Remarkable Tales: The Story of Ferdinand



2018-02-15 15:11:50

This week's remarkable tale features The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, one of the most beloved American children's books ever written.

This first edition copy of The Story of Ferdinand is amongst the most sought-after vintage children's books on the market.

Earlier this month, a rare copy inscribed by the author Munro Leaf sold for more than $8,000 at PBA Galleries in San Francisco

The book remains in print more than 80 years after it was first published, and has been described as "a highpoint in 20th century children's literature".

The Story of Ferdinand has been a favourite of children and adults alike for generations, but behind the book is another story – of the rise of fascism, and a remarkable woman who believed books can save the world.

First edition copy of The Story of Ferdinand (Image: PBA Galleries)

First edition copy of The Story of Ferdinand (Image: PBA Galleries)

Munroe Leaf sat down one afternoon in 1936 with a legal pad in hand, and an idea to write a children's story for his friend Robert Lawson to illustrate.

An hour later he put down his pen, having accidentally written a book which would enrage Adolf Hitler, delight Mahatma Gandhi, and cause political arguments for generations to come.

Ferdinand is a Spanish bull who loves nothing more than the smell of flowers. Even when provoked by a bullfighter in the ring, he refuses to fight.

Despite his size and strength, in his heart Ferdinand is not a fighter, and he finally returns to his field, to smell the flowers in peace.

It remains a sweet, simple tale with a timeless central message: be true to yourself and follow your own path.

The first edition of the book was published in 1936, in the midst of the Great Depression. Money was scarce, and picture books were a luxury, so Viking Press printed an initial run of just 1,500 copies.

But before the book could even hit the shelves, a conflict more than 3,000 miles away changed its fate forever.

A few weeks before the book was released the Spanish Civil war broke out, as the right-wing Nationalist Francisco Franco led a violent uprising against the left-wing democratic government.

Suddenly, Munroe's tale about a Spanish bull who refused to fight took on a whole new level of meaning.

Many argued that the author's choice of a bull as a main character was a direct comment on the situation in Spain, and became a potent political allegory, whether he intended it or not.

Commentators on every side claimed the story was a blatant piece of propaganda – but for who? Fascists? Socialists? Communists? Pacifists?

Was Ferdinand a coward, or an individualist? Nobody could agree, but everybody had an opinion.

One of Robert Lawson

One of Robert Lawson's magical illustrations from the book (Image: PBA Galleries)

"It was propaganda all right," Munro Leaf was later quoted as saying, "but propaganda for laughter only...if the book fails to make you chuckle there is no excuse for its existence, as far as I'm concerned."

The story quickly became the subject of intense critical debate and sales skyrocketed, as it captured the public imagination in a way few children's books ever had before.

Two years after it had first been published, The Story of Ferdinand knocked Gone With The Wind off the top of the bestseller chart.

In 1938 Walt Disney adapted the book into an Oscar-winning short film, and a giant Ferdinand balloon floated through the streets of New York as part of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

By now the book had sold more than 250,000 copies, but the one place you couldn't buy one was Spain.

Now ruling the country with an iron fist, General Franco had banned the book, as its peaceful, non-conformist message was completely at odds with his vicious nationalist agenda.

In Nazi Germany Adolf Hitler went one step further, and during WWII ordered all copies of the book destroyed as "degenerate democratic propaganda".

All across Europe, the sweet scent of flowers was being overpowered by the acrid smell of burning paper.

But much as he tried, Hitler couldn't crush The Story of Ferdinand.

Following the end of the war in 1945, the book rose from the ashes as a symbol of hope in the bombed-out streets of Berlin, thanks to one truly remarkable woman.

Jella Lepman (Image:

Jella Lepman (Image:

Jella Lepman was a German Jew who had escaped the Nazi regime in 1935.

She returned to her home country in 1945, working as an education consultant to the US Army, and as she travelled across Germany she saw children in desperate need of food, clothing and warmth.

She knew all too well that Germany's future, and indeed the future of world peace, lay in the hands of those children who had lived through the devastation.

Lepman's work was focused on the promotion of children's and youth literature, and for that she needed books – which were sadly lacking, following a decade of mindless Nazi bonfires.

She set about contacting publishers, asking for donations for an exhibition of children's books from around the world. She called her letters 'doves of peace', and as they winged their way across the globe her faith was paid in return with hundreds of colourful books.

The 1946 travelling exhibition proved a success, but when it arrived in Berlin Lepman was overwhelmed by children desperate for books of their own.

They needed food, clothing and warmth. But they also needed stories, and Lepman was determined to provide them with one.

In the aftermath of a savage conflict, in a country which had been consumed by violence and fascism, she needed a story which would teach the next generation open-mindedness, tolerance and pacifism.

And she knew just the book. The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf.

Ferdinand refuses the fight, despite the best efforts of a matador (Image: PBA Galleries)

Ferdinand refuses the fight, despite the best efforts of a matador (Image: PBA Galleries)

Lepman swiftly translated the story into German, had 30,000 copies printed up using cheap newsprint, and a few days before Christmas in 1946, distributed them to eager children throughout Berlin.

She later wrote of the project: "Ferdinand was a spectacular success. His creator should have won the Nobel Peace prize. Soon the story of Ferdinand could be heard being told on every street corner in Berlin.

"The first edition was out of print the wink of an eye, and not even a copy remained for the files. We paid dearly to buy some back from the black market, where Ferdinand finally wound up as a prize object."

Inspired by the effects of the book in Berlin, she continued her work in children's literature, and in 1952 she organized a meeting in Munich called International Understanding through Children’s Books.

The event was attended by authors, publishers, teachers and philosophers from around the world, and led to the foundation of the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY).

More than 65 years on, the mission of the organization is the same: to promote international understanding through children's books, and give children everywhere access to books with high literary and artistic standards.

Today the IBBY plays a vital role in child literacy, particularly in developing countries, and remains a monument to the idea that books really can change the world.

Munro Leaf never intended to write a political allegory, or a piece of incendiary propaganda. He just wanted to make children laugh.

But sometimes, as Jella Lepman proved, that's the most powerful thing of all.

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