One-Minute Book Reviews

April 19, 2008

Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read — ‘The Story of Ferdinand’ — Burned by Hitler and Beloved by Children

Filed under: Children's Books,Classics — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:40 pm
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Three generations have grown up with a tale of a gentle bull who would rather smell the flowers than fight

The Story of Ferdinand. Story by Munro Leaf. Pictures by Robert Lawson. Many editions. Ages 2 and up.

By Janice Harayda

The Story of Ferdinand is regarded today as a classic parable about nonviolence. But this delightful tale has little in common with the dreary lectures you find in many picture books on the same topic.

Ferdinand is young Spanish bull who likes to sit under a cork tree and “smell the flowers” instead of butting heads with other bulls his age. So he doesn’t seem to have a chance when scouts come looking for “the biggest, fastest, roughest bull to fight in the bull fights in Madrid.” But when Ferdinand sits on a bumblebee, he turns for an instant into a different creature and is hauled off in a cart to face the matador. In the bull ring he sees the flowers in the hair of the female spectators and “just sat down quietly and smelled.” So people have to take Ferdinand home to his pasture with the cork tree. And there, we learn on the last page, “He is very happy.”

Robert Lawson’s black-and-white etchings add wit and drama to Munro Leaf’s story while allowing Ferdinand to remain a bull, not a four-legged boy. Lawson’s justly celebrated pictures include perhaps the most exciting endpapers ever to appear in a picture book: They show children on a Madrid street pointing to a poster of a bull that says: “El Toro Feroz … Ferdinando.” Who says four-year-olds can’t appreciate irony?

First published in 1936, The Story of Ferdinand has a unique place in American children’s literature as “the first picture book labeled subversive,” the children’s author Sheryl Lee Saunders writes in Anita Silvey’s The Essential Guide to Children’s Books and Their Creators (Houghton Mifflin, 2002):

“Ferdinand created a global controversy overnight. The Story of Ferdinand was denigrated and banned in civil war–torn Spain, scorned and burned as propaganda by Hitler, and labeled in America as promoting fascism, anarchism, and communism. Others heralded the innocent bovine as an international emblem of pacifism.”

Leaf responded by saying that he wrote the story simply to amuse young children, and amuse it does. The Story of Ferdinand has appeared in more than 60 languages, has never gone out of print and has come out in a book-and-CD set. All of it makes this a supreme example of how children respond to a great story, told at the right level, even if their elders complain about its politics. As Saunders noted:

“Leaf’s ability to establish a strong character and comic situation with so few words is extraordinary; so, too, is Lawson’s gift at interpreting Leaf’s understated humor with spirited images that accurately reflect the emotions portrayed in the text. Both talents combined inseparably to craft the perfect picture book.”

Best line (the most famous): “He liked to sit just quietly and smell the flowers.”

Worst line: None. But the “just” in “He liked to sit just quietly” may sound to contemporary ears as though it’s in the wrong place in the sentence.

Published: 1936 (first edition), Most recent edition: September 2007 Puffin Storytime book-and-CD set, which includes the unabridged text of the original.

Furthermore: The Story of Ferdinand is one of many great picture books that didn’t get a Caldecott Medal or Honor designation. Leaf received a 1939 Caldecott Honor for his second picture-book collaboration with his friend Robert Lawson, Wee Gillis.

Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear on Saturdays on One-Minute Book Reviews. “Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read” is an occasional series on the site.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


  1. You bring back so many great childhood memories for me when you review some of these children’s books. I love it.

    Comment by Moonbeam McQueen — April 20, 2008 @ 8:19 pm | Reply

  2. So glad you like them. Hope you’ll feel free to suggest other books that I’ve missed.

    This series tend to be heavily influenced by the children’s classics I’ve read (or otherwise know about) and by what I can get at my library. But I know there are others I would love … so I always appreciate suggestions even if I can’t always act on them right away.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — April 20, 2008 @ 8:47 pm | Reply

  3. I don’t know if this is considered a classic, but one of my kindergarten favorites was The Story of Ping. I wonder if that one is even still in print! Leo Lionni (Frederick, Swimmywas a favorite too. Oh! And my kids and I loved The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein! And, and…I’d better stop here before I get too excited.

    Comment by Moonbeam McQueen — April 21, 2008 @ 7:27 am | Reply

  4. Ever since I started this blog, I’ve wanted to do Leo Lionni. I’m not sure “The Story of Ping” is in print, either, but “Swimmy” must be in every library in America. Thanks for the extra incentive to try to clear a space for it …

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — April 21, 2008 @ 9:39 am | Reply

  5. Thank you for reminding me of the classics. So many times I pull the “new releases” off the library shelves and forget about the glorious stories of the past.

    My daughter loves the 1950’s classic “The Lonely Doll” told in photographs by Dare Wright. Although I have to admit, I skip over the part where the doll and her teddy bear friend get a spanking.

    Comment by anonymom — April 28, 2008 @ 11:33 pm | Reply

  6. That kind of “editing” can be very effective and sometimes necessary. It’s so much better to skip over a passage or two in a wonderful book than to deprive of a child of the book altogether. Thanks for your comments.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — April 29, 2008 @ 12:12 am | Reply

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