On this Traditional Thursday, I wanted to spotlight a book from my childhood that I recently rediscovered: The Story of Ferdinand written by Munro Leaf and Illustrated by Robert Lawson. I was recently perusing the Peabody College Library at Vanderbilt University for picture books to read with children. I noticed that the library had set up a display in the youth room, featuring timeless pieces of children’s literature like Frog and Toad and Millions of Cats. I smiled as I looked through the titles that I had adored so much as a young child. When I saw the classic red cover of “Ferdinand the Bull,” the name I gave to this book as a child, I was transported back to times spent reading in my house with my parents. I remembered how my parents had gifted me a small red bull stuffed animal for my birthday because I loved this book so much! Still, it had been many years since I had opened this book, and I was excited to experience it again as an adult.
The Story of Ferdinand was first published in 1936. The book tells the story of a young bull named Ferdinand, who isn’t very much like the other bulls in the pasture. While the young bulls fight and charge and compete with one another, Ferdinand likes to go to his favorite spot on the hill, where he sits in the shade and smells the flowers. On the day when men come to the pasture to pick the fighting bull who will go to the bull fights in Madrid, the other young bulls are beside themselves. They fight and run to show the men that they are the strongest, and should be picked. Ferdinand is unconcerned; he’d much prefer to stay in his pasture and smell the flowers. But, fate has other plans for Ferdinand, and he gets chosen to go the fights! In Madrid, when the crowd sees how peaceful Ferdinand is, they send him right back to his favorite plot of shade, which makes for a splendidly happy ending.
The Story of Ferdinand is more than just a timeless classic; it is a valuable and potent piece of fiction that should be used with children today. In the last few years, creative and talented artists and writers have been publishing some of the best picture books that the world of children’s literature has ever seen. Authors like Jacqueline Woodson and Yuyi Morales are publishing books that deal with important and relevant themes and present gorgeous artwork to accompany imaginative and powerful stories. Since there are so many powerful and important contemporary books, it would be easy to assume that some of the old classics are only valuable for the nostalgia they provoke in adult readers. Leaf’s book about Ferdinand the Bull, however, is a stand-alone powerful piece of literature. One needs not appreciate the classic nature of the story to see the value in the book as a whole. In my opinion, the most powerful part of this book is the collection of themes it portrays.
Ferdinand’s story contains themes about conceptualizing peace, appreciating solitude and worldly beauty, and the joy of doing nothing! Ferdinand’s peaceful nature is inspiring to readers. While the other bulls charge and fight, Ferdinand smiles as he smells the flowers and avoids the conflict. What I love about this aspect of the story is that neither the narrator nor Ferdinand pass any judgement on the other bulls. Their interest in physically engaging with each other is not worse than Ferdinand’s interest in being peaceful and calm, it is just different. When reading this book with a child, a caregiver might ask the child about times when they like to play and use their bodies like the young bulls (recess, sports, etc.), and times when they like to practice calmness like Ferdinand (reading, meditating, making art). Much like the bulls, children often feel pressure to excel socially. Emphasis is placed on having a wide network of friends and spending free times with those friends. The simplifying assumption here is that children who are “loners” must experience a lower quality of life experience. Ferdinand shows a much-needed positive example of how it can be nice to spend time by oneself. Ferdinand’s mother is kind and non-judgmental, which is shown when the author writes: “His mother saw that he was not lonesome, and because she was an understanding mother, even though she was a cow, she let him just sit there and be happy. This is a wonderful example for children who are inundated with messaging that they should spend all their time with their peers, because the reality is that it is perfectly okay to enjoy spending time with yourself and practice self-care. Finally, Ferdinand shows us that it is okay to “do nothing”! I work with kids and they love to sing a song about how loving to do nothing. When they sing this song, they laugh at its silliness but later reflect that it reminds them how sitting and thinking, or taking a stroll, or playing with a blade of grass can feel really good sometimes. In a fast-paced society that values constant productivity, it is nice to have Ferdinand’s example that taking a break and doing, well… nothing can be an important way to spend time.
Finally, if we take a look at the illustrations in this book, we can see how the illustrator Robert Lawson uses delicate and intricate simple line drawings to tell the story of Ferdinand. The art in this book is beautiful and not complex. There is no color and no mixture of mediums, which may be a shortcoming in terms of attracting younger readers and pre-readers, who are often interested in aesthetics more than plot. The illustration style, however, does convey the characters and their emotions extremely well, and a slight hint of cartoon-style lends humor and talking points to the book. I really love how Ferdinand’s favorite tree, which is a cork tree, grows actual corks on it. I don’t remember this detail from when I was young, but I now find it humorous and helpful for children’s development of unfamiliar concepts. The line work is very delicate, and the landscapes produced with minimal shading and no color are striking nevertheless. It is hard to think about the art in this book within the context of other, much busier, illustration styles. The Story of Ferdinand, however, contains a beautifully illustrated style that is perfectly suited for conveying the serenity and simplicity with which Ferdinand moves through his life.