Mar 8, 2013

Happy Birthday, Wanda! Celebrating a Classic Children’s Author

Monday marks the 120th birthday of Minnesota artist and children’s author Wanda Gag. Gag was the creative mind behind the beloved Newberry Honor book, Millions of Cats, with its memorable refrain, “Millions and billions and trillions of cats!”  Whether spinning a tale of an invisible dog that strives for “somethingness” or translating her own version of Grimm’s fairy tales, Gag made sure her stories contained equal parts perfect nonsense and sly moral commentary.

As chronicled in several biographies, Gag was a true Bohemian. Her parents emigrated from Europe and settled in the German community of New Ulm, Minnesota near the turn of the century. Gag’s work would later pay tribute to the Old World peasant folk she grew up with and her rural roots. When her parents both died, teenage Wanda became caretaker of her six brothers and sisters. But her artist father’s last request to his talented daughter was, “What papa couldn’t do, Wanda will have to finish.”

While acting as matriarch, Gag still held dreams of becoming an artist. She eventually attended art school and became a savvy commercial artist, refusing to illustrate any books but her own. Sporting a handmade dress and a smart 30s bob, Gag moved to New York, combining her storytelling heritage and success as an artist to become the author/illustrator of many acclaimed children’s books. While she returned home often, in later years she lived on a rural estate in New England, called “All Creation,” where there was plenty of room for family visits--and for her (not quite millions of) cats.

Celebrate this homegrown artist this weekend! Much of her work is housed in the University of Minnesota’s Kerlan Collection and at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. And a special exhibition of both classic and newly revealed works will open tonight at the Brown County Historical Society Museum in New Ulm. The opening reception will be followed by Saturday festivities for families. Here’s to Minnesota’s very own model of “somethingness.” Happy birthday, Wanda!

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