Born in New Ulm, Minnesota, Wanda Gág grew up hearing the fairy tales of her parents’ native Bohemia, in a household filled with music and literature.
Her father was an artist who supported the family by decorating houses and churches, and he encouraged her interest in art. She attended art school in St. Paul and Minneapolis, and won a scholarship to study at the Art Students League in New York in 1917.
Although first and foremost a printmaker (she had one-woman shows at the New York Public Library and the Weyhe Gallery, and was featured in group shows at the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum, New York during the 1930s and 1940s), her true fame rests with her children’s books.
Millions of Cats won the Newbery Honor Award in 1929, and The ABC Bunny was given the same honor in 1934.
Her art grew out of her Bohemian heritage, yet is distinctly her own, using bold, strong, lines and sinuous forms which make inanimate objects terrifyingly alive, and living creatures — such as her cats, her mice, and herself, whimsically engaging.
In his “Notes on the Spiral Press” Joseph Blumenthal remembered Wanda Gág.
Writing about the calendars they sent to friends of the press in the 1920s (each decorated with six woodcuts by young American printmakers), he recalled that “Wanda Gág made heroes of subjects in our printshop, to the dismay of our compositors and pressmen who thought wheels should really be round.”
Red Riding Hood, by Lydia L. A. Very, and Jacob Grimm; 1863; Boston, Published by L. Prang.
The first mass-produced book to deviate from a rectilinear format, at least in the United States, is thought to be this 1863 edition of Red Riding Hood, cut into the shape of the protagonist herself with the troublesome wolf curled at her feet.
Produced by the Boston-based publisher Louis Prang, this is the first in their “Doll Series”, a set of five “die-cut” books, known also as shape books — the other titles being Robinson Crusoe, Goody Two-Shoes (also written by Red Riding Hood author Lydia Very), Cinderella, and King Winter.
An 1868 Prang catalogue would later claim that such “books in the shape of a regular paper Doll… originated with us”.
It would seem the claim could also extend to die cut books in general, as we can’t find anything sooner.
As for this particular rendition of Charles Perrault’s classic tale, the text and design is by Lydia Very (1823-1901), sister of Transcendentalist poet Jones Very.
The gruesome ending of the original — which sees Little Red Riding Hood being gobbled up as well as her grandmother — is avoided here, the gore giving way to the less bloody aims of the morality tale, and the lesson that one should not disobey one’s mother.