The ABC Bunny and his Ms. Wanda Gag

Wanda Gag (rhymes with “log” not “tag”) cuts a unique figure in the world of children’s books. Both successful and controversial, she made a mark on 1920s America that still rings out today. Children’s books, illustration, feminism, and realism-during-a-vogue-of-surrealism, Wanda Gag made waves. I mean, look at her… she’s hot.

Wanda was the eldest of seven in a family of European immigrants who were very poor after the death of their father. Wanda was his stand in. The Gags were close throughout their life, and she supported her siblings into adulthood. She could do this because starting in her early 20’s (the 19 teens), Wanda Gag acquired some notoriety as an illustrator. Her work was carried at the prestigious Weyhe Gallery in New York, her drawings were published in The New York Times and The Liberator, and her lithograph, “Elevated Station, 1926,” was selected as one of the “Fifty Prints of the Year” by the American Institute of Graphic Arts.

But here, as we do, we are focusing on kids’ books. As Gag settled into the public eye, she was asked to illustrate a kids’ book. Story goes that Gag refused to illustrate a story that didn’t grab hold of her– she had a pretty strong sense of her own inclinations. She wanted to do things her way, and  Millions of Cats was the result. It won a Newbery Honor in 1928.  This is cool because picture books are rarely given that award. She didn’t stop there. The ABC Bunny was published in 1933 with a Newbery honorable mention. And another honorable mention for Nothing at All in 1941. Gag was definitely what we could call a successful artist. 

She was also a rather controversial figure. As she discusses in an article she wrote for The Nation ( “A Hotbed of Feminists”!), her philosophy surrounding art and sex was that women should be given the same pass as men– allowed freedom to pursue both. Though as she says in that article, “I am just as eager as nature to fill a vacuum”, that vacuum would not be childbirth. She chose art over marriage, and she treated sex as a muse. The reason we are gathered here today is to discus one of her most popular books, The ABC Bunny. Gag suggests that the very impetus for this book (yes, it’s a kids book), was her love affair with a Dr. Darby: “”I had told him [Dr. Hugh Darby] that the right kind of love-affairs helped me draw, and I told him he might consider himself responsible for some of the results in my ABC book.” With that unusually scandalous impetus in mind, let’s turn to the Bunny in question.

The words and drawings are by its author, Wanda Gag. Hand-written lettering by her brother, Howard. And sheet music by Flavia Gag, her sister. Truly a family affair. I think it’s the oldest kids book still in print. As I’ve mentioned in my introduction to this blog, The ABC Bunny started it all for me, re-awoke my love for the illustrated book. Bam.

Since you probably know this book, I’ll keep the summary short. Like all the best abecederian books, it tells a story. A falling Apple frightens Bunny away from Bunnyland (the “A” beginning of our alphabet), and he runs through the rest of the letters (all encountered in Elsewhere) on his way back home. Reading this book feels kind of like sitting on a train watching the scenery go by: the scared, little Bunny acts as binoculars through which to encounter lizards and hail and rails and quails and farmer’s garden patches, all from a virginal point of view. These new things scare him. There’s dangerous owls and crazed cat-nipped kittens, all of which turn Bunny “Up side down” (for “U”). These things so common to the reader become foreign through Bunny’s eyes, and the train ride often morphs into an acid trip. Gag’s black and white illustrations only emphasize that extra layer of a surrounding meaning, and Gag herself claimed that she liked her drawings to unveil the vibrations she felt emanating from empty spaces…

The terrifying newness of Elsewhere gives you the distinct feeling that Gag intends the alphabet experience to be more than just a romp through the letters. The happy Bunny’s return to Bunnyland (with little Hitler (not yet, of course, this is 1933) rabbit salutes to welcome him back) takes on a more loaded meaning. What do we make of a Bunny running away to the safety of being like everyone else? Of fearing the unknown? Poor little Bunny… scared of his own shadow, of the things in that nebulous Elsewhere. Let us remember, both poor, a girl, and a European immigrant, Gag had to fight her way into the art world. That she had to stand against expectations. She was decidedly NOT a conformist. And I might imagine that she was perhaps subject to, but not a victim of, fear. At the risk of reading too much from the author’s life, I might suggest that The ABC Bunny is a critique of anyone who cannot roll with the intimidating monstrosities of the unfamiliar.

And when better to start teaching this sort of lesson than with the alphabet? One look at the final set of pages might convince you further: “Y” is You, watching yourself, reading a (this) book. All of a sudden, you see yourself a character, you exist in the same world Bunny does. You could be him. And then there’s the final devastating finish of everything as the book ends with the big old Zero for “Z”. As if it all means nothing. Gone with a close of the pages. She hands you a mirror or yourself as you might be if you lived in a frightened, xenophobic, conformist world of Bunnyland, and immediately demands that you close it. Done. Finished with the safety on Bunnyland. Time to move on, to first create and then abandon The ABC Bunny. Well, you know, metaphorically. Cause we’ll never abandon him all the way… he’s far too special.

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