A FEW OTHER EVENTS FOR
DECEMBER 15:

  • It’s the birth date of Ann Nolan Clark (1896–1995) The Secret of the Andes.
  • Roman Emperor Nero (37–68) was born on this day. Read Nero Corleone by Elke Heidenreich, illustrated by Quint Buchholz.
  • Also born on this date was Gustave Eiffel (1832–1923), engineer and architect of Eiffel tower. Read Eiffel’s Tower by Jill Jonnes, and Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans.
  • It’s Bill of Rights Day. The United States Bill of Rights became law when ratified by the Virginia General Assembly in 1791. Read A Kids’ Guide to America’s Bill of Rights: Curfews, Censorship, and the 100-Pound Giant by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Anna Divito.

December 15 has been designated Cat Herding Day. Certainly, this impossible task deserves to be celebrated! Eighty-two years ago a classic children’s book demonstrated what a lot of herded cats might look like—although it left the way to accomplish this feat unexplained. In the history of picture books, men have created the vast majority of classics, and recently men have won the Caldecott Award for their art much more frequently than women. But our first celebrated American picture book, Millions of Cats, which won a Newbery Honor because the Caldecott had not yet been established, was created by a very talented woman.

Minnesota’s Wanda Gág had come to New York and was showing her bold prints in galleries when editor Ernestine Evans contacted her. Evans, just hired to create a children’s book department for Coward-McCann, saw an exhibit of Gág’s prints and approached her to see if she would consider creating a children’s books. Materials at the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota, indicate that Gág had started a children’s book story around 1922 but had abandoned it. Encouraged by Evans, she picked it up again, focused the story, and made the refrain occur many more times:

Cats here, cats there,
Cats and kittens everywhere,
Hundreds of cats,
Thousands of cats,
Millions and billions and trillions of cats.

In Millions of Cats an old man goes out to find a kitten for his wife. He travels over hills and valleys and locates far too many. But after they eat each other up, only one thin scraggly kitten is left. In the end it becomes the beautiful cat the man and woman have sought. The language and feel of the story reflect Gág’s German roots; in fact, she would later translate and illustrate volumes of Grimm’s fairy tales for her adoring audience.

As classics go, Millions of Cats has one of the shortest creation times on record. Gág had only a couple of months to craft the text and art. In the end she relied on the help of others; her brother actually hand-lettered the text. In Millions of Cats Gág pushed the boundaries of the picture book. She developed double-page spreads, pulling the two pages together with an image. She wrapped text around the art. Using a varied layout and alternating broad vistas with intimate scenes, she developed pacing, timing, and tension. In one title, she basically invented the American picture book.

So today I’d like to honor our great-great-grandmother, as it were, of the American picture book. In 1928 she set in motion ideas about this form that others would take eight decades to explore. Considered one of the finest artists of her day, Gág also lent credibility to the idea that other artists might want to explore this form. Over the years others from the fine art world, people like Lynd Ward and Chris Van Allsburg, have followed the same call. And the thousands of picture books each year—that focus on page layout, pacing, and timing—all have their beginning in Millions of Cats.

Here’s a page from Millions of Cats:

Share

Originally posted December 15, 2010. Updated for .

Tags: Animals, Award Winning, Cats, Newbery
Instructional materials from TeachingBooks.net for Millions of Cats
Share

COMMENTS

  1. Cat Herding Day? Where do you find out this stuff?

    Just to say this book is still one of my favorites ever. So glad you featured it. And also to say I’m loving your choices and the way they bring some semi-forgotten books back to the fore (say Frindle and others).

  2. Joyce Ray says:

    I love Millions of Cats, too! Who knew today was Cat Herding Day? Thank you for reminding us of beloved books and recommending new titles, Anita. And for tidbits of information like Cat Herding Day!

  3. Hi Anita,

    My twins adore Millions of Cats… Of course, the refrain made such an impression that it is used constantly for many different things (whenever there is a lot of anything, I hear “millions and billions and trillions”).

    Long live

    “Cats here, cats there,
    Cats and kittens everywhere,
    Hundreds of cats,
    Thousands of cats,
    Millions and billions and trillions of cats.”

    Read Aloud Dad

  4. Anita says:

    Read Aloud Dad: This refrain has to be one of the most memorable in children’s books. In the early drafts, at the Kerlan Collection in Minneapolis, it was not as pronounced. As she worked on the book, she brought these lines in more and more frequently. I’m glad she did. Anita

  5. Fran in Texas says:

    Always a great read-aloud. I was struck in 2009 by the art in the Caldecott winner, “The House in the Night.” It reminded me so much of “Millions of Cats.” Also “The Apple Pie that Papa Baked.” I’m a sucker for illustrations and enjoy the different styles, but love the retro.

    Thanks for your web site. I’m a retired elementary school librarian, and this keeps me reminded of many of my favorite books.

  6. I love every day on the Book-A-Day Almanac, but I especially love these days where I learn a bit of history. This is a wonderful book and I am so glad to know the “story behind the story!”

  7. Ariel Zeitlin Cooke says:

    Dear Anita,
    Great choice. I love this book so much! Speaking as someone who has 3 cats even though I’m allergic.
    Thanks for the wonderful calendar. I turn to it eagerly every morning and am never disappointed.
    Ariel

  8. Thank you so much Anita for this wonderful piece. I never knew the history of this classic picture book, or of Wanda Gag for that matter. Having read his book as a child, it seemed to me, (as I think it still does to those who are children today) that picture books simply arrived full-blown in a child’s library. Yet as an author and illustrator of many picture books, I now know that isn’t the case. So again I must thank you for telling history stories like this one, that need telling.

  9. Barb Keister says:

    So interesting that Millions of Cats was a Newbery Honor! Truly a timeless story that is perfect for reading aloud and inviting children to chime in. Happy Cat Herding Day!

  10. Happy Cat herding Day!!!!

  11. Abcdoris says:

    I love this book! During author visits I often ask who has read this book. Most of the time no one has ever even seen it, let alone read it! And that’s just sad.

Leave a Comment

Daily children’s book recommendations and events from Anita Silvey.

Discover the stories behind the children’s book classics . . .

The new books on their way to becoming classics . . .

And events from the world of children’s books—and the world at large.