Friday, April 18, 2014

The FERDINAND Paradox...Revisiting my Childhood by Anna J Stewart

I honestly can't remember a time I didn't have a book in my hands.  One of my favorite photographs is of me sitting under a hair dryer (remember those?) with a stack of books in my lap. I can still remember the buzz of the hot air and the slight hint of ozone.

One of my absolute favorite stories was THE STORY OF FERDINAND by Munro Leaf.  I still have my original childhood copy, along with a second and third copy as back up.  They're stored in my memory chest along with a baby quilt and my favorite stuffed lamb. That beautiful shiny cover, the intricate pen illustrations and the story of the bull who just didn't want to fight and instead spent his days smelling the flowers. I even included a mention of the story in my upcoming Christmas novella for Heartwarming (hoping it makes it through edits!).

This is the book I always give as new baby presents. If you know me, if you're having a baby (or know someone having a baby), that baby will receive a copy of this book.  I've given out dozens of copies and recently gifted one to one of my best friend's grandson. He's now old enough that they're reading to him but I was shocked to hear that the little boy's father made mention of the fact that Ferdinand dies at the end.  What?!  Are you serious?  First of all, no, he doesn't (gasp!  the horror!) and secondly, why on earth would I give a child a book about a bull who is killed because he won't fight in the bull fights? So I tossed off the comment and forgot about it.

UNTIL...

This past week on Facebook, a fellow writer friend mentioned how her son was obsessed with Ferdinand (yay!), but that her husband made the comment, "Uh, oh, I don't think this ends well for the bull."  Whaaaat?  Another person actually thinks my beloved Ferdinand dies at the end? That he's buried under that tree and that the falling petals of the flower on the very last page alludes to his death?  Devastation!  My heart hurts! Depression! And so the debate began, with me gradually becoming more concerned that my beloved bull was in serious jeopardy.  So I pulled out my copy, tattered as it is, and re read the story.  And...

He's not dead.  He's not. I refuse to accept it. But I can also see where it's open to interpretation (and does it mean something that both individuals who made the claim are male?).  The book is a commentary on passivity, on not going with what's expected and breaking free of societal expectations and living your life the best way for you. The book was banned in Europe for a time because of it's "subversive" ideas (Hitler wasn't a fan, go figure).  But this book was one of Ghandi's favorite stories of all times.  Am I the only one who has a hard time believing Ghandi would never love a book (and encourage others to read it) where the bull dies (despite Ghandi's own tragic end) because he chooses peace over war?

Needless to say, this idea has shaken me to the core of my childhood.  The number of times I read this story--even recently--before this "death" idea took form, I never once thought Ferdinand was dead at the end.  Is it a sign of the times? Of this upcoming generation who see this book in an entirely new way? Or are we reading too much into a child's book that was really just about a bull who liked to smell the flowers.  I'm going with the flowers.

And I shall continue to believe that my beloved Ferdinand is just fine, sitting under his tree, and loving his life.

So this begs the question: what are some of your favorite childhood stories?  Have you read them lately?  Do you see something different in them now that you don't remember?  Please share! I'd love to know. 

15 comments:

  1. Anna, for all the children's books I've read, I haven't read Ferdinand. Can you believe it? LOL. Now I'm curious ;).

    I've never forgotten the story of Tiki Tiki Tembo, where a boy with too long of a name falls in a well. There have been different versions of it, some where the boy survives, but as a child, I repeatedly heard the 1961 version where he drowns by the time his older brother repeats his name to the mother to let her know he'd fallen in the well. I think this is why I like short names. I must have developed a fear of long ones from the story LOL.

    I definitely agree that we look at things differently now. Even cartoons! I grew up with Tom and Jerry and The Three Stooges. The slapstick 'violence' in them would shock today's parents.

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    1. I remember Tiki Tiki, too, Rula! Might have to go dig that out. Time for a childhood rehash--I still have most, if not all of my books from when I was little and I wonder how many have changed by our perception now. Funny how these books become "disturbing" once we get older, LOL Thanks for stopping by.

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  2. I just keep reading UNDERSTOOD BETSY. Many, MANY years after the first reading, I'm still comforted by the warm and safe community in Vermont where she went to stay.

