Pioneering Children’s Book Author, Artist, and Early Twentieth-Century Female Entrepreneur Wanda Gág Reimagines the Brothers Grimm
A visionary take on classic stories that continue to give us “a tingling, anything-may-happen feeling… the sensation of being about to bite into a big juicy pear.”
By Maria Popova
Although the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm have a long history of creative reimaginings — from quirky vintage interpretations by David Hockney in 1970 and Edward Gorey in 1973 to recent gems like Andrea Dezsö’s enchanting black-and-white illustrations and Neil Gaiman’s wonderful retelling of Hansel and Gretel — few have been as pivotal in the creative history as those by pioneering artist, author, printmaker, and translator Wanda Gág (March 11, 1893–June 27, 1946).
By the time she turned to the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm in 1936, Gág — who would go on to be a major influence for such storytelling legends as Maurice Sendak — was already an icon in her own right. By her early twenties, she was one of only twelve young artists in the entire United States to receive a scholarship to New York’s legendary Art Students League, at the time the country’s most important art school. She was soon making a living as a successful commercial artist, supporting herself by illustrating fashion magazines and painting lampshades, and even became a partner in a toy company.
But if being a financially independent young woman and female entrepreneur in the early 20th century wasn’t already daring enough, in 1923 Gág — who had just been given a one-woman exhibition by the New York Public Library, more than twenty years before Georgia O’Keeffe’s MoMA retrospective prompted the press to hail her as America’s first female artist — decided to give up commercial illustration and try making a living solely by her art. She moved to an abandoned farm in Connecticut and began to paint for her own pleasure, eventually turning to children’s storytelling. Her 1928 book Millions of Cats, which predated the internet’s favorite meme by many decades and earned Gág the prestigious Newbery Honor and Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, is the oldest American picture-book still in print and has been translated into multiple languages, including Braille.
But it was her visionary 1935 picture-book Gone Is Gone: or the Story of a Man Who Wanted to Do Housework — Gág’s retelling of a proto-feminist folktale she learned from her Austro-Hungarian grandmother — that first sparked her interest in translating and reimagining folktales for children. The following year, she set out to translate and illustrate Tales from Grimm (public library) — a remarkable fusion of Gág’s own peasant heritage and her masterful skills as a fine artist.
In the introduction, Gág writes of her approach to these familiar stories, or Märchen, which she tells as her grandmother had told them to her over and over:
The magic of Märchen is among my earliest recollections. The dictionary definitions — tale, fable, legend — are all inadequate when I think of my little German Märchenbuch and what it held for me. Often, usually at twilight, some grown-up would say, “Sit down, Wanda-chen, and I’ll read you a Märchen.” Then, as I settled down in my rocker, ready to abandon myself with the utmost credulity to whatever I might hear, everything was changed, exalted. A tingling, anything-may-happen feeling flowed over me, and I had the sensation of being about to bite into a big juicy pear…
Gág began by reading the Grimm tales in their original German, “in order to be influenced as directly as possible by the real spirit of these stories,” and although she at first had no intention of writing her own adaptation, she felt compelled to do so once she realized a literal translation rendered only a few “practically as fresh and lively as they were in the original,” but most “thin, lifeless and clumsy.” She considers her intent to preserve the peculiar magnetism of these stories, many of which are not exclusively German and are “composed by such widely different people as peasants and scholars.” (The story of Cinderella, she points out, “exists in one form or another in the folklore of many countries, such as the English, French, Italian, Greek, Scandinavian, Serbian and Egyptian.”) Gág writes:
I hoped it might be possible — and thought it worth trying — to carry over into the English some of their intimate me-to-you quality, and that comforting solidity which makes their magic more, rather than less, believable.
The fairy world in these stories, though properly weird and strange, has a convincing, three-dimensional character. There is magic, wonder, sorcery, but no vague airy-fairyness about it. The German witches are not wispy wraiths flying in the air — they usually live in neat cottages and wear starched bonnets and spotless aprons.
She makes a special point of setting her adaptation apart from the then-popular simplified and sanitized versions of the originally gory Grimm tales. In a sentiment that J.R.R. Tolkien would come to second decades later in arguing that there is no such thing as writing “for children” and Neil Gaiman would echo in asserting that it is inadvisable to protect children from the dark, Gág writes:
True, the careless use of large words is confusing to children; but long, even unfamiliar, words are relished and easily absorbed by them, provided they have enough color and sound-value… A certain amount of “goriness,” if presented with a playful and not too realistic touch, is accepted calmly by the average child. In this way sanguinary passages can be rendered harmless, without depriving them of their salt and vigor.
For all her prescience and genius, Gág makes one remark that renders itself misguided in history’s hindsight:
At fourteen I was still avidly reading fairy tales and hopefully trying out incantations; but in this sophisticated age of the movies, radio, tabloids, and mystery stories, one cannot set the fairy tale age limit over eleven or twelve.
In our era of renewed interest in fairy tales as a literary genre for grownups, it’s hard not to appreciate Gág’s advantageous imprudence — it is, after all, to the benefit of her own book that she was wrong about the age appeal if we modern grownups cherish it today. It makes one wonder, too, whether it is precisely this explosion of media — with so many more new forms since Gág’s heyday — that sparked a counterrevolutionary return to such older storytelling traditions. And it’s a comforting thought: So much is said today about the alleged death of books in the merciless hands of digital media — and yet here is one of the greatest storytellers of her era, making similar predictions about the dismal fate of her medium’s displacement by movies and radio, and being wonderfully wrong.
Gág’s Tales from Grimm is irreplaceably and timelessly wonderful in its entirety. Complement it with the little-known first edition of the Grimm tales, then revisit Gág’s terrific Gone Is Gone and this year’s best children’s books.
Published December 29, 2014