by Alana Pedalino and Godwin Chu
You may already be familiar with The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson—but do you know that the book has an amazing story of its own, touching the worlds of jazz, World War II, and even Indian independence?
After reading the story with your class, explore the book’s fascinating history and its impact on the world with these fun facts!
When he was only 30 years old, Munro Leaf wrote The Story of Ferdinand at the request of his friend Robert Lawson, an unemployed illustrator who needed a project to work on. Leaf said he wrote the story in about 40 minutes!
Leaf dubbed the bull “Ferdinand” because he only knew two Spanish names—Ferdinand and Isabella, the king and queen of Spain in the 1400s (they’re the same royals who helped fund Christopher Columbus’s voyage).
According to lore, Leaf made the main character a bull because he’d never seen one in a children’s book before!
The book quickly attained international fame, and by 1938, just two years after it was first published, The Story of Ferdinand had sold more copies than the epic American masterpiece Gone with the Wind, which was one of the most popular novels of the 20th century as well as a blockbuster movie.
At the height of World War II, The Story of Ferdinand was interpreted as a symbol of pacifism. In Germany, Hitler called the book “degenerate democratic propaganda” and had it burned, while General Franco outlawed the book in Spain. However, Leaf said he intended for his book to only make readers laugh and that The Story of Ferdinand has no hidden meanings.
Ferdinand was transformed into an Oscar-winning animated short by Disney in 1938. Leaf and Lawson’s story even inspired a jazz song by the duo Slim and Slam. Other artists who have sung about Ferdinand include 1950s vocal group the Lennon Sisters and music revivalist Michael Feinstein. Poet Matt Mason wrote a poem about Ferdinand in 2013. And there’s a new 3-D animated film adaptation in theaters today!
When World War II ended, the US Army airdropped 30,000 copies of The Story of Ferdinand into Germany to promote peace and unity.
Robert Lawson based the scenes in The Story of Ferdinand on actual locales in Spain. The bridge in the background of the illustration above is the Puente Nuevo (New Bridge) in the mountainous town of Ronda—home of the oldest bullfighting ring in Spain!
Look closely at the illustration of the cork tree. Notice anything unusual about its blooming “blossoms”? They’re actually made up of clusters of cork that you pull when opening bottles! It’s these kinds of subtly whimsical details that have helped make Ferdinand such a beloved classic through the decades.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor loved it—as did India’s Mahatma Gandhi and millions of people across the world. The Story of Ferdinand has been translated into multiple languages (including Chinese in 2008) and published in more than 60 countries; it has never been out of print. Today, Ferdinand is considered a classic in children’s literature. Even though it’s more than 80 years old, the story remains just as relevant and impactful as when it was first published in 1936.
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