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. 

Little Dragons Go Back to School: Edward Burne-Jones Sketches for his Granddaughter Angela

Edward Burne-Jones, “Seminary for More Advanced Dragon Babies” (detail). From Margaret: Aug:mdccclxxxv. [manuscript]. London: 1891-1892. (Manuscripts 91749).

“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” John Dewey

Long before Hiccup befriended and subdued the dragon, Toothless, in Cressida Cowell’s book How to Train Your Dragon (2003), the nineteenth-century English artist, Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898), imagined a world where baby dragons went to school to learn everything dragons need to know to become fearsome creatures.

Burne-Jones was a Pre-Raphaelite artist known for his illustrations for William Morris’s Kelmscott Press, and decorative designs and paintings depicting Medieval subject matter. After the 1860s, his work and artistic ideology was associated with the Aesthetic Movement. Art, according to Aestheticists like Burne-Jones, should not be used for didactic or moralizing purposes; rather, it should be considered an object of beauty whose sole purpose was to elicit a sensual and emotional response from the viewer (Landow).

Burne-Jones filled personal correspondence to family and friends with sketches and caricatures. He was especially fond of writing to the children of the household and entertained them with delightful and humorous pictures (MacCarthy, 328). His desire to connect with children and entertain them through art-making can be further seen in a sketchbook in the Cotsen’s collection, Margaret: AUG:MDCCCLXXXV (Manuscripts 91749).

Inscription from Edward Burne-Jones, Margaret: Aug:mdccclxxxv. [manuscript]. London: 1891-1892. (Manuscripts 91749).

A handwritten inscription states that Burne-Jones gave his daughter, Margaret, a plain sketchbook before she married and moved to 27 Young Street. It goes on to state that the book was given to his granddaughter, Angela, when she was eighteen months old and that, “E. B-J began making drawings in it for her when he came to see her” (Burne-Jones).

Edward Burne-Jones, “Seminary for More Advanced Dragon Babies.” From Margaret: Aug:mdccclxxxv. [manuscript]. London: 1891-1892. (Manuscripts 91749).

The sketchbook contains a number of drawings, ranging in subject matter and level of finish. Some depict landscapes, animals, and everyday life, while others, like the “Seminary for More Advanced Dragon Babies” depict mythological and fantastical creatures.

The “Seminary for More Advanced Dragon Babies” (December 5, 1892) is a finished drawing done in Burne-Jone’s linear style. It shows a group of nine, adorable, cat-like baby dragons in a courtyard. At the rear of the courtyard, sits a podium with an open book and ink well, above which hangs a sign that bears the title of the piece. To the left is a doorway leading into “Hisstry School” (history) and to the right is a doorway leading to “Jogruffy School” (geography).

The baby dragons are shown wrestling with each other, peeking out from the doorways, rolling on their backs, or, rubbing away tears. The creatures are not the typical, scaly dragons that we’re used to seeing. Instead, they each have spots and random tufts of hair down their backs and tiny tails. Their round little bellies and diminutive stature show that they are indeed juveniles who are presumably attending their first day of school, just like many of our own children.

To the students who are attending their first day of school, we wish you good luck! You may not learn how to fly or breathe fire, but you will be in good company as you learn about history and geography, and maybe even about dragons in mythology!

Burne-Jones’ sketchbook for his granddaughter Angela Margaret McKail, better known as the novelist Angela Thirkell, has been digitized and can be viewed here.

Burne Jones, Edward Coley. Margaret: Aug:mdccclxxxv. [manuscript]. London: 1891-1892. (Manuscripts 91749).

Landow, George P. “Aesthetes, Decadents, and the Idea of Art for Art’s Sake.” VictorianWeb, 5 December 2012.

MacCarthy, Fiona. The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.