Monday, September 5, 2011


Written by Munro Leaf

Illustrated by Robert Lawson

(Viking, 1936)

I know that someone read this book to me as a child and I know I didn’t like it. That’s all I remember.

It was a classic then and remains so. Once a classic, always a classic?

Ferdinand himself is a lovable storybook character, a young bull that is perfectly happy spending his days sniffing flowers on his own under a cork tree. Ferdinand’s mother is an enlightened parent. She “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.” (Am I the only one who finds the “even though she was a cow” aside to be offensive? It seems so unnecessary, but maybe one must adopt that mindset to continue with the story.) The other bulls do what we’re told bulls are supposed to do: “run and jump and butt their heads together.”

At this point, all is fine in the story. It is yet another tale of being special or different. Curiously, Ferdinand experiences no ridicule from his peers. He does his thing; they do theirs. How lovely.

Once the bulls mature, all of them are big and strong, including Ferdinand. We are told the bulls long to be picked for the Madrid bull fights. Really?! Some will say I am taking a picture book too seriously, but what bull would yearn to be agitated by “long sharp pins with ribbons”, long spears and a matador’s sword “to stick the bull last of all”? Utterly preposterous.

Even reading the book as an adult, I become uncomfortable from this point of the book onward. Sure, it is comical how Ferdinand gets picked for the fight and how he thumbs his nose at the whole affair, but I doubt things would have ended so happily for him in an actual bullfighting milieu. And what about the other bulls?

I will repeat, Ferdinand is an endearing character, but the story glorifies bullfighting while also poking fun at it. Bullfighting remains a “sport” in Spain and other countries. While the event has cultural and historical ties, some traditions may be remembered without being re-enacted. Sure, the book may generate discussion about animal abuse and sport involving animals, but I worry that many people presenting this book skip that part.

The favorite part for kids will no doubt be Ferdinand’s encounter with a bee (with priceless illustrations by Robert Lawson), but the backdrop of the story cannot be glossed over.


  1. i guess this begs the question of all classics, and whether/when they are no longer relevant. personally, i could do without BABAR's imperialism, and there's something about MADELINE that still bothers me...

    but what these books have, and what they offer, is an opportunity for parents to connect the trait of reading to children as an experience passed-down. they are the connection with the past, with the oral story-telling tradition, with a cultural through-line. these stories, tropes, and rhythms that spring from classics are a certain cultural heritage, and where they contain larger ideas of questionable merit (bullfighting in this case) they also contain a more relevant (to a young reader/lap-sitter) story about being quiet and meditative and without a stigma of being bullied or having to take a stand. ferdinand is who he is, like leo leoni's FREDERICK, and that's a fine, simple, and still rare moral-free message in picture books these days.

  2. I love your comment, David. Thanks for stopping by the blog. I have no problem with the character of Ferdinand. I do have a problem with the story of Ferdinand. That sword that the matador carries "to stick the bull last of all" is to kill the animal for the sake of entertainment. I did a quick check on Wikipedia and that is still what happens to the bull, whether before the cheering spectators or behind the scenes afterwards. Lucky Ferdinand gets away. That is a storybook exception, a fanciful piece of fiction.

    There are many other books that celebrate differences without a bloody sport as the backdrop. I think it is time for The Story of Ferdinand to be put out to pasture. Surely there are other books parents can pass on to their children.

    Obviously, not everyone shares my opinion as the book remains a favorite.