Sometimes you are pulled up short by the realization that something you thought you knew just was plain and unequivocally wrong. For many years, I assumed, based on what I do not know or recall, that Wanda Gág was a Hungarian artist that had fled to the United States in the 1930's. Well, except that she was an artist, none of that is true.
Instead, her story is even more interesting and touching and is quintessentially all-American. First-off, Wanda was born in New Ulm, Minnesota March 11, 1893. Her parents were émigrés from Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic. Her family name, by the way, is pronounced Gog (rhyming with dog) rather than Gag (rhyming with bag). Her family story inspires an even greater respect for her accomplishments beyond the merits of her books.
Her father, Anton Gág was a painter and photographer. Wanda was the first of seven children all of whom inherited artistic talent and two of whom latterly worked with Wanda on her books. German was the native tongue at home when Wanda was growing up and she did not learn English till she began attending school. Her grandmother told her many German folktales which later had a significant bearing on her work.
Wanda Gág's father passed away when she was fourteen and, her mother apparently being poorly, Wanda became the de facto head the household, raising her six siblings, the youngest of whom was only a year old. In addition to caring for the family, she continued her high-school education, graduating in 1912. She then worked for a year as a teacher. She also earned additional income writing and illustrating stories and articles for magazines and newspapers. Her next two oldest sisters graduated high-school and became teachers, freeing her to attend art school on scholarships, though with the passing of her mother in 1916, the remaining children all moved in with her while she completed studies at the Minneapolis Art School.
Wanda Gág worked in many mediums but became best known for her lithographs, pen and ink drawings and woodcuts, all of which are evident in her children's books. There is a compact energy in most her children's illustrations. "A still life is never still for me, it is solidified energy".
In 1917, A Child's Book of Folk-Lore, which she had illustrated but not written, was published. Moving to New York that same year, she continued her studies. Following her studies, Wanda Gág worked as an illustrator in the fashion industry for a number of years. During this time she completed the manuscripts for a number of children's stories but was unable to stir any interest among publishers.
In 1923, Gág left her career in fashion illustration to pursue her own artistic interests, eventually settling in rural western New Jersey. It was in this period that she and Earle Marshall Humphreys began their association, eventually marrying in 1943. She settled into a pattern of summering in New Jersey and living in New York City in the winter.
While she began building her reputation as an artist with many shows and exhibits, and with her work beginning to be added to museum collections, she had a chance encounter with a new children's book editor who asked whether she had ever considered writing and illustrating children's stories. Gág resurrected one of her manuscripts, illustrated it and in 1928, Millions of Cats was published.
Millions of Cats was immediately recognized as an innovative children's illustrated book and was named a Newberry Honor Book that year. Gág was the first illustrator to use the double spread of a book (both pages) for a single illustration. She also integrated the text of the story into the illustration by using hand lettered text.
The immediate success of Millions of Cats led to a refocusing of Wanda Gág from her art work to writing and illustrating children's books and was quickly followed by The Funny Thing (1929), Snippy and Snappy (1930), The ABC Bunny (1933, Newberry Honor Medal), Gone is Gone; or, The Story of a Man Who Wanted to Do Housework (1935), and Nothing at All (1941, Caldecott Honor). Beginning in 1936, Gág undertook a series of books harkening back to the German folktales told to her by her grandmother. Tales from Grimm appeared in 1936 followed by Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1938, Caldecott Honor), Three Gay Tales from Grimm (1943), and More Tales from Grimm (1947).
In the seventy odd years since the first publication of Millions of Cats , the majority of her books have been in print at any given point in time. All of the books are wonderful. Our children have particularly enjoyed Millions of Cats , Gone is Gone, The Funny Thing, and Nothing at All. While I have always enjoyed her books, I now enjoy them all that much more seeing such a wonderful American story of duty, self-sacrifice, independence, and perseverance. In that regard, her life story bears some echoes of that other Great-Plains woman writer from that period, Laura Ingalls Wilder and her Little House on the Prairies books. Another story from the plains states and that period, is that of Kate Shelley Bound for Legend who similarly, at fifteen, became the head of her household.
The ABC Bunny, 1933.
The Day of Doom by Michael Wigglesworth; illustrated by Wanda Gág, 1929.
The Funny Thing, 1929.
Gone is Gone; or, the Story of a Man Who Wanted to Do Housework, 1935.
Growing Pains: Diaries and Drawings for the Years 1908-1917
Millions of Cats , 1928.
More Tales from Grimm, 1947.
Nothing At All, 1941.
Snippy and Snappy, 1931.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1938.
Tales from Grimm, 1936.
Three Gay Tales from Grimm, 1943.
Wanda Gag's Storybook (includes Millions of Cats, The Funny Thing, and Snippy and Snappy), 1932.
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MacPherson, Karen. "Book Corner." The Standard Times. 22 March 2003. 19 June 2006.
"Mystery Artist Revealed." Rebecca Writes. 17 March 2006. 7 August 2006.
Ortakales, Denise. "Wanda Hazel Gág." Women Children's Book Illustrators. 24 August 2002. 18 September 2006.
Ritz, Karen. "The Wanda Gag House." Children's Literature Network. 19 June 2006.
Schmitz, Terri. "When Gone Isn't Gone." Horn Book Magazine Mar/Apr 2005 Vol. 81, Issue 2: 173-185
"Wanda Gag." Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 4: 1946-50. American Council of Learned Societies, 1974
"Wanda Gag." Minnesota Author Biographies Project. 2002. 19 June 2006.
"Wanda Gág." Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 16 June 2006. 19 June 2006.
"Wanda (Hazel) Gag." Contemporary Authors Online. Gale, 2006
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"Wanda (Hazel) GAG." St. James Guide to Children's Writers. 5th ed. St. James Press, 1999