Monday, March 18, 2013

Celebrate Caldecott’s Birthday with a Non-Winner


As we move full steam ahead into 2013 and the 75th Birthday Celebration of the Caldecott Medal, it’s worth taking a moment to remember one of the best picture books NOT to win the award.

Wanda Gàg’s Millions of Cats came out during the Great Depression, a few short years before the Caldecott Medal was born. There being no picture book award at the time, Cats won only a Newbery Honor.

What’s so special about this non-winner?

On the surface, the black and white illustrations may look dated, the hand-lettered text harkening back to a long-gone era. But Cats was revolutionary. It helped us see the picture book in new ways. Anita Silvey sums up the impact of Wanda Gàg’s work in her delightful Children’s Book-a-Day Almanac entry: “In one title, she basically invented the American picture book.”

Not only did Gàg use the two-page spread to move the action,
she also sometimes wrapped text around the art.
Few artists before Gàg considered how they could use the two-page spread to effectively propel the narrative through the art. Even Gàg’s pencil-sketched art dummy for Cats, part of the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota, is packed with forward-moving energy.

Gàg uses repetition in the text to draw readers in and build to a crescendo:

Hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats!

Gàg learned English in grade school in New Ulm, Minnesota, but she learned it well. As the oldest of seven children, she carried throughout her life a deep respect for her young readers. Before Cats was published, she read it aloud to children, making changes when needed so that the text would grab her audience. 

(Take a look at YouTube to see how the book works as a read aloud, and you’ll see that Gàg’s research paid off.)

The hand-written text reflects Gàg’s unusual care and concern over every aspect of the book. Gàg couldn’t find a typeface that worked with the line-weight and texture of her illustrations, so she had her younger brother painstakingly draw the words to her own precise instructions.

The final package is small and precious. Millions of Cats has continuously been in print since its publication.

Her life reads like a novel,
so this Gàg biography was a joy to write!
Full disclosure: I’ve loved Cats since I was little, but I grew to appreciate Wanda Gàg and her revolutionary approach to picture books while writing the book Wanda Gàg: Storybook Artist for the Minnesota Historical Society Press. Later, I was one of many to nominate Gàg to the MN150, a list of 150 important Minnesotans who shaped the state.

No doubt about it, she and her Millions of Cats are winners.

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