Millions of Cats by Wanda Gág: review
Here at Reads for Keeps, one of our goals is to read through obscure Newbery books. Jen began with the first two Newbery Medal winners (1922′s The Story of Mankind and 1923′s The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle), and I wanted to follow suit by reviewing the earliest Newbery Honors.
Alas, that proved impossible. My local library system had none of the Honor books from 1922. Or 1923-1928 (to be fair, no Newbery Honors were awarded in 1923, ’24 or ’27), which is really too bad. The next batch of Newberys will be announced on Monday, and surely if any children’s books deserve to be preserved, it’s these…
In the end I had to make do with a title from 1929—and I’m glad I did, because Wanda Gág 1929 Honor book, Millions of Cats, clearly stands the test of time.
The book begins with an old man who discovers a strange-looking hill:
Cats here, cats there,
Cats and kittens everywhere,
Hundreds of cats,
Thousands of cats,
Millions and billions and trillions of cats.
Luckily, the old man has just been dispatched by his wife to find a pet cat. A kitten, she believed, would ease their loneliness, and now the man felt quite lucky having such choices before him. He picks up the prettiest cat he can find. But of course, there was a second one just as handsome, and a third, and…he tramps home, trailed by all those millions of cats. His wife is horrified: “They will eat us out of house and home.” So they ask the cats to decide which one they should keep.
The resulting cat fight isn’t pretty. At the end, when all the cats have mysteriously disappeared (“I think they must have eaten each other all up,” says the old woman, which begs the question just what happened to the ultimate predator cat that swallowed the others, and where is this colossal monster now?), there remained one homely little kitten that survived by staying quietly humble. So it gets adopted, and the two-person, one-cat family lived happily ever after.
One of the best things about picture books is the art of spotting little details, and Gág has put in so many it’d be impossible to find them all. Most impressively, she’s done it with simple black pen-and-ink. There must be well over a thousand drawn cats in this 30-page book: walking cats, stretching cats, napping cats, fighting cats, black cats, white cats, striped cats, spotted cats. When the old man first comes upon the hill of cats, they do their best to win him over. There’s one cat rubbing its head on his leg, another one sitting up like a dog, several more crouched with eyes half-closed, and peculiar cat executing an ancient Egyptian dance. Every time I open the book I find something new (kudos to anyone who spots the cow-patterned cat, or the one blissfully napping as its fellow felines tear each other apart); it’s like a cat-themed book of I Spy. I suspect Gág owned cats at one point, or at least spent lots of time observing them, because they are, like real cats, entirely unpredictable. (Disclaimer: I am an unabashed fan of cats. Two of them used to live in my house). The cats go from sweet to cannibalistic in a matter of moments, and on the last page, the lone survivor is simply smirking with self-acknowledged cuteness.
Here is a book that’s clearly meant to be FUN. Sure there’s a teachable moment at the end (don’t fight over vanity, and you may just survive like the humble little cat), but I prefer to come up with my own morals. Such as:
Keeping too many cats is bad for your larder (and pocketbook), or
Cats who are goody-two-shoes get fed milk, and
If ever you see an enormous cat with a stomach the size of a million cats, RUN.