"What?" You are saying. "Millions of Cats? By Wanda Gag? But," you sputter, "Isn't that a kid's PICTURE Book? Don't they have their own awards, like the Caldecot Medal, for Pete's sake!" Well, I guess that in 1929, it slid into the ranks of books under consideration for the Newbery Award, and it did indeed win an honor medal.
When my kids were young, I ran across it often in kid's book references. I always wondered why it totally passed under my radar, or maybe wasn't even around much when I was little. I did get a copy of it for my kids and was very charmed by the lovely pen and ink illustrations and the story, all 29 pages of it.
I'm not going to worry about spoilers because the nature of the book is to be read and re-read to kids, ad nauseum. If you like cats and kitties, this story will appeal to you, since it contains, "Hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats!"
The old man and old woman were lonely. "If only we had a cat!" are the fateful words of the old woman, so the old man sets out to find them one. Eventually he comes to a hill covered with cats, hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats. He selects what he thinks is the prettiest one, but of course there is always one just as pretty, so he continues picking cats, until he has chosen them all. So off they go back home. The environmental disaster that accompanies them on the way home is a foreshadowing of what awaits the herd. They are thirsty, and drink an entire pond dry. They are hungry, and devour every blade of grass on the grassy hills. When the old man arrives, the more practical old woman declares, "They will eat us out of house and home!" The old man decides to let the cats themselves choose who will stay. Since the old man's criteria had been, "the prettiest one," they begin arguing over which one is the prettiest. It turns into such a catfight that, frightened, the old couple dash inside and shut the door. When they finally peep out, all the cats are gone! They have eaten each other up! Except for one. A scrawny little thing who did not think itself pretty at all, and so did not engage in the quarrel. Of course, with a little milk and loving, the homely little cat turned into the prettiest one, after all.
There are really so many elements you can pick out and ponder in this simple tale. A pet can make you less lonely. The humble will be elevated. The prideful have their ruin. Prettiest matters the most. Men just don't think things out to their logical conclusion. And then the big one. Where the heck did all these cats come from? 1929 was way before spay and neuter, and I have seen what happens when cats have kittens, their kittens have kittens, etc. if nothing disastrous happens to the population. I expect it was an unpleasant reality at times to have to "take care of the problem." It is pretty tidy that in this book, the problem takes care of itself, but that's the way fairy tales work. I'm left with some unease over the noisy violence that was surely happening out there. I think some kids will just accept that, and some will imagine the process. (How can a million cats "eat each other up?")
The book was entirely inked, drawings and text alike. It is really a beautiful thing, and the cats are so drawn that you are tempted to actually count them.
I bought this hardbound book at the thrift store, and have purchased multiple other copies the same way to give out to young nieces and nephews.