A little while ago I wrote about spending a bookish day with my Gran, and she lent me some books that belonged to her, my Dad, and my Great-aunt when they were young. One of these books was ‘The Story of Ferdinand’ by Munro Leaf. First published in 1937, the edition that my Gran had is from 1955, and it has a newspaper clipping stick to the front page about a bull at the Royal Adelaide Show who knows how many years ago.
I really liked reading ‘The Story of Ferdinand’. A short story, I read it over breakfast one day. It is a sweet story: Ferdinand is a strange bull – he doesn’t like fighting like other bulls, but likes sitting under the cork tree and smelling the flowers. However, he is observed by bullfighters when he has been stung by a bee and looks like a strong, tough, mad bull. He is brought to a bull fight but, to the infuriation of the bull fighter, does nothing but sit in the ring, looking at all the lovely flowers the ladies of Spain are wearing to come see the bull fight.
Something that I think is very difficult to pull off in children’s picture books is the disguised ‘moral’. Many picture books that I read while working at the bookshop had such obvious points to the story – sharing, hurting people’s feelings, the first day of school is not scary. It is often demonstrated in the title. What I liked about Ferdinand was that the ‘theme’ or ‘moral’ of the story was easier to swallow. Ferdinand does not want to fight – he prefers to sit quietly. You could see the theme as either promoting non-violence or being true to oneself, but it is not obvious. The story, and the character of Ferdinand, is what stands out, and what will stand out to children. They will absorb the ideas behind Ferdinand’s actions without even realising it. And this, I think, is much more effective. No one likes being told what is right or wrong – it is much better to see the actions of others and make one’s own mind up. And, if I were a six-year-old, I would love Ferdinand so much that I would want to be like him. Particularly if I got to sit under a cork tree and smell the flowers.