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.