ferdinandWhat 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?


The very beautiful cover of COGHEART

I’ve just finished a wonderful book called COGHEART by Peter Bunzl. I think its age range is supposed to be pre-teen but frankly it could be enjoyed by anyone from 8 to 80, as far as I’m concerned. It reminded me of the Joan Aiken books (Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Night Birds on Nantucket) I read when I was younger and if you’re looking for a Christmas present for a passing child this will do nicely.

The story is set in an alternative Victorian universe (1896) and it starts with John Hartman and his mechanical fox Malkin being pursued by a Zeppelin. Malkin is put in the escape capsule  with a note to John’s daughter, Lily. She is in a terrible school where she is practising her lock picking skills and reading her Penny Dreadfuls. Excellent heroine!

Robert Townsend is a clockmaker’s son, who is drawn into the story when he spies Malkin being pursued by the terrifying baddies – Roach and Mould. He puts them off the scent and then repairs Malkin and winds him back up again. Malkin is an excellent character, ingenious and mouthy. Just the kind of fox you would want to rescue you from trouble.

The world setting is excellent part Victorian, part alternative universe; it is inhabited by humans, mechanicals, mechanimals, and hybrids. There are some vile baddies and some splendid oaths:  ‘Cogs and chronometers’ probably being my favourite. If you’re interested in airships and Zeppelins there’ll be enough detail to keep you entertained.  The book ends with a thrilling denoument on top of Big Ben. A splendid story sweetly told. It left me with a longing for a mechanical fox called Malkin. Well, one can always dream. Are you listening Santa?

Finally, this is the 100th post of this blog and so it’s an opportunity to thank those of you stalwarts who have supported the blog from the beginning and welcome more recent followers. Thank you for following and welcome. I hope you enjoy the ride although unfortunately it won’t be in a  Zeppelin!

What is your favourite book that you read as a child?


This post was going to be called REASONS FOR NOT WRITING. My reason being, on this particular occasion: a giant bee has just flown into my room and struck me on the ear. When I say giant I mean . . . But then it got me thinking about a children’s book I love – HARRY’S BEE by Peter Campbell and so that’s what this post is going to be about instead. Much more interesting than reasons for not writing, which are usually as banal and pathetic as the reasons for not putting out your recycling.

Harry’s Bee

The story of HARRY’S BEE is a simple one. Harry, a man sporting a pretty groovy hat, grows the biggest rose in England and it attracts an enormous bee. They talk. Harry offers him a pot of honey. They agree they have never met anyone they like as much as each other and so Harry makes a bee basket and they set off to see the world. There is a lovely scene, which I have thought about many times in my life, when Harry lets his bee out of the basket purely in order to have the whole train carriage to himself. The bees ego is fanned by the fact that he terrifies people and he demands to be taken to the chief bee-keeper to be measured. When he is told there is no chief bee-keeper he says Number Ten will do but he is turned away from there and then the Ministry of Food and Fish. The bee then becomes furious. Sitting on a bench with his bee buzzing in a rage in his bee basket Harry gets into a conversation with a boy, who tells him to take his bee to the Natural History Museum. There he has a very warm welcome and is measured and told he is not the biggest bee in England. He is the biggest bee in the whole world. He then starts singing with delight and drinks a cup of tea. This bee is English to his wing-tips!

Peter Campbell, who wrote and illustrated HARRY’S BEE, was also the illustrator of over 400 covers of the London Review of Books. His enchanting book is out of print which seems a crying shame given how important bees are and also how threatened they are. The great thing about Harry’s bee is that he has a tremendous sense of his own importance and bees, as we are frequently being reminded, are very important. A third of all our food depends on their pollination and a world without pollinators would be devastating for food production. The book is also incidentally rather a good advertisement for the Natural History Museum since this is the only place that welcomes and admires this wonderful bee.


