Banned Book Week 2019: The Story of Ferdinand


Ferdinand sits on a bee

Ferdinand reacts to sitting on a bee. Leaf, Munro. Die Geschichte vom Ferdinand, 1938. Here we see Ferdinand’s reaction to being stung by a bee, which causes the men from Madrid to think he’s especially fierce.

By Alexis Antracoli, Interim Assistant University Librarian for Special Collections

When I was a little girl, around 4 or 5 years old, my favorite book was Munro Leaf’s The Story of Ferdinand. I would request it most nights as my bedtime story, and have memorized most of the book. I knew exactly when to exclaim “But not Ferdinand!” As I grew out of bedtime stories and children’s books, Leaf’s The Story of Ferdinand, continued to hold a special place in my heart because I associated it with warm memories of bedtime stories with my dad and because I cherished what I saw as it’s central message: Be yourself, even when it’s hard. 

“But not Ferdinand”  Leaf, Munro, Die Geschichte Vom Ferdinand, 1938. My favorite line from the book here in German.  Ferdinand was not like the other bulls.

For those who aren’t familiar with the story, Ferdinand is a peaceful bull who doesn’t like fighting with the other bulls his age. When a group of men come to select the fiercest young bull for a bullfight in Madrid, Ferdinand sits on a bee, and his reaction is so intense that the matadors think he is the fiercest bull. However, when he arrives at the bullfight, no one is able provoke him and when he sees all the flowers in the ladies’ hair, he just sits and smells. Ferdinand is sent home to sit under his favorite cork tree and smell the flowers.

The Men from Madrid.  Leaf, Munro, Die Geschichte Vom Ferdinand, 1938. A color version of the book’s depiction of the men from Madrid who came to find the fiercest bull for the bullfight.

What I didn’t know about The Story of Ferdinand until a couple of weeks ago was that Ferdinand was once a banned book. Published in 1936, Ferdinand, gained both acclaim and condemnation from prominent world leaders. The Roosevelts loved it, but Hitler considered it “degenerate democratic propaganda.” While it reached number one on the best-seller list in the United States within a year of its publication and inspired a Disney short film, critics of the book called it subversive and viewed it as propaganda. Fascists in both Spain and Germany interpreted the book as pro-pacifist critique of fascism leading to it’s bans in both countries. In Nazi Germany, Hitler demanded the book be burned, but when World War II ended, 30,000 copies of the printed book were distributed throughout the Germany.

The Cotsen Children’s Library holds six copies of The Story of Ferdinand, two in English, two in German, one in Latin, and one in Polish. The earliest copy is a 1937 English edition; but perhaps the most fascinating copy is a German manuscript version probably created in 1938 to subvert the Nazi ban, Die Geschichte vom Ferdinand. This copy is spiral-bound, hand-colored, and hand-written. The illustrations copy those from the original, but add color throughout.  

Ferdinand smells the flowers. Leaf, Munro, Die Geschichte Vom Ferdinand, 1938. When Ferdinand gets to the arena in Spain, he’s back to his old self and sits down to smell the flowers in the ladies’ hair.

While it’s impossible to know exactly who created and read this particular version, it’s a potent reminder of the power of Leaf’s story, of its meaning in multiple contexts, and of  the way the materials we have here in special collections have the power to connect us across time to people not so different from us. In this case, what for me was a story that reminded me of the courage it took to be myself when being myself meant being different, may have been a story of the value of peace during a time of impending war, resistance to Nazi ideology, or simply an entertaining story beloved by a child.  Perhaps the creator and readers of this book valued it for very different reasons that I did, but, for a brief moment, I felt connected to others who loved the very same book I did in very different circumstances.