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How “The Story of Ferdinand” Became Fodder for the Culture W

Children’s books, like children themselves, come in for a fair amount ofscolding, whether it’s the periodic “family values” attacks on bookslike “Heather Has Two Mommies” or the international stir kicked up justlast month when an English mum argued that the non-consensual wakeupkiss at the end of “Sleeping Beauty” reinforces rape culture. You mightthink that “The Story of Ferdinand,” about a gentle bull who refuses tofight in either pasture or bullring, only wanting to sit under hisfavorite tree and smell the flowers, would be immune from suchcontent-shaming. But the eighty-one-year-old book, which was written byMunro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson and is the basis for the newanimated film “Ferdinand,” opening on December 15th, was caught in theculture-war crossfire of its own era. Mahatma Gandhi and EleanorRoosevelt were on Team Ferdinand. Adolf Hitler and Francisco Franco werenot. But the battle lines weren’t drawn quite as neatly as those rosterssuggest.

Set in the country somewhere outside Madrid, “The Story of Ferdinand”had the good or bad fortune to be published in September, 1936, threemonths after the start of the Spanish Civil War, when Fascist militaryforces began rebelling against the leftist Republic. In the book, thepeaceful Ferdinand is mistaken for the “toughest, meanest bull in all ofSpain” after he gets stung by a bee and starts “bucking and jumping andacting like he was crazy.” Carted off to the bullring, however, hereverts to languid form, sitting down and smelling “all of the beautifulflowers worn by the ladies in the crowd.” The picadors, thebanderilleros, and the matador do their best, but “no one could getFerdinand to fight,” and so he returns to his beloved pasture and tree.A sweet tale. But with Spain at war and the rest of Europe on the verge,Ferdinand’s pacifism conveyed a loaded message if looked at the right,or wrong, way. The book’s publisher, Viking Press, had wanted to hold itback until “the world settles down,” according to a reminiscence byMargaret Leaf, Munro’s widow, written on the book’s fiftiethanniversary. The author and illustrator insisted on going ahead, whichthe publisher did—though apparently without much faith, putting all itsadvertising muscle behind another picture book on its list that year:“Giant Otto,” by William Pène du Bois, which centered on a floppy dogthe size and shape of a four-story burial mound. “ ‘Ferdinand’ is a nicelittle book,” Viking’s president reportedly proclaimed, “but ‘GiantOtto’ will live forever.”

The publisher was not entirely wrong, since a trace of Otto’s otherwiseforgotten DNA seems to linger in the character of Clifford the Big RedDog. “The Story of Ferdinand” sold respectably, at first, movingfourteen thousand copies in its first year. But it took off, in 1937,for reasons no one was quite sure of. By its first anniversary it hadsold eighty thousand copies, a phenomenal number for a picture bookduring the Depression. By that Christmas, as this magazine reported,sales were “running slightly behind Dale Carnegie and well ahead ofEleanor Roosevelt.” The following December, the book “nudged ‘Gone Withthe Wind’ off the bestseller lists,” Margaret Leaf notes. Ferdinandmerchandise began turning up in stores—and not just the usual toys,dolls, pajamas, and cereal boxes, but also women’s scarves, hats, and aCartier brooch that sold for fifty dollars (roughly eight hundred andfifty dollars today). The bull ambled down Broadway as a balloon in theMacy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and enjoyed the flowers on a float in theRose Parade, in Pasadena. The story was adapted for radio by “The RoyalGelatin Hour” with Rudy Vallée, and on film by Walt Disney, in 1938,winning an Oscar for Best Animated Short. Life magazine proclaimed thebook “the greatest juvenile classic since ‘Winnie the Pooh,’ ” whileasserting that three out of four copies were bought by “grownups . . . largely for their own pleasure and amusement.”

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