The Story of Ferdinand

Ferdinand is 81 years old this year, quite an age for a bull destined for a Madrid bullring. His story has remained in print and this year a special heritage edition has been published in the UK.

Readers first meet Ferdinand as a little bull sitting under a shady cork tree, smelling the flowers. Ferdinand grows to be a fine big young bull who still enjoys smelling the flowers, but the day the men come to pick the fiercest bull for the bull fight, Ferdinand goes jumping mad after he is stung by an angry bee.

But what does Ferdinand do when he arrives in the bull ring? He sits down, of course, and smells the flowers in the lovely ladies’ hats. So they bring him back to his meadow, where he continues to sit peacefully under the cork tree.

Ferdinand was published at the beginning of World War Two and was variously viewed as pacifist, fascist or communist in intent and as propaganda for the Spanish Civil War which began in 1936, a year after Ferdinand was conceived by Leaf and Lawson, who both denied it had any political agenda.

But it later served a particular agenda for peace and understanding through children’s books when Jella Lepman, the founder of the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) was involved with the regeneration of Germany after the War. Deeply moved by the plight of German children whose books had all been destroyed in the conflict, she caused 30,000 copies of Ferdinand to be printed on newsprint and distributed to children hungry for food, but also starved of stories.

Perhaps the best description of Ferdinand is Munro Leaf’s, who suggested that it is ‘a happy-ending story about being yourself’. And that’s the way it has resonated for countless readers from three to adult.