When she was young, Deborah Kogan Ray read Millions of Cats, Wanda Gág’s 1929 Newbery Honor Book, as well as her other picture books, and subsequently shared them with her own children. Several years ago, she came across excerpts from Gág’s diaries and immediately recognized a kindred spirit. That inspired Ray to research Gág’s life and create a picture-book biography, Wanda Gág: The Girl Who Lived to Draw, out this month from Viking.
“As a biographer, I look for something about a person that resonates with me, which happened when I read Wanda’s diaries,” says Ray, an author and illustrator who has created more than 60 books for children. After Gág’s artist father died in 1908, the 15-year-old used her artistic talents to support her ailing mother and six younger siblings. She went on to win a scholarship to the Art Students League in New York and to become an accomplished painter, before breaking into children’s books with Millions of Cats. “In her diary entries, her emotions are crystal clear,” says Ray. “I found her writing very exciting and I wanted to find out more about her.”
She didn’t have to search very far. The repository of many of Gág’s papers and some of her art is the library at the University of Pennsylvania, located in Ray’s hometown of Philadelphia. “Knowing that this material was so close by was thrilling, and this is where I did most of my research,” she says.
That research uncovered an interesting back story. Between 1919 and 1940, Carl Zigrosser was the director of the Weyhe Gallery in New York City. He became a stalwart supporter and close friend of Gág and displayed her paintings at the gallery. At one of those exhibitions, the artist met Ernestine Evans, an editor at Coward-McCann, who encouraged her to consider doing a children’s book. Gág dusted off Millions of Cats, which she had previously submitted (unsuccessfully) to publishers. She showed it to Evans, who acquired and edited this and subsequent picture books by the author.
Deborah Kogan Ray.
After leaving the gallery, Zigrosser became the curator of prints and drawings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where Ray worked one summer. “I was a 17-year-old art student, whose job was straightening the print drawers and general office clean-up,” she recalls. “He was a renowned scholar and was patient with us ‘kids’ who worked there, but truthfully I was so awed by him, I didn’t say much.”
When Zigrosser died in 1972, he willed his personal papers to the University of Pennsylvania’s library, including many letters from Gág. These, along with Gág’s own collection at the library, Ray says, comprise a “treasure trove” of what Zigrosser termed “Gágiana.” “Wanda’s collection also includes sketches, family photos and financial records—from childhood on,” Ray adds. “She saved everything. It provides an amazing first-hand look at a life.”
Tracy Gates, associate editorial director of Viking Children’s Books and editor of Wanda Gág, notes that the book, which Ray’s agent George Nicholson brought to Viking, has found a fitting home. Coward-McCann merged with Putnam in 1936, and in 1996 the Putnam Berkley Group was acquired by the Penguin Group, which also includes Viking. Millions of Cats is currently published by Viking’s sister imprints Putnam (in hardcover) and Puffin (in paperback). “It’s very nice to have this biography and Millions of Cats under the same umbrella,” says Gates. “And when we decided to include some of the art from Millions of Cats in the book, it was great to be able to give ourselves permission to do that.”
Ray, who like Gág was a painter before becoming a children’s book artist, discovered something else the two have in common—poor penmanship. Ray maintains that the similarities in their “chicken scratch” helped her decipher Gág’s handwriting. But her identification with Gág runs far deeper. “There was so much about her life as a woman artist that is very familiar to me,” says the author. “Though she wrote very well, she always thought of herself as an artist, a picture person, and that is how I think of myself too. It was very easy for me to get to know her.”
Wanda Gág: The Girl Who Lived to Draw by Deborah Kogan Ray. Viking, $16.99 ISBN 978-0-670-06292-8