Books & Manuscripts

The Controversial Children’s Book Banned by Hitler and Franco

By Paige Thompson

The Story of Ferdinand, which features in The Library of an English Bibliophile Part VIII sale in London on 10 July, is a 1936 children’s literature classic written by Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson. The book tells the story of Ferdinand, a bull in Spain who would rather “sit quietly out under the tree” and smell flowers, than fight in the bull fighting arenas.  Leaf wrote the classic on a yellow legal-length pad in less than an hour one October afternoon in 1935, largely on a whim, and mostly to provide his friend Robert Lawson with a story to illustrate.

The publication of the book the following year caused international controversy.

Published in the few months leading up to the Spanish Civil War, Ferdinand became a metaphor for larger political and ideological discussions.  The small simple tale of the Spanish bull was yanked from its unassuming position on the shelves of the children’s bookstore and onto the international world stage.

In 1937 Leaf wrote that he had published a book he “thought was for children… but now I don’t know” and in 1938 The New Yorker wrote “Ferdinand has provoked all sorts of adult after-dinner conversations.”

Ferdinand’s pacifism was a loaded political message, or at least interpreted as one. It was attacked from every angle.  Ferdinand was labelled “subversive”, “Red Propaganda”, “Fascist Propaganda” and even an “unworthy satire of the peace movement”. Everyone had an opinion. The book was banned in Spain and Germany. Hitler demanded the burning of the Ferdinand as “degenerate propaganda”.  It remained banned in Spain until Franco’s death in 1975. Stalin granted it privileged status as the only non-communist children’s book allowed in Poland. It is rumoured that Gandhi called it his favourite book. President Roosevelt requested a copy for the White House.  When Germany fell, 30,000 copies of the book were distributed throughout the country as a peace-keeping mission.

The legacy of Ferdinand was to extend beyond the Second World War.  In 1951 Hemingway offered his own opinion of Ferdinand when he published a short story in Holiday Magazine that begins “One time there was a bull whose name was not Ferdinand and he cared nothing for flowers. He loved to fight and he fought with all the other bulls of his age, or any age, and he was a champion…” Hemingway’s bull dies a champion, respected by all, especially the matador.  Starting with Hemingway and continuing to this day, Ferdinand has continued to appear in after dinner discussions and once again become a main talking point, this time, in the discussions of gender and masculinity.

The Story of Ferdinand, like all good children’s books, extends beyond the context in which it was originally presented. It is, ultimately, a wonderful story with the age old message of being true to oneself. While it has been labelled as propaganda by just about every position on the political spectrum, Leaf saw the book as “propaganda for laughter only”.

In this rare first edition, Leaf’s timeless tale is paired perfectly with Lawson’s black and white etchings, which are filled with delightful and memorable details (like the actual corks on Ferdinand’s favourite cork tree). The original print run for this first edition of Ferdinand was only 1,500 copies. 

Within a year of its publication it would outsell Gone with the Wind to become the number one best seller in the United States.  The year after, Life Magazine called it “the greatest juvenile classic since Winnie-the-Pooh”.  The Story of Ferdinand has never been out of print.

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