What makes a classic children’s book? Perhaps the most obvious sign is that a book you had read to you as a child becomes a book that as an adult you can’t wait to read to the children in your life. For that to be the case there has to be something about the book that feels as modern and relevant now as when it was first written, a universality that transcends generational change.
THE STORY OF FERDINAND written in 1936 by Munro Leaf is just such a book. Illustrated by Robert Lawson, it is the story of a young Spanish bull, who instead of running and jumping and butting heads, likes to sit quietly under a cork tree and smell the flowers. When five men come to pick “the biggest, fastest, roughest bull” to fight in the bull fights in Madrid, Ferdinand is mistakenly taken. This is because during their visit he is stung by a bee and shocked by the pain he has a violent response and his kicks and snorts are mistaken for aggression.
However, once he enters the ring all he wants to do is sit down in the arena and smell the flowers which are in the beautiful women’s hair. He will not fight and nothing that the banderilleros or picadores or the matador do will make him. Eventually, they give up trying to make him fight and take him home where he goes back to sitting under his tree and ” is very happy”.
The book can be viewed in a number of different ways.
- as a story against bull fighting,
- a story of the importance of being true to oneself, and
- politically as a story demonstrating the power of pacifism.
At a time when toxic masculinity is under the spotlight with the #MeToo movement and revelations about Harvey Weinstein, Ferdinand provides a welcome male role model. He is a full grown bull, that symbol of masculinity, strength and power, and yet he behaves with gentleness and sensitivity. He will not fight because that is not who he is, it is not his true nature, and in sitting down and smelling the flowers, he is being true to his essential, peaceful self.
The book’s first run by Viking Press in 1936 sold 14,000 copies. The following year saw sales increase to 68,000 and by 1938, the book was selling at 3,000 per week and became the number one bestseller in the United States.
The historical context is particularly poignant here. The book came out nine months before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. That brutal and bloody conflict raged from 1936 -1939. At the end the nationalists led by General Franco had won and he retained power until his death in 1975 at which point Spain began the long journey towards a democratic, pluralistic society. THE STORY OF FERDINAND was banned during Franco’s life time.
As it happened two thousand five hundred Americans did not take the advice of Ferdinand or indeed of their own government which was pursuing a policy of non-intervention in Spain during the Civil War. Those were the people who enlisted in the American Abraham Lincoln Brigade and came over to Spain to help the Republicans fight Franco. It was the first American military force to include blacks and whites integrated on an equal basis and it suffered a very high rate of casualties.
At the end of the Second World War 30,000 copies of THE STORY OF FERDINAND were printed and given out free to German children. So far the book has been translated into 60 languages including Latin and has never been out of print. In 1938 it was turned into a cartoon by Walt Disney which won the Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Cartoons).
To end a rather dreadful clip of the Lennon Sisters singing a song based on the book. Have you ever read the book? What did you think?