Have you checked out the third annual KidLit project on Women’s History Month? This year’s theme is “Women Inspiring Innovation Through Imagination: Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics,” and diverse and divine writers are contributing posts on women who used their brains to accomplish great things. Feed your adventurous spirit over at http://kidlitwhm.blogspot.com/
The post I contributed to the 2011 celebration focused on the artist who invented the picture book. Wanda Gág’s story is beautifully rendered for children in Deborah Kogan Ray’s Wanda Gág: The Girl Who Lived to Draw. The author/illustrator uses evocative excerpts from Gág’s diary to great effect, weaving in highlights of the family’s roots in the German-speaking area of Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic).
Ray’s bright, lively paintings exude color and a full range of emotions. She shows the seven imaginative Gág children drawing and putting on their own plays, inspired by the folktales told by their imaginative parents. Ray also shows a quiet Wanda in the attic studio, observing her father, “happy in his soul” as he allowed himself the freedom to paint for pleasure on Sundays. Then there is the somber death-bed scene, with Wanda holding her father’s hands as he urges her to pursue art: “What Papa couldn’t do, Wanda will have to finish.”
His death from tuberculosis, when Wanda was just 15, might have precluded any chance that the eldest daughter would become an artist. Instead, her resolve strengthened. To reach her goal, she would have to battle poverty, pressure from her provincial neighbors to work as a store clerk, her friends’ conventional expectations for marriage, as well as sexism in the art world and in society at large.
Not only did Wanda and all her siblings finish high school, Wanda won a scholarship to study art, first in St. Paul, Minnesota, then at the prestigious Art Students League in New York City. That’s where a children’s book editor, taken with her vivid images, asked Wanda if she had ever considered writing children’s books. In fact, Wanda had a box full of ideas for children’s stories.
Gág’s success with Millions of Cats, considered the first picture book, led to ten other inventive children’s books, ranging from The ABC Bunny, the first alphabet book to tell a story; to her still-beloved picture books The Funny Thing, Gone is Gone, Nothing at All, and Snippy and Snappy, as well as Tales from Grimm, which she translated from her native German.
Suggested Discussion Questions
for Wanda Gág: The Girl Who Lived to Draw
Teachers, parents, and librarians can use Ray’s picture-book biography (for ages 7-10) to enhance children’s appreciation of creativity, community, and perseverance.
1. Hold up the two-page spread showing the children acting out a play. Ask, “How did the family encourage the children’s creativity?”
2. Wanda spoke only German until she went to school. How do you think it would feel to enter a school where you were expected to learn a new language?
3. What did Wanda mean when she said her father was “happy in his soul” while painting in the attic? What kinds of activities make you feel this way?
4. Why did Papa urge Wanda to look at the world in her own way?
5. At bedtime, Wanda’s mom read her Grimms’ fairy tales. What kinds of books do you like to hear read aloud?
6. Wanda wrote that many of her childhood memories centered on the “Grandma folks.” How did those experiences with older relatives contribute to her development as a person or as an artist?
7. Wanda described her “drawing fits.” Have you ever been so engaged in an activity that you lost track of time? What were you doing? How did you feel?
8. Why do you think Papa told Wanda she would have to finish what he could not do? What effect did this have on her goals?
9. Why did the neighbors urge Wanda to quit school and get a job? Do you think you would have resisted, as Wanda did? Why or why not?
10. How did Wanda manage to help her family survive while at the same time developing her artistic talent?
11. Wanda’s motto became “Draw to live, and live to draw.” What did she mean by that?
12. How did the art school and the culture of New York City assist Wanda in developing her own artistic style?
13. Wanda was able to take advantage of the opportunity to create children’s books partly because she had a “Notebook of Ideas.” Do you have some kind of notebook or journal where you keep some of your ideas? What do you enjoy about that?
14. How did Papa’s advice that Wanda see the world in her own way help her to succeed? What other qualities helped her?