Wanda Gàg—the pioneering picture book author and illustrator responsible for Millions of Cats—was raised on a steady diet of fairy tales. When her father died and her family descended into poverty, she probably got more fairy tales than food.
Growing up in New Ulm, MN, she heard these Märchen (the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm) in her native German. Once she was grown and was confronted by Disney’s first big-screen tale (1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), she responded by writing and illustrating her own “free” translations of the Grimm Brothers’ stories.
Wanda’s fairy tales were never sweet or sanitized. They were true to the sometimes gory, sometimes frightening originals, which were, she maintained, no worse than the “steel and stone and machinery…bombs, gas-masks, and machine guns” of modern life. Stories like the Märchen were vital to children, Wanda believed, for they had the power to counter-balance real-life horrors.
Anne Ursu’s novel Breadcrumbs takes young readers into a fairy-tale world filled with dark and beautiful imagery. The story starts out in Minneapolis, during a heavy snowfall. The main character, Hazel, is soon to be abandoned by her best friend, Jack. To get him back, she must enter a terrifying forest. In other words, she must rely solely on herself.
In Breadcrumbs, readers will recognize traces of old tales from Hans Christian Andersen and Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and of newer ones from C. S. Lewis. They’ll be drawn into a world in which Wanda Gàg would have been completely comfortable, for she believed that stories could transport readers to “the olden days, when wishing was still of some use.” The beauty of Breadcrumbs, and of Gàg’s fairy tales, is that these works offer readers hope while not stinting on harshness.
UPDATE & FURTHER READING
· Readers of this blog probably know that when I started reading Breadcrumbs (in which a splinter of an enchanted mirror lodges in a character’s eye), I started having trouble with my eyes. Well, I’m happy to report that the eye doctor gave me a clean bill of health today!
· Also, if you’re wishing you knew more about Wanda Gàg, then look for my slim book: Wanda Gàg: Storybook Artist. Gàg was not only a pioneer picture book artist and author, she was also someone whose life reads a lot like a fairy tale. Enjoy!