MILLIONS OF CATS
Gaʹg, Wanda. 1928, renewed 1956. Millions of Cats. New York: Putnam and Sons.
2. PLOT SUMMARY
A little old woman and a little old man lived in a lovely place, but they were lonely. The woman expresses a desire for a cat and the husband sets off to get her one. When he comes to a field full of cats, however, he cannot pick just one. He ends up bringing them ALL back. The wife points out they won’t be able to feed them all and they decide to let the cats choose which is the prettiest. The cats all begin fighting and, in the way of older stories, manage to be quite violent by eating each other all up. But then the couple finds one skinny cat left in the field, who had not dared to say it was the prettiest. They feed it and care for it and soon it becomes lovely indeed and they are all happy.
3. CRITICAL ANALYSIS
A classic in children’s literature, the famous refrain, “Hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats,” is known by probably just that many children in the world! Published in 1928, Millions of Cats was one of the earliest books written for children, after Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter in 1902. It won the Newbery Honor Award in 1929. The art is black and white ink line drawings. In that time, colored art was very expensive. However, all of those black and white cats look indeed like a sea of cats because of their similarity, increasing the humor in a way perhaps that colored art would not have. The phrasing used is full of repetition, not just in the exact words, but in the situation. They eat up all the field. They drink up all the water. The reader already knows what the wife will say before the husband figures it out. There is a lovely two page spread of the scrawny kitten getting milk every day and growing more and more plump, like time-lapse photography in black and white film. To be clear, the “violence” of the story—the cats eating the cats—thankfully happens “off-screen.”
4. REVIEW EXCERPTS"This Newbery Honor winner is distinguished by innovative design and a strong storyteller’s cadence." School Library Journal's "One Hundred Books that Shaped the Century"
"A perennial favorite." The New York Times
Came in as #21 out of the Top 100 Children's Books in the 2012 School Library Journal List.
- While reading, encourage the children to chant with you during each use of the repeated phrases.
- Tie in philosophy by showing how beauty was in the eye of the beholder—do we know that this cat was indeed the prettiest? No, but it was for the old lady and man and that’s all that mattered.
- Vanity versus humility could be discussed with older audiences. The little kitten’s humility is what saves it.
- You can ask the children: What would you look for in a new pet? Discuss what matters to them and why.
- Considering showing the NHPT and PBS video of the book, from their Caldecott Literature series. http://video.nhptv.org/video/1688016012/ It plays right on the webpage. It is not actually animated, but the camera pans from one part of the illustration to another, mimicking animation.
- Another great classic book about cats that also uses black and white illustrations, is The Cat Club, by Esther Averill, published in 1944, It would be neat to read that and compare the two books. It now appears to only be sold in the collection Jenny and the Cat Club: A Collection of Favorite Stories about Jenny Linsky, (ISBN 1590170472.) My children LOVED The Cat Club and both wanted a red scarf like Jenny Linsky, which could be a tie in to a craft.
- Other books about cats include Kitten’s First Full Moon by Kevin Henkes (which also has black/white illustrations though it was released in 2004), Skippyjon Jones, Have You Seen My Cat? and Pete the Cat.
6. PERSONAL REACTIONS
This was the only book on the classic list I did not own. I think I read it in college for a class (many years ago!) but somehow missed buying it for my children. Even though they are now 7 and 9, they thought this book was pretty funny once my youngest got over her initial alarm at all those cats eating each other up! She had a hard time accepting the hyperbole of the book at first! I appreciate that the book appears very simple, yet contains important truths about humility and the true nature of beauty.