Friday, March 17

Wanda Gag, Free to Imagine

Thanks to Ian, who was the first to guess correctly (although others did, too), I can post this revealing piece by our mystery artist. If you haven't read this book to your kids, you've neglected them.

It's the first children's book, according to my children's literature professor, that used a repeated refrain throughout. (You know it, right?: "...hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats!") It was a technique used in oral versions of folk tales, but it hadn't made its way into books before Wanda Gag* wrote this one. This book was also the first children's book to use a double-paged spread and hand lettered text.

People thought of Wanda Gag as a "free spirit", and her work is very unique and innovative, but she was hardly free. She was the oldest of seven children, and a Minnesota native, as Ian mentioned. She was only fourteen when her father died of tuberculosis, and his last words to her were "what Papa has left undone, Wanda will have to do."

It was her hard work that kept the family together, as she took on odd jobs illustrating magazine articles, greeting cards, and calendars to make money. She graduated high school in 1912, but didn't feel free to accept her scholarship to art school until the next two sisters had graduated high school, too, and were established as teachers.

Wanda Gag was a well-known artist with works in the permanent collections of many museums when Millions of Cats was published in 1928. Her other Newberry winning children's book is The ABC Bunny, but you might also be familiar with Gone is Gone (my favorite), Nothing at All and others.

Unfortunately, Wanda died from lung cancer in 1946 when she was only 53. Not long before she died, she wrote a brief autobiography for Illustrators of Children’s Books, 1744-1945 by Bertha Mahoney. Wanda wrote in this piece about serving in the army, living in Paris, and travelling to the Orient and India on a Guggenheim Fellowship.

It was probably what she wished were true, but none of it was. To the last, I guess, Wanda Gag was free spirit, but a free spirit chained by her circumstances.

Want to see more of her work, which, by the way, are mostly lithographs?

Still Life

Grandma's Parlor

Spinning Wheel


I don't know the title to this last one, but I'm including it anyway, because I really like it. It's a hay baling thingamajig, I think, but the name escapes me. [Update: Island Sparrow's husband thinks that might be a potato harvester. I really should learn not to venture guesses in farm machinery identification.]

*pronounced "Gog", and there's an accent on the a that I can't do.

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