One-Minute Book Reviews

January 5, 2007

Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read #1: Millions of Cats by Wanda Gág

Filed under: Children's Books,Classics — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:25 pm

The first in an occasional series of posts about great classic picture books that are still widely available in libraries and elsewhere

Millions of Cats. By Wanda Gág. Putnam, 32 pp., varied prices. Ages 6 and under.

By Janice Harayda

Thirty years ago, an editor asked Maurice Sendak if he thought picture books were better in the past. Yes, he said, “there was Wanda Gág.” More recently, I asked the popular children’s author Jan Brett which artists had influenced her work, and she gave a similar answer: “Of course, there was Wanda Gág.”

Gág (rhymes with blog) was to picture books what Julia Child was to French cooking – the first American star in a field that has exploded in her wake. And just as Mastering the Art of French Cooking remains a standard-bearer for a generation, so does Gág’s Millions of Cats, first published in 1928.

Gág’s masterpiece is so unassuming by today’s measures that if you came across it on a library shelf, you might overlook it. Except for the cover, all of the illustrations are black-and-white. The book is relatively small, just over half the size of Chris Van Allsburg’s new Probuditi, with a horizontal format. It has only two human characters — an old man and woman with no children – who might have stepped out of the story of Abraham and Sarah.

But Millions of Cats combines tenderness with powerful themes, including the human longing for companionship and the struggle to survive in the natural world, and it does so in a story 3- and 4-year-olds can understand. The old woman believes a cat would ease the couple’s loneliness, and her husband sets out to find one. But each cat he sees is so pretty, he goes home followed by what looks like a feline peace march. The horde inspires the refrain:

Cats here, cats there,

Cats and kittens everywhere,

Hundreds of cats,

Thousands of cats,

Millions and billions and trillions of cats.

The old man and woman can’t keep them all, so the cats compete for survival, except for a frightened and “very homely little cat” that others see as no threat and ignore. That is the cat that the couple come to see as the “the most beautiful cat in the world.”

Gag’s beautiful pen-and-ink drawing flow across gutters and move her story forward in waves instead of boxes that can make a book look flat or inert. Many of her details recall both folktales and her Bohemian ancestry – a kerchief, a tunic, a tidy fieldstone cottage encircled by flowers. And her humor comes not from visual gags but believable emotions, such as the old man’s astonishment on seeing the “millions of cats” for the first time. All of it makes for a book that a child can read again and again with delight. Millions of Cats was the first American picture book that had both popular and literary success, and it’s still one of the worthiest of its honors.

Best line: “Millions and billions and trillions of cats.”

Worst line: Some critics say it’s illogical that the text suggests that the cats “have eaten each other all up” at the end of their fight while the pictures offer no evidence that they have done this. I think that this view is too literal and the fight is a metaphor for the Darwinian struggle for survival. How “logical” was it for all those millions of cats to follow the old man home in the first place?

Recommeded if … without reservations.

Published: 1928 (first edition), 1996 (Putnam reprint)

FYI: You can find good information on the life and work of Wanda Gág and links to related sites at the free online encyclopedia, Wikipededia

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Can Terry McMillan Get Her Groove Back?

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:21 am

Husbands come and go, but hot flashes stick around in a novel by the author of Waiting to Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back

The Interruption of Everything. By Terry McMillan. Signet, 462 pp., $9.99, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

My local CVS sells The Interruption of Everything on a rack full of romance novels, and the drugstore turns out to be a pretty good literary critic. Terry McMillan once seemed headed for a career as “the world’s finest chronicler of modern life among African-American men and women,” as the San Francisco Chronicle said. But she’s devolved into Danielle Steel with a sense of humor.

The Interruption of Everything trundles out that emaciated cliché – a mother in her 40s who learns that her dull husband is having a “midlife crisis” (and, yes, it’s one of those “crises” that involves a younger woman). The plot careens soap-opera style through pregnancies, an arrest, an elopement, a sudden death, the onset of dementia, and a struggle for a gun at a California boutique, all of it driven by sitcom-level dialogue. Characters say “Dang” and “Whoa” and bemoan those well-known faults of men: “Overt stupidity. Promiscuity. Regressive behavior.” Marilyn, the perimenopausal heroine, says bizarrely that a hot flash feels like you’re “being dabbed with mild salsa.”

Faced with all of this, the editors seem to have given up. McMillan strings together as many as a half dozen independent clauses without punctuation. She sets up a subplot involving a man her heroine used to love — who just happens to buy a house three blocks away right after her husband decides to leave — and then, incredibly, drops it. You find more careful plotting in some of those paperback romances on the same rack at CVS.

But there’s a difference between McMillan and many other writers of books with metallic-embossed covers. At her best, she’s much funnier. She portrays the buoyant Christian faith of Marilyn’s mother-in-law, Arthurine Grimes, with wry affection instead of ridicule. You can’t help but smile when Arthurine says, “Is God your steering wheel or spare tire, Marilyn?” Or when, suspecting that her daughter-in-law is pregnant, Arthurine instructs her, “Remember, Jesus wasn’t planned, either.” At such moments, McMillan finds her literary groove and makes you hope she’ll widen it in future books.

Best line: Arthurine again: “Opportunity knocks once, baby, but temptation leans on the doorbell.”

Worst line: “We tried you on your cell but you didn’t pick up so we got a little worried since we didn’t know where your appointment was and we tried calling Leon at work but his assistant said he left early to pick up his son at the airport and against our better judgment we tried your house and Hail Mary Full of Grace answered and after she deposed us, I asked if she knew your doctor’s number and she said she had to think for a few minutes and while she was thinking I started thinking who else we could call and that’s when I remembered your GYN’s name was a hotel: Hilton!” Quick, send out a search party for the missing commas! The sentence reads like the winner of a Bad Hemingway Parody Contest.

Editor: Carole DeSanti

Published: August 2006

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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