When I was teaching, one of my assistants would fall about in hysterical laughter whenever I got to the part about Ferdinand’s mother being a very understanding mother “even though she was a cow”!
Even now the thought of it brings a smile to my lips.
Some of my colleagues refused to read this story aloud because they didn’t like the bullfighting scenes.
I could see their point, but I could also see that Leaf used the brutality of bullfighting (in this case toned down considerably for the young audience) to contrast Ferdinand’s gentle nature. The point being, that despite provocation (bullying) and peer pressure, Ferdinand stayed true to his nature.
I’ve always loved the last illustration of Ferdinand sitting happily under his childhood tree dreamily smelling the flowers – a big, burly bull confident about embracing his sensitive side.
I also love the authenticity of Lawson’s illustrations.
They are based on the city of Ronda in Andalusia, which has the oldest bullfighting ring still in use in Spain. Lawson won the Caldecott Medal for his illustrations in They Were Strong and Good in 1941 and the Newbery award for his own short story, Rabbit Hill in 1945. Lawson also illustrated Mr. Popper’s Penguins (1938) by Richard and Florence Atwater, The Prince and the Pauper (1937) by Mark Twain, and The Sword in the Stone (1939) by T. H. White.
Leaf actually published Ferdinand nine months before the beginning of the Spanish Civil War although rumour had it, that he wrote it to support of the pacifist movement against Franco.
Whatever the reason for its creation, there is no doubt that Ferdinand is a classic in children’s literature. It still has something to say to us nearly 80 years later.
Whether as an emblem for pacifism or as an anti-bullying message or as a rallying call against gender stereotyping, Ferdinand will always appeal to those of us who like a happy ending.