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New Ulm native Wanda Gág set standard for modern children’s book with ‘Millions of Cats’

Gág’s talent steered her through family hardship and hesitant early artistic efforts until she created Millions of Cats, which has never been out of print.

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Wanda Gág in 1928

Wanda Gág (rhymes with “cog”) was determined to be an artist, and ultimately she triumphed. Her talent steered her through family hardship and hesitant early artistic efforts until she created Millions of Cats, her beloved 1928 children’s book. It has never been out of print.

Gág and her family were Bohemian in both senses of the word. Her father was from the region called Bohemia that is now part of the Czech Republic. Both of her parents were also bohemian in spirit, being artists and freethinkers. In the late nineteenth century they married in New Ulm, where Wanda was born in 1893.

Anton Gág was a painter, photographer, musician, and mentor. He and his wife Elisabeth (Lissi) encouraged all of their children to read, to draw, and to make music. The family was close, and Wanda grew up believing that every child had an innate ability to draw. Anton struggled to find work, painting church interiors, taking photographic portraits, and even trying to start an art school.

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Wanda had to grow up fast. In 1908, when she was fifteen, Anton died of tuberculosis. His dying words were reported as, “What Papa was unable to accomplish, Wanda will have to finish.” Years of hunger and deprivation followed, but all of the Gág children went to high school.

Wanda’s ambitions were always strong, and she won drawing competitions as a teenager. In 1913, she won a scholarship to the St. Paul School of Art. From 1914 to 1917 she attended the Minneapolis School of Art (later Minneapolis College of Art and Design), also on scholarship. In addition, she won prizes given by her fellow students, drew portraits for income, and gained local patrons. One was Herschel V. Jones, publisher of the Minneapolis Journal, who paid for her supplies and schooling.

In 1917, Gág won a full scholarship to the renowned Art Students League in New York. In the same year, her mother died, and the Gág siblings arranged to stick together. Eventually, some of them lived with her in New York, and she began to sell both fine-art prints and illustrations for books and ads. She was a friend to many famous artists of the time, including lithographer Adolf Dehn, a fellow Minnesotan.

Gág was successful with commercial assignments, but she preferred more independent work. In 1928, after two successful gallery shows of her prints and drawings, a children’s book editor invited her to write and illustrate a book for “juvenile readers.” Gág swiftly produced the manuscript forMillions of Cats, and once it was published her ambitions for independence were realized.

Millions of Cats is considered a prototype of the modern children’s book. It uses poetic wordplay and vivid, horizontal imagery to engage readers of all ages. In the story, an old man can’t choose just one cat for his wife, so the landscape swarms with felines.

The imagery in each of Gág’s ten books evokes Old World folk art, yet her plot twists are odd and modern. In Gone is Gone, a man insists on doing housework because he thinks his wife has it too easy. In Nothing at All, an invisible dog follows its two siblings to a new home, gradually acquiring physical form due to the advice of a magical bird.

Gág was a pioneer in many arenas beyond the “new” children’s book. She created award-winning prints of common objects, adding slight distortions that made them seem alive. She experimented with painting on sandpaper. She was also feminist in her beliefs about women’s relations to men, and about their rights to independent careers.

Apart from her picture books and fine-art prints, another of Wanda Gág’s legacies was her five-hundred-page autobiography, Growing Pains. This 1940 book, based on her detailed diaries, covers just her life through art school, and is alternately impulsive and honest. “I will have to be clever! It nearly breaks my heart,” she writes in one entry.

In 1931, Gág bought a small farm in New Jersey that she named “All Creation.” There, she hosted friends and family, worked, and enjoyed life with her husband, Earle Humphreys. After being diagnosed with lung cancer in 1945, she took a winter trip to Florida before her beloved spring returned again. She died in New York City on June 27, 1946.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.