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How “The Story of Ferdinand” Became Fodder for the Culture Wars of Its Era

15 December 2017

From The New Yorker:

Children’s books, like children themselves, come in for a fair amount of scolding, whether it’s the periodic “family values” attacks on books like “Heather Has Two Mommies” or the international stir kicked up just last month when an English mum argued that the non-consensual wakeup kiss at the end of “Sleeping Beauty” reinforces rape culture. You might think that “The Story of Ferdinand,” about a gentle bull who refuses to fight in either pasture or bullring, only wanting to sit under his favorite tree and smell the flowers, would be immune from such content-shaming. But the eighty-one-year-old book, which was written by Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson and is the basis for the new animated film “Ferdinand,” opening on December 15th, was caught in the culture-war crossfire of its own era. Mahatma Gandhi and Eleanor Roosevelt were on Team Ferdinand. Adolf Hitler and Francisco Franco were not. But the battle lines weren’t drawn quite as neatly as those rosters suggest.

Set in the country somewhere outside Madrid, “The Story of Ferdinand” had the good or bad fortune to be published in September, 1936, three months after the start of the Spanish Civil War, when Fascist military forces began rebelling against the leftist Republic. In the book, the peaceful Ferdinand is mistaken for the “toughest, meanest bull in all of Spain” after he gets stung by a bee and starts “bucking and jumping and acting like he was crazy.” Carted off to the bullring, however, he reverts to languid form, sitting down and smelling “all of the beautiful flowers worn by the ladies in the crowd.” The picadors, the banderilleros, and the matador do their best, but “no one could get Ferdinand to fight,” and so he returns to his beloved pasture and tree. A sweet tale. But with Spain at war and the rest of Europe on the verge, Ferdinand’s pacifism conveyed a loaded message if looked at the right, or wrong, way. The book’s publisher, Viking Press, had wanted to hold it back until “the world settles down,” according to a reminiscence by Margaret Leaf, Munro’s widow, written on the book’s fiftieth anniversary. The author and illustrator insisted on going ahead, which the publisher did—though apparently without much faith, putting all its advertising muscle behind another picture book on its list that year: “Giant Otto,” by William Pène du Bois, which centered on a floppy dog the size and shape of a four-story burial mound. “ ‘Ferdinand’ is a nice little book,” Viking’s president reportedly proclaimed, “but ‘Giant Otto’ will live forever.”

. . . .

 “The Story of Ferdinand” sold respectably, at first, moving fourteen thousand copies in its first year. But it took off, in 1937, for reasons no one was quite sure of. By its first anniversary it had sold eighty thousand copies, a phenomenal number for a picture book during the Depression. By that Christmas, as this magazine reported, sales were “running slightly behind Dale Carnegie and well ahead of Eleanor Roosevelt.”

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

Children's Books

4 Comments to “How “The Story of Ferdinand” Became Fodder for the Culture Wars of Its Era”

  1. The Lawson illustrations were responsible for my firm belief, for YEARS, that corks grew on cork trees like grape bunches. It made so much sense!

    Fascinating that Ferdinand was politically fraught. Just the sort of thing that guy would do, all unknowing 😀

  2. When the Catalan government banned bullfighting, the Madrid government overturned the ban on the argument that the torture of animals is part of “Spanish culture”. Along with other acts by the Spanish government, the Catalans have not forgotten.

  3. As a child, I always wished my mother was more like Ferdinand’s. Mine constantly nagged me to do the things she found enjoyable when I preferred to sit under a tree (or by the fire) and read.

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