Top 100 Picture Books #21: Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag
#21 Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag (1928)
The phrase “hundreds and thousands and millions and billions and trillions of cats” still rings in my head from hundred and thousands (but not quite billions and trillions) of readings. – Ellen L. Ramsay
More nostalgia. This one, I remember reading to myself when I was very small when we would go to my great-grandmother’s house. She had some old books in her bookcase, and I know I read this one more than once. Since then, I read it to my own sons, and I still love using it in storytime. That refrain is unforgettable, and I love getting kids to chant along with me, “Hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats!” – Sondra Eklund
A classic, that could make anyone a cat lover. – Pat Vasilik
Who would have thought that a tale of cannibalistic felines would turn out to be one of the greatest storytime classics of all time?
The last time we conducted this poll, Millions of Cats actually ended up in the top ten at #9. Now, like its compatriot Madeline, it has sunk down into the double digits. What has taken its place? Will you be appalled when you hear? Time will tell . . .
With its 1928 publication date, Millions of Cats came close to becoming the oldest picture book on this list. It was narrowly beaten by The Tale of Peter Rabbit (cheekily published in 1902). However, according to 100 Best Books for Children, this title has the distinction of being the American picture book that has continuously been in print the longest. Take THAT you wascally wabbit!
The synopsis of this book’s plot from B&N reads, “An old couple is lonely – if only they had a pretty white cat! The old man finds a hill covered with cats and brings them home. His wife points out that they cannot possibly keep them all. The cats get in a fight over who gets to stay, and the couple is left with a scrawny little kitten. With love, the kitten becomes the most beautiful cat in the world.”
Was Millions of Cats the impetus that brought about the Caldecott Medal? Possibly. As Minders of Make-Believe puts it, “when librarians awarded Millions of Cats a Newbery Honor, they chose to recognize the book’s distinction while apparently not feeling quite right about giving the literature prize to a picture book. It may well have been then that the idea for a companion award for illustration was born, although it would be another decade before the Caldecott Medal became a reality. . .” Remember, the first Newbery Award was given out in 1922. It wouldn’t be until 1938 that the Caldecott would come along as well.
Wanda Gag, of course, is one of those artists that rocked the bohemian scene. Ernestine Evans of Coward-McCann (coward?) attended one of Gag’s art shows and saw the potential there. Minders says, “When Evans contacted her about the possibility of their working together on a picture book, Gag in her diary at first belittled the project as something to be executed rapidly, for the money. She soon would decide otherwise and conclude that she had stumbled onto a major new pathway for her artistry. Many another graphic artist of her generation – including some inspired directly by Gag’s example – would come to the same conclusion.” 100 Best Books for Children supplements this information with an additional note. Apparently even before Evans came along, Gag had been working on this book. But in 1922 and 1923 she was unable to locate a willing publisher. After Evans showed interest, “Gag returned to her 1923 manuscript and extensively rewrote it; in the process the refrain ‘Cats here, cats there, / Cats and kittens everywhere, / Hundreds of cats, / Thousands of cats, / Millions and billions and trillions of cats’ became more pronounced with each revision.”
That kind of revision has meant that the picture book itself is hugely influential, even to this day. After all, it has been noted more than once that the 2009 Caldecott winner In the House of the Night appears to be a kind of ode to Gag’s style. Certainly the two books have their similarities. Just look at the cats!
Want to see a little Gag up close? An article in MinnPost.com about a man who sold his literary archives to the University of Minnesota said that this original illustration study by Wanda Gag is part of the Kerlan Collection:
Says the piece, “The Kerlan Collection, the U’s internationally significant vault of children’s literature, contains original manuscripts and illustrations of Arnold Lobel’s ‘Frog and Toad are Friends,’ Margaret Wise Brown’s ‘Goodnight Moon,’ and Wanda Gag’s ‘Millions of Cats,’ among many others. The illustrations can be particularly desirable; New Ulm artist Gag’s work now sells for thousands of dollars.”
There was one other place you could get your Gag fix, though. Until recently the Donnell Central Children’s Room owned one of the original wood blocks created by Wanda Gag for Millions of Cats. Now it remains in the hands of the conservators of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. I saw it not too long ago and I can assure you that it is alive and well.
By the way, special love for the person who turned this book into an elaborate cake. It was created by Karen McCain and Nancy Kaul and was a runner-up at the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library Edible Book Festival back in April 4, 2008.
The New York Times called it “A perennial favorite.”
And SLJ’s One Hundred Books That Shaped the Century said, ” Considered by many to have ushered in the age of the modern picture book, this Newbery Honor winner is characterized by innovative design and a strong storyteller’s cadence.”
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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