Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Tamest Taurus: The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf; Drawings by Robert Lawson

"Once upon a time in Spain, there was a little bull and his name was Ferdinand."


It's hard to imagine a more innocent premise for a children's story. However, once upon a time in Spain there was also a Civil War, which erupted in 1936 shortly after Munro Leaf's book debuted. Despite the author's homage to the little bull's homeland, "Ferdinand" was banned in Fascist Spain and burned in Nazi Germany. Though some tried to brand this simple story regaling a gentle creature whose tail swished to his own drumbeat "subversive" it not only survived but thrived; translated into 60 languages, it has never been out of print. Heroic figures from Ghandi to FDR lauded Leaf and Lawson's work. The rest, as they say, is history.

Our library's  new copy appeared to be an exact replica of the original. Recognizing it as a classic from my own childhood (though I'd never read it), nostalgia and curiosity led me to reach for it from among the more lushly illustrated modern volumes on display. From the first page, the simply drawn story drew me in.

Like Rudolph  (the Red Nosed Reindeer) Ferdinand was what used to be labeled in less politically correct times a misfit.

 "All the other little bulls he lived with would run and jump and butt their heads together. But not Ferdinand." However, he wasn't excluded from playing; he chose not to join in.


"He liked to sit quietly and just smell the flowers" under his favorite cork tree--a fanciful answer to the many who may have pondered where wine corks came from. Ferdinand didn't appear to miss  the rough and tumble company of others. Of course, this worried his mother. But to her credit, she didn't care that her offspring was different (read: awkward, weird, nerdy), only that he might be  lonely and unhappy. Realizing that he was neither, she left him to enjoy his solitude and sanctuary. In my book, she ranks among the great literary mamas of any species. 


The little bull grew big and strong, but he didn't forsake his laid back lifestyle. While the other bulls fantasized of fighting in the bullring, Ferdinand could care less. However, he hadn't counted on the ironic twist of fate about to befall him. When men from Madrid arrived to find a fitting match for the matador, a random bee sting sent Ferdinand flying at full throttle. His involuntary display of strength and speed wowed the group and in short order our hermit-like hero was literally carted off to the city to face a surreal, Superbowl-like spectacle, in which he'd been cast as the main event.  (One can only imagine the reaction of Ferdinand's "home boys" as the "quiet one" was awarded their long sought after "prize".)


"Flags were flying, bands were playing..and all the lovely ladies had flowers in their hair." But the parade into the bullring soon raised a hackle on this reader.  "First came the Banderillos with long sharp stick in the bull and make him mad. Next came the Picadores..they had long spears to stick in the bull and make him madder." Finally the Matador, who was "supposed to stick the bull last of all." appeared.  (Gulp!) Enter  Ferdinand,  billed as  "El Toro Feroz", or Ferdinand the Fierce.


Our hero was soon socked in on all sides by shouting and clapping; the noisy throng eagerly awaiting the requisite head butting, snorting, jutting and sticking (plus all sorts of other mean, nasty, horrible things that adults reading to children are undoubtedly relieved he didn't mention).

Trembling, I could barely turn the page to learn Fernando the anything but Fierce's fate. I should have had more faith. This was one bovine who couldn't be bullied into being anything other than who he was. I've rarely been more relieved to read the rest of the story:

 ..."not Ferdinand. When he got to the middle of the ring, he saw the flowers in all the lovely ladies' hair, and he just sat down quietly and smelled." No matter how his tormentors provoked him, El Toro Feroz proved more pussycat than lion. Frustrated, the Matador threw off his cape (the bullfighter equivalent to throwing down your bat and helmet I'm guessing) and just cried. The flower child that  resides unseen alongside my graying soul flashed a triumphant peace sign.

Had Munro Leaf hailed from Hollywood instead of Maryland, the experience might have resulted in a major lifestyle upheaval for Ferdinand.  Fortunately, no such travesty took place.


"..for all I know he is sitting there still, under his favorite cork tree, smelling the flowers just quietly. He is very happy."

Fun facts/ final notes:

 The 1938 Disney Studio's feature won an Academy Award for best short animated picture.

Robert Lawson was the first person ever awarded both the Newberry and Caldecott Medals for excellence in children's literature.

A search of online images reveals an astounding number of creative tributes to Ferdinand, reflecting the enduring resonance of the story, it's hero, and it's subversive yet satisfying message.

A caption

For more on Munro Leaf, Robert Lawson, and the controversy surrounding The Story of Ferdinand:

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