Written and Illustrated by Wanda Gág
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1928
Once upon a time there was a very old man and a very old woman. They lived in a nice clean house which had flowers all around it, except where the door was.
The plot in a nutshell: A man tries to choose a cat for his wife and winds up with more than they can handle.
The old woman wants a cat, so the old man sets out to get her one. He travels a long way and finally reaches a hill covered with cats. He picks the one he thinks is prettiest, but then he sees another that is just as pretty so he picks up that one, too. Of course, he keeps seeing other beautiful cats and winds up bringing the millions of cats home with him. They stop at a pond and each cat takes one sip of water and suddenly the pond is gone. They stop at a grass-covered hill and each cat eats one blade of grass, leaving the hill bare. When he gets home, the old woman knows they can’t keep them all, so she asks them which is the prettiest. This starts a fight that results in all the cats disappearing, except one scraggly kitten. He tells them the other cats ignored him because he wasn’t pretty and so he survived the battle. They bathe him and brush him and he becomes the most beautiful.
I have seen this book, from author/illustrator Wanda Gág, on bookshelves my entire life without ever picking it up to read it. It’s a good story that stands up fairly well, even as it approaches its own 90th birthday, and it holds a lot of interesting history in its pages. It holds the distinctions of being the oldest American picture book still in print, the first to feature artwork that spread across two pages and one of the few pictures books to win the Newbery Honor, which is usually given to juvenile or young adult books. Although it’s not certain, many people believe that this book may have been one of the reasons the American Library Association instituted the Caldecott Medal (to recognize picture books) in 1938. Ms. Gág would go on to win a Caldecott Medal in 1939 for her version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
The artwork in this book is simple, and just one color, but it fits perfectly with the story. The characters are likeably drawn and the cats are disarmingly cute, in spite of the fact that they eventually all fight so fiercely that, according to the old man, they eat each other up. (How does that work exactly?) The book is an example of a really good use of repetition in a story. As a big fan of reading books aloud, I am not always a fan of repetition, because it can be very tedious to read. This book uses the phrase, “hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats” several times and, rather than feeling repetitious, it feels lyrical and flows beautifully.
And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that sometimes, by not blowing your own horn, you make the sweetest and most successful music.