The Story of Ferdinand
Munro Leaf (author), Robert Lawson (illustrator)
You know a book did something right if it was burned by the Nazis and banned in Franco’s Spain. Who would have thought that this sweet classic book about the Bull who liked flowers more than fighting could raise such a fuss? And yet, published in 1936, just around the outbreak of the
Spanish Civil War, it became an instant success and just as instantly controversial. Ferdinand became know as the “peaceful bull” and the book was understood by many to be a criticism of the anti-Republic coup that would soon break out in Spain.
Though this children’s book’s relationship to its political context is fascinating, you don’t need to know anything about the Spanish Civil War to see the charm and beauty of this book. Through a twist of circumstances, the gentle, flower-loving Ferdinand is mistaken for an angry and ready to fight bull. He is taken by cart to the city to be entered in the ring of a bull fight. Ferdinand is far more interested in the flowers on the ladies hat than in the red cape of the matador. This book speaks to themes of peace, non-conformity, the breadth of gender expression and potentially the unfair treatment of animals.
The cruelty of bull fighting is treated very lightly in the book, which helps it to be not-so-traumatizing for younger children. However, it left me feeling as if something more needs to be said. One approach is to offer a simple, age-appropriate statement about bullfighting when introducing the book. For example, I might say: “I am no fan of bull fighting. I think it’s mean to the bulls. I am a fan of The Story of Ferdinand the Bull, though. It’s been a classic for over 75 years now. I hope you like it too.” Also, the story could be further softened if you are telling it rather than reading it. A more direct point could then be made through the sermon or by other means with adults.
The classic narrative structure and language already suited to the spoken word make it a great story for telling – no adaptation required. If you do share the picture book, the black ink line drawings are charming, though perhaps hard to see unless fairly close up.
Themes: Peace, Non-aggression, Non-conformity, Gender Identity, Difference,
Motifs: Spain, Bulls, Fighting, Flowers, Bees, Red
Reviewer: Kristin Maier, author
A Good Telling: Bringing Worship to Life with Story