The First American Picture Book, Wanda Gág’s Millions of Cats (1928)

For bet­ter (I’d say), or worse, the inter­net has turned cat peo­ple into what may be the world’s most pow­er­ful ani­mal lob­by. It has brought us fas­ci­nat­ing ani­mat­ed his­to­ries of cats and ani­mat­ed sto­ries about the cats of goth­ic genius and cat-lov­ing author and illus­tra­tor Edward Gorey; cats blithe­ly leav­ing inky paw­prints on medieval man­u­scripts and polite­ly but firm­ly refus­ing to be denied entry into a Japan­ese art muse­um. It has giv­en us no short­age of delight­ful pho­tos of artists with their cat famil­iars

Cat antics and awe have always been a very online phe­nom­e­non, but the mys­te­ri­ous and ridicu­lous, diminu­tive beasts of prey have also always been insep­a­ra­ble from art and cul­ture. As fur­ther evi­dence, we bring you Mil­lions of Cats, like­ly the “first tru­ly Amer­i­can pic­ture book done by an Amer­i­can author/artist,” explains a site devot­ed to it.

“Pri­or to its pub­li­ca­tion in 1928, there were only Eng­lish pic­ture books for the children’s perusal.” The book “sky rock­et­ed Wan­da Gág into instant fame and set in stone her rep­u­ta­tion as a children’s author and illus­tra­tor.”

It set a stan­dard for Calde­cott-win­ning children’s lit­er­a­ture for close to a hun­dred years since its appear­ance, though the award did not yet exist at the time. The book’s cre­ator was “a fierce ide­al­ist and did not believe in alter­ing her own aes­theti­cism just because she was pro­duc­ing work for chil­dren. She liked to use styl­ized human fig­ures, asym­met­ri­cal com­po­si­tions, strong lines and slight spa­tial dis­tor­tion.” She also loved cats, as befits an artist of her inde­pen­dent tem­pera­ment, one shared by the likes of oth­er cat-lov­ing artists like T.S. Eliot and Charles Dick­ens.

Mil­lions of Cats’ author and illus­tra­tor may not share in the fame of so many oth­er artists who took pic­tures with their cats, but she and her cat Noopy were as pho­to­genic as any oth­er feline/human artis­tic duo, and she was a peer to the best of them. The book’s edi­tor, Ernes­tine Evans, wrote in the Nation that Mil­lions of Cats “is as impor­tant as the librar­i­ans say it is. Not only does it bring to book-mak­ing one of the most tal­ent­ed and orig­i­nal of Amer­i­can lith­o­g­ra­phers… but it is a mar­riage of pic­ture and tale that is per­fect­ly bal­anced.”

Gág (rhymes with “jog”) was “a cel­e­brat­ed artist… in the Green­wich Vil­lage-cen­tic Mod­ernist art scene in the 1920s,” writes Lithub, “a free-think­ing, sex-pos­i­tive left­ist who also designed her own clothes and trans­lat­ed fairy tales.” She adapt­ed the text from “a sto­ry she had made up to enter­tain her friends’ chil­dren,” with the mil­lions of cats mod­eled on Noopy. Gág is the found­ing moth­er of children’s book dynas­ties like The Cat in the Hat and Pete the Cat, an artist whom mil­lions of cat lovers can dis­cov­er again or for the first time in a New­bery-win­ning 2006 collector’s edi­tion.

Read a sum­ma­ry of the charm­ing sto­ry of Mil­lions of Cats at Lithub and learn more about her, the tal­ent­ed Gág fam­i­ly of artists, and her charm­ing, very cat-friend­ly house here.

via LitHub

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Insane­ly Cute Cat Com­mer­cials from Stu­dio Ghi­b­li, Hayao Miyazaki’s Leg­endary Ani­ma­tion Shop

Enter an Archive of 6,000 His­tor­i­cal Children’s Books, All Dig­i­tized and Free to Read Online

A Dig­i­tal Archive of 1,800+ Children’s Books from UCLA

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • John Handley says:

    McLaugh­lin Broth­ers in NY start­ed print­ing pic­ture books in 1858 and they were quite pro­lif­ic so I am not sure where you found info that there were only Eng­lish pic­ture books. In 1863 Louis Prang print­ed the first “shaped book,” Red Rid­ing Hood with prose by Lydia Very.

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