recess radio program

03/13/07
Wanda Gag
    by Rita Smith

When Wanda Gag, who was born March 11, 1893, was a young girl, a stranger, strolling down the residential street she lived on in New Ulm, Minnesota, saw her swinging on the garden gate. He did not know who she was, but he was struck by her elfin appearance and her large, expressive eyes. He wanted to give her some small gift that might please her, but a search of his pockets yielded only a pencil and his wallet. He held up a penny in one hand and the pencil in the other and said, "Which would you like? You may have either." Without a moment's hesitation, Wanda reached for the pencil and, with a grateful smile, skipped into the house.

It was a decision Wanda would make several times in her life: the penny or the pencil, to have money or to draw, and, although that first decision was easy, the later ones were not. Wanda was the oldest of seven children, and, when she was 15, her father died of tuberculosis, leaving the family with little means of support. Throughout high school and her young adult life, she continually had to choose between the penny and the pencil. Sometimes she chose the pencil because there was no way she could not draw, and sometimes she chose the penny because not only did she have to support herself, but she needed to contribute to the financial support of her siblings.

She worked as a teacher and, later, while attending art school in Minneapolis and New York on scholarship, she worked in commercial illustration, which she detested; drawing for formula, she called it. One year she burned all her commercial art bridges behind her and spent the summer in the country, drawing only what she wanted to draw. She returned with a bulging portfolio and was rewarded with a show at a gallery.

Her work was noticed by Ernestine Evans, an editor at Coward-McCann. Evans knew Wanda's pictures of simple, common things would appeal to children, and she offered Wanda the opportunity to write and illustrate a children's book. The result was Millions of Cats, published in 1928. It was hailed immediately as a children's classic, and, after that, Wanda never again had to choose between the penny and the pencil.

Sources:
Scott, Alma. Wanda Gag, the Story of an Artist. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press. 1949.

Copyright 2007 Rita Smith

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Saturday, 24-Feb-2007 21:52:16 EST


"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."