Munro Leaf, The Story of Ferdinand. Illustrated by Robert Lawson
Published 2017 by Faber And Faber. First published in the US in 1936 by The Viking Press, 44p. In limba romana: Taurasul Ferdinand, Editura Arthur
I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I first heard The Story of Ferdinand but it was certainly love at first sight and it still brings back memories from my childhood. I am sure it was the kindness and serenity of the bull that attracted me and little did I know about the philosophical levels of the story or about the controversial messages it sent between the lines. Years later, now that I have recommended the book to Ema, I realized I like it even more.
The Story of Ferdinand has everything I look for in a children’s book: consistency, complexity, humour, remarkable characters and good artwork.
Set in Spain, somewhere near Madrid, in a time when all the men wanted to be Matadores and all the bulls dreamed of bull fights in the arenas, there was a little bull, Ferdinand, who preferred sitting quietly and smelling the flowers to running and butting heads like the other young bulls did.
He had a favourite spot out in the pasture under a cork tree. It was his favourite tree and he would sit in its shade all day and smell the flowers.
Sometimes his mother, who was a cow, would worry about him. She was afraid he would be lonesome all by himself.
But Ferdinand is one of a kind; he likes being alone in nature, he dislikes the violence of his peers and he has no interest in turning himself into a fighter. As the years pass, Ferdinand becomes an impressive bull, the biggest and strongest of all the young bulls. Despite his size, he still prefers the scent of flowers under the cork tree to the fights in the pasture.
One day when five men in funny hats come to pick a rough bull for fight in Madrid, Ferdinand is accidentally stuck by a bumble bee and the pain makes him running around, letting the men believe he is a very fierce bull. He is therefore taken to fight in the arena.
What a day it was! Flags were flying, bands were playing… and all the lovely ladies had flowers in their hair. They had a parade into the bull ring. First came the Banderilleros with long sharp pins with ribbons on them to stick in the bull and make him angry. Next came the Picadores who rode skinny horses and they had long spears to stick in the bull and make him even more angry. Then came the Matador, the proudest of all – he thought he was very handsome, and bowed to the ladies. He had a red cape and a sword and was supposed to stick the bull last of all.
To everybody’s consternation, Ferdinand will not fight but sit down in the middle of the ring smelling the flowers that the beautiful ladies threw in from their hair. Shortly he is sent back home where he continues to smell the flowers. Happily.
At first reading, the book might be considered a story about passions and choices that make us happy. But let’s not forget that The Story of Ferdinand was published a few months after The Spanish Civil War began, and Ferdinand could display extreme behaviour when stung by a bee. The book was actually banned in Spain until Francisco Franco’s death. The same happened in Nazi Germany where Hitler ordered the book to be burned. Though it was not meant to be a democratic manifesto, the little book does speak about animal rights, options, ethics, violence, disobedience and the courage to be different, values that contributed to turning it into a classic.
Complement The Story of Ferdinand with Olivier Tallec’s Louis I, King of the Sheep, a smart, meditative story on how power changes identities and priorities.