Millions of Cats: Wanda Gag’s Beautifully Illustrated Children’s Book

Wanda tried to make her lively illustrations, "as much a work of art as anything I would send to an art exhibition." The result is a book of rare harmony of words and pictures.

“I aim to make the illustrations for children’s books as much a work of art as anything I would send to an art exhibition. I strive to make them completely accurate in relation to the text. I try to make them warmly human, imaginative, or humourous — not coldly decorative — and to make them so clear that a 3-year-old can recognize the main object in them.”
– Wanda Gág


Millions of Cats by Wanda Gág (March 11, 1893 – June 27, 1946; her last name rhymes with “fog” not “wag”) is widely regarded as the first American picture book. Published in 1928, it’s the oldest American picture book still in print. Designed and written by Gág, an American artist, author, translator, illustrator and print-maker who lived by the motto “draw to live, live to draw”, the hand-lettered text was produced by her brother. She tried to make her lively illustrations, “as much a work of art as anything I would send to an art exhibition.” The result is a book of rare harmony of words and pictures.



Millions of Cats tells the macabre story of an elderly couple who live well, but want to share their home and fill it with love. The wife decides a cat would be lovely. So her husband begins to look for one. His search takes him far and wide. One day he happens upon a hillside covered in “cats here, cats there, Cats and kittens everywhere. Hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, Millions and billions and trillions of cats…” (This rhythmic phrase appears throughout the story.)


Portrait of Wanda Gág and her cat Noopy, Print by Robert Janssen, Gelatin Silver Print, 1934, Kerlan Collection, Children’s Literature Research Collections, University of Minnesota

But there’s a problem: with so many cars to choose from which one does she pick to take home? He first goes for an all-white cat, but soon spots a tuxedo cat. He decides that two cats are better than one and evolves to take them both home. And then more cats catch his eye – an all-grey cat, an all-black cat and a yellow-brown striped cat. So they can come too. But every time he starts to head home, he sees another cat that he thinks too wonderful to leave behind. On and on it goes until he moves to take every cat.


“Millions of Cats” by Wanda Gág process art: An old man under a tree looking at a cat and an old man holding several cats in his arms. (Hand Lettered, india ink illustration)


But things soon become complicated. The group stops by a pond to drink but with so much thirst to quench the water dries up. They pause to eat and soon the place if stripped of food.


millions of cats


He reaches home and the couple realise there’s no way they’ll be able to feed and care for all the cats. So they must pick which one to keep. “Which one of you is the prettiest?” they wonder. The best looking cat will earn the right to be loved by them. Outside the couple’s home the cats begin to compete to see which is the prettiest and can stay. A huge catfight erupts.



And then it goes quiet. The man moves outside. Al the cats are gone – dead – save for one, a skinny cat hiding in a patch of tall grass. Not thinking itself pretty, this cat didn’t bother fighting. The couple takes the cat into their home. They nurture it, and eventually determine that this was the best cat all along.


Wanda in 1916

About the author

Wanda Hazel Gág was born in the German-speaking community of New Ulm, Minnesota, to Elisabeth (née Biebl) and the artist and photographer Anton Gag. The eldest of seven siblings, Wanda was 15 when her father died of tuberculosis. His final words to her were: “Was der Papa nicht thun konnt’, muss die Wanda halt fertig machen” (What Papa couldn’t do, Wanda will have to finish.”)

In 1917, Gág won a scholarship to the Art Students League of New York, where she took classes in composition, etching and advertising illustration. By 1919, Gág was earning her living as a commercial illustrator. Millions of Cats, was developed from a story that Gág had written to entertain the children of friends. Published in 1928. it was a recipient of the 1929 Newbery Honor Award and has gone on to sell over a million copies.


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