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    1. Hi Liz! Those childhood books are like visiting with old friends, aren't they? I don't think I've read Betsy, but I'll check it out! Thanks for posting. :)

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  3. I always loved Danny and the Dinosaur and it was always sad when the Dinosaur had to leave- they had such a great day together!- but it helped me understand that sometimes things must end, no matter how much we wish it otherwise. The best children's books help us to make those kinds of realizations. It sounds like Ferdinand helped you gain lasting insight from childhood on and, as a children's author, I can tell you that so much of what we write is open for interpretation. You saw the bull living and others didn't. All that matters is what you took away from it because there is no right or wrong answer :)

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    1. The subtleties in children's books are so beautiful--and I think it's one reason some really stand the test of time. That's what makes them classics. Don't think I read Danny tho, but another favorite was Thy Friend Obediah, about a Quaker boy and the seagull he befriends. Such a beautiful story about helping others and letting go (one of those universal themes it looks like). :))

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  4. Even at my age I still love to scan the children's book section in bookstores. I love the art work and the simple way children's authors tell stories. I don't think Ferdinand dies either Anna. And it is telling that men might think their boys should "man up" and know that all things have a season. I still get to buy children's books because every year our RWA chapter donates kids books to a group one of our members works for that ferries kids removed from their homes to visits with their parents, sometimes its at jail, and they have fun books to occupy them while they wait. I love: Are You My Mother?

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    1. I'm so happy to see others agree with me about Ferdinand's fate--what a relief! And what a wonderful tradition you chapter has, Roz! I might suggest that to my own for this holiday season. Children can never have enough books. And you made me laugh with ARE YOU MY MOTHER--I say that to my mom in a "certain tone" every once in a while--it was one of our favorites to read together.

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  5. Anna, fantastic post! Ferdinand is one of my favorites too and rest easy...Ferdinand IS alive and well (: I'm also excited about your post because I think you'll like this...yesterday and again today I posted a link on my Facebook page to the helpthemread.org site--Barbara Bush's foundation for literacy. All you have to do is visit the site and vote for your favorite childhood book and then a book will be donated to a child...so neat! My favorite book might be kind of cheating because it's a compilation by Richard Scarry--The Best Story Book Ever. I learned how to read with that book and learned so many other things, too...

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    1. LONG LIVE FERDINAND!! LOL. Thanks, Carol! And I'm going to go find that site right now! Heading over to FB to find your post--thanks for the head's up--guess what I"ll be choosing! And I remember the Richard Scarry book, too. This is fun, seeing all these familiar titles. :) I just remembered about WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE...I think I checked that book out of the library dozens of times. Thanks for stopping by. :)

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  6. Horrified to realize I haven't read most of the books mentioned. In the early fifties, I accompanied my father on errands every Saturday morning and was given a new Golden Book to read while he had his hair cut. I remember THE THREE LITTLE KITTENS( who lost their mittens - that was happening to me all the time) LITTLE BLACK SAMBO (no longer politically correct, but he was quite the hero, ) and SAMANTHA AND THE RAIN (and her beautifully coordinated rain gear.) When my granddaughter was a baby, I fell in love with STELLALUNA about a little bat who is tossed out of the nest when an owl attacks. She's taken in by a family of birds and soon has all the baby birds hanging upside down from the tree. It's all about learning that we aren't all equipped to be able to do all the same things, but we can still be friends. Great message. Fun post, Anna!

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    1. Thanks so much, Muriel. :) I still have a number of my GOLDEN Books--my grandmother kept a stash in my "cabinet" when I came to visit--I think Pokey Little Puppy was my favorite..although there was one about a Taxi cab...I'll have to see if I can find it in her box of keepsake stuff. I'll keep an eye out for STELLALUNA--that one sounds like fun.

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  7. How could I not know this about you, Anna? I'm on the side of interpreting he didn't die. It was one of my favorites, along with Green Eggs & Ham and Where the Wild Things Are.

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  8. My father taught me to read when I was really young, but he didn't teach me with children's books, and we didn't have a lot of them around the house. However, one of my younger brothers got a copy of Ferdinand when he went into the hospital to have his tonsils out. I loved that book--loved it! And I read it over and over. Ferdinand lived. He definitely lived.

    One of the books I read as a 5-year-old, was Alice in Wonderland. Everything about Alice terrified me so much that I never touched it again until I was forced to read it in college, where I discovered it's funny and nuanced and sarcastic and wise. It certainly wasn't a childhood favorite, but it's one of my favorites now. And that Cheshire cat that haunted me in childhood nightmares isn't scary at all. Loved this post, Anna!

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  9. Great post!
    What happened on your sophomore year spring break in Cancun stayed in Cancun. This is, of course, assuming that your sophomore year spring break happened pre-Facebook.
    Thanks!

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