Here is a picture of the largest bee in the world bombus dahlbomii, also known by the technical term of “monstrous fluffy ginger beast,” which, now I come to think of it, should probably have been the title of this post. It lives or lived (it was under threat) in Tierra del Fuego, South America.

My bee, incidentally, was not a “monstrous fluffy ginger beast” it was bombus lapidarius and it was all black with a very red bottom, probably a female because they are bigger than the males. And it got me on my feet and out of the door in approximately 2 seconds flat. Unfortunately I did not have a bee basket to hand, (where are they when you need them?) so when I had plucked up my courage, the end of a rolled newspaper was used to usher it safely back into the toxic and sodden London air.

Peter Campbell died in 2011 but if you’re interested in him and his work take a look here:

If you would like to help the bumble bee here is that link:

And if you would like to read one I prepared earlier on SAM AND THE FIREFLY another children’s book I love here is that link too:



Sam and the Firefly by P.D.Eastman

Sam and the Firefly by P.D.Eastman

One of the benefits of working in a second-hand bookshop  is that on occasion a dusty old friend appears in the form of a much-loved book from my childhood. Last week it was SAM AND THE FIREFLY by P.D.Eastman. Did I resist the temptation to buy it? Reader, I certainly did not. On re-reading it I realised that one of the reasons  I love it so much is because it is a fantastic story about the power of words. For those of you who don’t know it. Sam is an owl who teaches Gus, the firefly, to write letters in the sky with the light from his body. Gus, hyperactive and mischievous, becomes drunk with enthusiasm for words. Basically he just goes nuts for them:

Why! We made WORDS, BIG WORDS!

Say, I LIKE this game!

I want to do it again this word trick is fun.

Come on. Make MORE words”

After rushing about the sky writing lots of different words, Gus, a classic example of a reckless friend who will get you into trouble, zooms off and starts using words to trick people. He has become drunk on his own power. When he’s warned by Sam he ignores him. His downfall comes when he crosses out the HOT over a hot dog stand and writes COLD instead.

Gus trapped by the angry Hot Dog Man

Gus trapped by the angry Hot Dog Man

The customers walk away and the hot dog man gets very angry and traps Gus in a jam jar. He puts him in the back of his truck and drives off with him. The truck gets stuck on a railway line and a train is coming. Sam smashes the jar, Gus is released and writes STOP STOP STOP in the air and so averts a terrible accident. Naughty Gus is now the hero.

“Yow Wow, Gus!” called Sam

At last you did a GOOD trick.”

Of course, in a way, every writer is a Gus. At some point she or he, like him, has gone bonkers for the power and beauty of words. If fiction writing is a kind of trick, it’s a very difficult trick to pull off well. Every writer, or this one at any rate, is aware of the invisible contract which connects her to her readers. Good trick or bad trick? Well, readers, reviewers, family and sales figures can offer up very different answers to that question.

Sam urging caution

Sam urging caution

It could also be argued that it is useful for every writer to have a Sam. Write with no caution at all or with too much of Graham Greene’s famous ‘chip of ice’ in your heart and people are likely to be upset. Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote My Struggle, a series of six books which exposed the private life of friends and family. For them presumably his books were a very bad trick indeed. The series has been translated into 22 languages and has sold 450,000 copies in Norway, a country with a total population of only five million. Knausgaard said of the books:

“This was a way of saying no, I won’t behave, and for the first time in my life I will say exactly what I mean.”

For his devoted readers the books are a marvel; Gus that pesky firefly would surely have approved. The more cautious Sam, on the other hand, would probably be tearing his feathers out.

P.D.Eastman wrote this brilliant book to get children interested in words and writing. It certainly worked for me. I thought this ‘word trick’ was so much fun that approximately thirty years after I read SAM AND THE FIREFLY I was a published writer! Re-reading it now reminds me not to forget my inner Gus, the part of me which wants to play, the part which wants to roll around in words and just have fun. Do you have a much-loved book from childhood ? What is it? What makes you love it?