A lonely old woman tells the old man who shares her cottage that she wished she had a cat. The old man set out to find a cat for her, and he discovered a hill that was covered with cats. The refrain, “Cats here, cats there, cats and kittens everywhere, hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats” runs throughout the story (Gág 5). He brings the cats back to the old woman, who mentions that feeding a trillion cats presents some practical difficulties. The cats, vying for the affection of the old couple, devour each other. Only one homely cat remains. It stays with the old couple, who fatten up the homely cat until it becomes tolerably cute.
Except for the cats, the characters lack much depth, even for a short text, and other than references to them as “the very old woman” and “the very old man,” they’re unnamed. The very old man has a lot in common with modern shoppers: that one is perfect, but he’ll need fifteen more as well, except that, no, he’ll just take them all. He lacks restraint, and this is a cautionary tale of his greed and poor planning.
The cats are far more interesting. The gruesome cannibalism at which the story hints is indicative of an acceptance of the realities of nature that modern children—indeed, most modern adults—are not prepared to accept. The book clearly evokes another time period through its perspective on nature, its rural setting, the presence of tobacco, and the clothes of the characters.
In addition, this story may reveal the narcissistic and predatory nature of all cats. Wanda Gag is no doubt instructing the reader to steer clear of these vicious creatures. It is a meaningful theme that transcends the many years since the book’s publication. Also, it pays to be homely, apparently.
The text is handwritten, which contributes something to the artistry of the book, but which will make reading more difficult for beginning readers. The repetition of the hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, will appeal to young listeners.
The illustrations are interesting. The hills go up the page, and a remarkable amount of distance is shown in a small space. Best of all is the weirdness of the hill of cats. The text could in no way prepare the reader for an illustration of hundreds of cat faces, lounging cats, dancing cats, filling the page. The illustrations certainly move the plot of this surreal picture book.
It is possible that MILLIONS OF CATS may “have ushered in the age of the modern picture book, this Newbery Honor winner is characterized by innovative design and a strong storyteller’s cadence” (“One Hundred Books that Shaped the Century” 2000).
MILLIONS OF CATS is also listed as a distinguished picture book by Horn Book and is the 1929 winner of the Newbery Award (“Distinction in Picture Books” 2015; “Newbery Medal and Honor Books” 2015).
CATS ARE CATS by Valeri Gorbachev
IF YOU GIVE A CAT A CUPCAKE by Laura Numeroff
IF YOU SEE A KITTEN by John Butler
KITTEN’S FIRST FULL MOON by Kevin Henkes
LOVE THAT KITTY by Jeff Jarka
MAX THE BRAVE by Ed Vere
PETE THE CAT series by James Dean and Eric Litwin
SKIPPYJON JONES series by Judith Schachner
SQUARE CAT by Elizabeth Schoonmaker
THERE ARE CATS IN THIS BOOK by Viviane Schwarz
Try this one-page cat craft (Dotson)!
“Distinction in Picture Books.” Horn Book. May 7, 2015. http://www.hbook.com/2015/05/authors-illustrators/distinction-in-picture-books/
Dotson, Chazley. “Craft Ideas for Children’s Librarians.” Accessed August 29, 2015. http://padlet.com/chazley_dotson/fjsx02duziuf
Gág, Wanda. 1928. MILLIONS OF CATS. New York: Coward-McCann, Inc. ISBN 9780399233159
“Newbery Medal and Honor Books, 1922-Present.” Association for Library Services to Children. Accessed August 29, 2015. http://www.ala.org/alsc/awardsgrants/bookmedia/newberymedal/newberyhonors/newberymedal
“One Hundred Books that Shaped the Century.” School Library Journal. January 1, 2000. http://www.slj.com/2000/01/collection-development/one-hundred-books-that-shaped-the-century/#_