ShareThis Page

Book World: The masterful book behind 'Ferdinand' the film still resonates

| Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017, 3:45 p.m.

The project began as a lark, an author's hasty effort to write a children's book manuscript for his artist friend to illustrate. Yet the resulting picture book, “The Story of Ferdinand,” became an immediate best-seller and cultural touchstone.

Both Adolf Hitler and Francisco Franco banned it. Gandhi and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt admired it. Published in 1936, the story of the peaceful, flower-sniffing bull written by Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson is considered a classic of American children's literature and has never been out of print.

The book is now the basis for the animated film, “Ferdinand,” which opened in theaters Dec. 15, with the main character voiced by the wrestler-actor John Cena. (A 1938 Disney film adaptation won an Academy Award.)

Local connection

There are new characters, plot twists and some slapstick humor, but the film retains the “stay true to yourself” message at the core of the book. Perhaps it helps that one of the screenwriters is Tim Federle, who grew up in Upper St. Clair and is an award-winning children's book author (“Better Nate Than Ever”).

‘”The Story of Ferdinand' is one of several examples of how a children's book went out into the pop culture and had an impact far beyond the library world,” said Leonard S. Marcus, children's literature historian and author of “Minders of Make Believe: Idealists, Entrepreneurs, and the Shaping of American Children's Literature.”

“It was an appealing story that people could project their own fantasies on.” And, Marcus added, it “proved to be one of those rare books openly appreciated by adults as well as by children.”

Leaf wrote “The Story of Ferdinand” in less than an hour one rainy fall afternoon as a gift to his good friend Lawson. Contending that “dogs, rabbits, mice and goats had all been done a thousand times,” Leaf focused his story on a Spanish bull named Ferdinand who eschews fighting for flower-sniffing, refusing to fight even when forced to face the matador in the ring. Instead, Ferdinand sits down to enjoy the fragrance of the flowers adorning the hair of women spectators.

“It was one of those brainstorm books,” said Anita Silvey, a children's literature expert and author of “The Essential Guide to Children's Books and Their Creators.” “Leaf was the ideal picture-book writer. In the best picture-book tradition, he keeps it simple and allows both room for the child's imagination and for the artist's imagination.”

Illustrator Lawson's masterful black-and-white drawings perfectly complement Leaf's text, adding energy and humor to the tale. In one famous example, Lawson depicts Ferdinand's favorite cork tree with bunches of wine corks hanging among the leaves. “That's part of what works so well — there is a complete interplay between words and illustrations,” Silvey added.

The timing of the book's publication — just months after the start of the Spanish Civil War — proved a boon to sales as both sides excoriated it, while Hitler called it “degenerate democratic propaganda.” Others, including the Roosevelts, were fans of the book. Anne Carroll Moore, the first president of the New York Public Library's children's division, called it an “effortless, happy collaboration ... designed for sheer entertainment of the ageless.”

Leaf insisted he had written the story of the gentle bull simply to amuse children. In a New York Times interview, Leaf said that Ferdinand's aversion to violence merely manifested his “good taste and strength of character,” demonstrating that he was “just a superior soul, a philosopher.”

Within a year of its publication, “The Story of Ferdinand” hit the best-seller list, which also included “Gone With the Wind.” In 1938, Walt Disney Studios won an Academy Award for its cartoon adaptation, “Ferdinand the Bull.”

Leaf and Lawson collaborated on two other books, including “Wee Gillis,” winner of a Caldecott Honor in 1939. “The Story of Ferdinand” never won an award, but it remains a timeless favorite.

“Controversy sells books, but it doesn't keep a book in print,” Silvey noted. “It's not the controversy that made this book a classic. It's just a fabulous story, one that children can really embrace, the idea that ‘I need to be who I am, not who others think I should be.'”

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.

click me