Wanda Gág was an American artist, author, translator and illustrator. She wrote and illustrated the children’s book Millions of Cats, which won both a Newbery Honor Award and the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award. It is the oldest American picture book still in print.
Gág was born in 1893 in New Ulm, Minnesota. Her parents, Elisabeth Biebl Gag and Anton Gag were both artists, and she began drawing at a young age. Gág used her talent to support her family. She contributed drawings to the Junior Journal supplement of the Minneapolis Journal while still in high school, including her illustrated story Robby Bobby in Mother Goose Land. Gág’s father died when she was 15. Despite many people feeling she should give up school to support her family, she continued her education and graduated in 1912.
After attending the The Saint Paul School of Art, Gág continued her education at The Minneapolis School of Art under the patronage of Herschel V. Jones. In 1917, she moved to Greenwich Village where she attended the Art Students League of New York while beginning her career as an illustrator with her first commission, A Child’s Book of Folk-Lore— Mechanics of Written English by Jean Sherwood Rankin. Gág became a feminist and suffragist, and designed and made her own clothes so that she could express herself as the artist she was. Two years later, she was able to support herself through illustration.
In 1923, Gág held her first solo public exhibition at the New York Public Library. Three years later, she gained public recognition with a solo show in the Weyhe Gallery and she was named “one of America’s most promising young graphic artists.” She continued a relationship with the gallery, selling lithographs, lino block prints, watercoloring and drawings through them. In 1927, Gág had an article published in The Nation entitled “These Modern Women: A Hotbed of Feminists” which led Egmont Arens to write: ““Be more explicit about your relationships with men. The way you solved that problem seems to me to be the most illuminating part of your career. You have done what all the other ‘modern women’ are still talking about.” She followed this in 1935 with the “proto-feminist” Gone is Gone; or, the Story of a Man Who Wanted to Do Housework.
Gág turned her hand to children’s books in 1928, writing and illustrating Millions of Cats which would later become a classic. It won both a Newbery Honor Award and the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award and is the oldest American picture book still in print and in it, Gág pioneered the use of double-page spread to move the narrative on. She then focused her attention on fairy tales, which were thought of as inferior to realistic literature for children at the time. In 1936, she published Tales from Grimm and two years later, she translated and illustrated Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in an attempt to counteract the “trivialized, sterilized, and sentimentalized” Disney movie version. She continued to exhibit her work, and in 1939 her prints were a part of the New York World’s Fair American Art Today show. In 1940, she published her memoir, Growing Pains: Diairies and Drawings for the Year 1908-1917 based on her diaries.
Gág died in 1946, and was honoured by the The Horn Book Magazine in a tribute issue in 1947. Her papers, manuscripts and other paraphernalia are held in the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota, The New York Public Library, The University of Pennsylvania,The Free Library of Philadelphia and the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Her childhood home is now the Wanda Gág house, a museum centre which offers tours and educational programs. Gág continues to be recognised for her work, and in 1958 was posthumously honoured with the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, followed by the Kerlan Award in 1977. She inspired numerous artists, including Eric Rohmann,Ursula Dubosarsky,Susan Marie Swanson,Jan Brett Maurice Sendak and Ray Johnson.