Wanda Gag: The Girl Who Lived to Draw
by Deborah Kogan Ray
by Deborah Kogan Ray
Wanda Gag (1893-1946) was an American children's picture book author and illustrator, best known for Millions of Cats.
The book opens with an explanation of how the reader probably knows of Wanda Gag (through her book, Millions of Cats), and then it dives into a beautifully written narrative of her life, based heavily on entries from her diary. Each page begins with a first-person quotation from the diary, and then the author provides further detail about Gag's cozy childhood filled with art and music, her father's own career as an artist cut short by his death from tuberculosis, and the hardships of her own young adulthood, as her mother grew frail and she was forced to support her younger siblings with whatever meager earnings she could make from her drawing. The story proper ends when Gag publishes and then receives a Newbery Honor for Millions of Cats.
About the Illustrations
The illustrations complement the text nicely, and they chart Gag's maturity from girlhood to adulthood without requiring lengthy explanations of fashion and hairstyles from the text. The pictures help to bring the time period to life, and they also show Gag's sources of inspiration and her drawing techniques. Overall, they do precisely what the pictures in a picture book biography ought to do: support the text, without detracting from the information being presented.
There are three notes at the back of this book. "After Millions of Cats" follows the rest of Gag's picture book career, listing awards she won and her eventual return to the German fairy tales that inspired her during her teen years. "Wanda's Diary" explains the role of the diary entries in this book and also explains how and when she died. Finally, "Author's Note" tells how the author came to accent the A in Gag in the book, and describes how she was able to access the resources from which she took her information. The two-page spread showing the diary note and author's note also show an illustration from Millions of Cats - the one where the scrawny kitten drinks milk and grows fat.
This is just a lovely book. It is accessible enough that it can be shared with the kindergartners and first graders who have heard Millions of Cats, but it also has appeal to older kids, and even to adults who remember reading the book at a younger age. The inclusion of quotes from the diary, and the author's access to the diary in general also really elevate this book above others of its genre and make it something I would want to re-read more than once. There is a specificity of detail and a feeling of personal confidence that just can't happen in books written about subjects who did not keep records in their own voices. I will definitely be reading this book to my kids after they have read Millions of Cats, and I would recommend it for elementary classrooms and library visits.