The Story of Ferdinand

The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf

1936

Illustrated by Robert Lawson

As a young bull, Ferdinand prefers lying quietly under a cork tree and smelling the flowers than cavorting and butting heads with his peers.  When five men from Madrid come to select the fiercest bull for the bullfight, Ferdinand is alone in having no aspiration to be picked.  Unfortunately, he sits on a bee, his ensuing response to the sting is construed as just the fierceness and anger that are sought, and he is carted off to the city.  There, the procession of apprehensive bandilleros, picadors, and matador is followed into the bullring by a meek Ferdinand, who sits down in the center, captivated by the fragrance of the flowers in the ladies’ hats.  Robbed of the opportunity to show off their skill and daring, the men are irate.  Ferdinand is returned to his favorite cork tree, in whose shade he can continue to sniff the flowers.

Few children’s books have sparked as much controversy as this seemingly innocuous tale of a bull.  Published at the onset of the Spanish Civil War, the book was banned in Spain.  In Nazi Germany, Hitler ordered it to be burned, while in communist Russia, Stalin granted it privileged status.  In the United States, it was denounced variously as pro-fascist and pro-communist, as a paeon to pacifism and a parody of same.  Ghandi is said to have considered it his favorite book.  Munro Leaf denied that he had intended the story to have any political message and simply wrote it to amuse children.  Children, ignorant of the response of the world leaders, have enjoyed the book for over 60 years (and in 60 languages) and never fail to be delighted by Ferdinand’s response to the bee sting.

Leaf wrote the book on a yellow legal pad in a single sitting so that his friend, Robert Lawson, would have something to illustrate.  It is difficult to imagine the text in isolation from Lawson’s strong black and white line drawings.  They are startling in their boldness, the power of their caricatures of human natures, and the sophistication of their depiction of Spain.  The whimsical touches (for example, the strings of corks hanging from the cork tree) stand in contrast to the oppressive vultures or the rogues gallery of the men from Madrid with their ominous air of evil.  Leaf may not have had anything in mind other than an engaging children’s story, but Lawson’s illustrations add an unsettling sociopolitical commentary.  It is the combination of the text and illustration, the collaboration of Leaf and Lawson, that makes for the rich experience that The Story of Ferdinand provides.  Lawson’s talent as a distinctive illustrator of children’s books was honored when he received a Caldecott Award, not for The Story of Ferdinand, but for a largely forgotten book he wrote himself, They Were Strong and Good.

Aside: The Disney film, Ferdinand the Bull, won the 1938 Academy Award for Best Animated Short.  The matador was a caricature of Walt Disney, while the other men in the bullring were caricatures of Disney artists.

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