Ferdinand the Bull (or The Story of Ferdinand) by Munroe Leaf, illustrated by Robert Lawson, 1936

How better to begin this blog than with one of my all-time favorite picture books. Not only are the drawings themselves straight out of the 30s, the golden age of illustration (and I’m a sucker for simple, black, line drawings), but the story itself is told in such a deceptively black and white style.

It begins like a fairy tale. “Once upon a time in Spain” introduces our protagonist, the sweet tempered Ferdinand. From there, Munroe gently moves into consistently pure statements of being. One of my personal favorites is when Ferdinand accidentally sits on a bee: “Well, if you were a bumble bee and a bull sat on you, what would you do? You would sting him.” The bee does, of course, and the quiet bull, raging against his pain at being stung, is mistaken for a fierce fighter and brought to the bullring. As the matador cries and pulls out his hair in frustration, Ferdinand “wins” the fight by simply doing nothing. He is returned to his tree to smell the flowers, disgraced in the eyes of all except himself. “And for all I know, he is sitting there still,” and “he is very happy.”

Short statements, happy ending, perfect. But deceptively so. Published in 1936, the text has been called a Pacifist statement (for the obvious reason that Ferdinand wins by doing nothing), and when it was released, it was banned from right wing countries (such as, duh, Franco’s Spain). The style of the writing reflects this sentiment of pacifism. Throughout, Leaf Munroe mostly keeps his distance from his characters’ heads, and this saves the story from feeling like a problem-solving 101. It isn’t the author jumping up and down and saying, these other bulls and people are being bad! Poor Ferdinand! In fact, you don’t every really feel bad for Ferdinand (except maybe at his wide eyes when he sits on the bee). So you, the reader, are left to see the ideas lying between the lines all by yourself. And those ideas are less than simple. This story of a big, strong bull who, unlike his peers, just wants to “sit quietly and smell the flowers” brings up complex questions of individuality, masculinity, and humility. I see it dealing with similar issues as The Sun Also Rises– minus the wine and castration. Of course unlike Hemingway’s novel, this picture book does not exactly paint the bullring as an exhilarating place… and considering the bans on bullfighting enacted in Catalonia this year, Ferdinand was way before it’s time in more ways than one.

I’m sure you know this book, but if for some reason you missed it, I implore you, remedy! Or, if you didn’t watch it when you were a kid, at least see the Disney animated short made in 1938. It’s in the style of the Silly Symphonies, and, yes, the film is decidedly silly. But you can’t muss up such an honest, good thing, and the story shines through to such an extent that it was given the Academy Award for best short film that year. Enjoy!

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