Millions of Cats, 1928

Millions and Billions and Trillions of Cats!

Millions and billions and trillions of cats,” oh my! Turns out they’re worse than lions and tigers and bears. And yet, if you know how it feels to be swept away by every whiskered furry little being that pokes its pink nose at you, you understand the basic cause and effect of Wanda Gags Millions of Cats. It’s a fairy tale Cinderella story coupled with a socialist flair for realism. And the melodic, sing-songy pace of the thing– along with an improbability that rides right on the cusp of Perhaps– emblazens this “timeless” story right into the memory of so many readers.

So very many cats...

As is often mentioned on it’s back cover, this book is the oldest kids’ book still in print. Which is crazy when you think about it. 1928!? That’s only some 80 odd years ago. Meaning, kids books don’t necessarily stay in circulation. Which perhaps speaks to how we view kids books: as educational tools rather than unique pieces of art worthy in their own right. It’s their function we value over their individual legitimacy as art. And so, as long as something is fulfilling that function, we see no need to preserve specific books.

Now, the honor of “literature” is deserved when a work speaks to something so pertinently human that it remains relevant throughout cultures and centuries. I wonder. Do we not find this in kids’ lit because we do not look? Or is it simply that we do not include it in our lessons of the world because this nebulous quality of literature always nips at our heels with a slightly dark and overwhelming bigness? Is it a scary something that we must shield children from? And why?

Wanda Gag didn’t. She was amazing in many ways, and one of these ways was her disinterest in pandering to any notion that kids were any less capable of reality than adults. Her kids’ books were some of the only “realist” books (as far as a book about trillions of cats eating grass and then each other can be) of her time, sort of in line with her insistence on realistic art even in the upsurge of surrealism. In Millions of Cats, of course, we aren’t just talking about her art but also the frank brutality of the story.

And they began to quarrel!

An old man tries to bring his lonely old wife a cat to keep her company. But, unable to choose just one, he comes home with a feline army that drains lakes and mows entire hill sides in its hunger. What is lovely in singularity becomes monstrous en masse. And that flip flop is the disruptive habit of the whole story. Good intentions with bad ends, horror sprung from beauty, beauty born from homeliness, this story hinges upon a proverbial pulling out of the rug and a flipping of expectations. Gag leaves a reader unsettled, even though her ending is proverbially happy. I mean really.  Millions and billions and trillions of cats all ate each other? How do you forget that image? Even as the modesty of the little homely kitten brings him to his deserved sweet home, there’s still the memory of the carnage lurking outside. And what exactly does it mean that all the cats eat each other… socialist statement of equality? A rage against conceit? Or simply Gag’s continued appreciation of the old European fairy-tale tradition (witches eating kids, trolls eating kids, wolves eating grandmothers)? Whatever the impetus, Wanda Gag refuses to pander to the childishness of children, to tell a simple, happy, baby-talk story. And perhaps this is the very reason Millions of Cats persists as it does. Sometimes the gruesome is the pervading universality– darkness spawns timelessness. Perhaps, as Millions of Cats suggests, it is a step in the right direction to try to let kids in on life and stop pretending that the bad stuff doesn’t happen. Even if home is warm and cuddly, the wicked witch is always out there,lurking…

3 thoughts on “Millions of Cats, 1928

  1. Pingback: The ABC Bunny and his Ms. Wanda Gag « Little Book Review

    • Thanks man… just wait til I get The Funny Thing on here. And Noting at All. Those ones have turned out to be gems…

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