How millions of cats evolved the tradition of oral folk tales ‹ Literary Center


Every week on NewberyTartJennie and Marcy, two book-loving mums (librarian and bookseller respectively), read and drink through Newbery’s entire catalog of books and interview authors and illustrators along the way.

In this episode, Marcy and Jennie, and special guest Lily, review the 1929 Newbery Honor book millions of cats, by Wanda Gag. They discuss the nature of folk stories, the importance of communication, and the debris one might expect after a trillion cat fight.

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From the episode:

Marky: Lily has a particular interest in folk tales, as we were talking about, but it’s interesting that previously I didn’t necessarily think of this book that way, but then I looked up all the definitions of folk tales that I was able to find and that is then exactly what this story is.

So I looked around and it turned out that this author’s family were immigrants from Bohemia and they really grew up in the tradition of oral folk tales. So many people think this story was some kind of mish-mash of folk tales from his childhood put together in a book. So it started in the really traditional way of an oral history passed down through a family.

i thought it was really cool website, in fact, it’s by a librarian named Amanda Rychener from the Cincinnati Library. This is not a deep dive, but a good exploration of this book as a literary folktale. And when you get to the bottom it says most critics believe that millions of cats is a figment of Wanda’s matured imagination, and is an original story based on a synthesis of folk tales simmering from infancy. Wanda is said to have invented the story for the children of friends she lived with in New York City in the early 1920s. She perfected it through frequent retelling as it was begged over and over again.

So it’s interesting to me that you can take an oral repetitive story that’s told to children, so that you have a legit folk tale start, and it becomes at the time by far the most picture book popular. Like, really the first American picture book that broke new ground in so many ways. As was the first advent of the double page, for example. And then it continues to be transmitted in a formalized word of mouth through the Newbery. I just think it’s interesting that they kind of evolved the procedure of folktales.


NewberyTart is a podcast about books for children, for adults, and is recorded in Atlanta, Georgia by two friends who approach the Newbery thing from very different, yet surprisingly complementary directions. The show is edited by Harper W. Harris of Strange World Sounds. The music was written and performed by Alan Thornton of the Throckmorton Ukulele Band. Graphic design was handled by Liz Mytinger, who didn’t mind being asked to add glasses and eyelashes to anthropomorphic blueberries.

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