The first time I was introduced to Ferdinand the bull it was watching the Walt Disney short film version during a drive in theater double-feature intermission. I absolutely loved the story and the animation but I had no idea the character was actually from a children's book
At that point in my very young life I thought Walt Disney made up all of their movie stories by themselves, which was true of their Mickey Mouse cartoons but not true of movies like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White (by the Brothers Grimm), and The Jungle Book (by Rudyard Kipling).
After watching Ferdinand on the big screen I remember coming across it in my town library, loving the story but being absolutely amazed at how a children's book could be expanded to tell a much more elaborate and...well... animated story on the big screen. It was shortly after this time that I started consuming a lot of Hans Christian Andersen, Brothers Grimm, Aesop's Fables, and other writers to read children's stories in their original non-Disney form.
And it was horrifying... But that's a story for a different post. Now back to Ferdinand.
I knew that there were authors and illustrators of children's books but I had previously thought that Walt Disney made the movies and then others went and wrote the book version of those films (I was young, don't judge).
The Story of Ferdinand was the first time where I actually asked my town librarian for help in looking up other stories by the same author which, tangentially, led me to Mr. Popper's Penguins. But it also led me to my first research on the people who write and illustrate stories, which became a sort of side-obsession whenever I would read a new story. It also introduced me to research tools like microfiche and microfilm but that is also a blog post for another time.
Long story short, The Story of Ferdinand was the first time I ever researched the origins of a story and that led to my love of learning about the personal story behind the literary one, which leads me back to The Story of Ferdinand...
If you haven't read it, "The Story of Ferdinand" follows a bull who wants to sit alone under a tree and smell the flowers.
In fact, that's all he EVER wants to do.
While the other bulls run around snorting and butting heads and fighting all day, Ferdinand prefers to relax and enjoy the world around him, underneath his favorite cork tree.
But then, "One day five men came in very fun hats to pick the biggest, fastest, roughest bull to fight in the bull fights in Madrid."
Ferdinand, wanting none of it, sits under his tree while the other bulls show off for the men. But when Ferdinand sits on a bee, he jumps up and shouts and thrashes around, accidentally impressing the men who take him in a cart to Madrid to fight a matador.
Instead of fighting, though, Ferdinand just sits and smells the flowers in the lovely ladies' hair, no matter how hard he is poked and prodded by the Bandilleros, Picadores or the Matador.
So they have to take Ferdinand home, where he is very happy smelling his flowers once more.
And that is basically the story of Ferdinand.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY...
In 1935 Munro Leaf, a high school teacher, wrote the story on a yellow legal pad in less than an hour for his out-of-work friend and neighbor, Robert Lawson, who was an illustrator. He chose a bull because most children's books were full of dogs, rabbits, mice and goats and he wanted to do something different.
Munro intended the book to be a simple tale for children, of a bull who just enjoyed life. But The Story of Ferdinand actually ignited international controversy. It was published during the Spanish Civil War and many people saw it as a rallying cry for, and indictment of, Generalissimo Francisco Franco.
The Story of Ferdinand was also viewed as a treatise on pacifism. Adolf Hitler ordered the book burned as "degenerate democratic propaganda," which, if you know anything about the Spanish Civil War, was rife with propaganda.
"Everybody saw I was obviously writing propaganda," Leaf said, "but they couldn't decide which side."
Either way, the controversy helped ignite the books popularity where, in 1938, it knocked off Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind as the number-one best-seller in the United States!
It was also turned into a Disney animated short that won an Academy Award in 1938!
Munro Leaf Munro Leaf went on to write and/or illustrate almost forty children's books in his lifetime, with Ferdinand his most famous work.
Robert Lawson was the illustrator of forty-six children's books (including Mr. Popper's Penguins), and the author of over twenty of those works. In 1941 he won the Caldecott Medal for illustration (They Were Good and Strong) and in 1945 he won the Newbury Medal for literature (Rabbit Hill), making him the only person to have won both a Caldecott AND a Newbury Medal.
Not bad for a book that took less time to write than I spent putting together this post!
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