibited her own artwork in several solo shows.

Gág became part of the leftist-feminist community in New York, and she wrote magazine articles as well as illustrating them. She followed up the publication of Millions of Cats with other successful children’s books, including Gone Is Gone; or The Story of a Man Who Wanted to Do Housework, published in 1935.

She made enough money to buy a farm in New Jersey, where she spent a good deal of time, and she supported her younger siblings by giving them work and encouraging their ambitions. After numerous affairs, she married her long-time business manager Earle Humphreys in 1943, but she died of lung cancer in 1946. She was only 53 years old.

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