I love Robert Lawson and I love Munroe Leaf, but ladies and gentlemen these two men are definitely less great unless paired together. In undoubtedly my favorite children's book from the 1930s (so sorry, "They Were Strong and Brave"), these two titans of the picture book world created the most adorable story to have ever involved cork trees, bulls, and sweet smelling flowers.
Ferdinand is none too different from "The Reluctant Dragon". He may look fierce and strong, but underneath that hard exterior lies a bull that is perfectly content to just sit beneath his favorite cork tree and smell the flowers all day. Ferdinand was gentle even when young, and he has no desire to go needlessly ramming his head with the other bulls in the field. When some wonderfully illustrated men arrive to find a bull worthy of their bull-fighting arena, Ferdinand is accidentally selected as their choice. Once in the arena, however, Ferdinand proceeds to humiliate the matador and his cronies through simple peace-loving flower-smelling. In the end, Ferdinand is returned to his cork tree and the world is as it was.
There's a definite pacifist feel behind the old Ferdinand tale. In what other story will you have a creature not fight back despite all provocations, only to win in the end? Moreover, a male character that prefers pretty sights and smells to violence and uber-masculinity. Lawson's pen and ink drawings expertly compliment Leaf's tale. Through them we see the high balconies of Spanish towns, and the serene fields where little bulls may play. I was especially amused by the cork tree, from which actual wine corks hang. I suspect many a child has subsequently believed for years that corks really do grow on the vine as Lawson displayed them. Lawson isn't above other humorous tweaking beyond that. On the front and end papers of the book is an image of children gawking at a ferocious picture of "angry" Ferdinand. The poster goes on to advertise treats at the bull fight including "hot dogos" and "chocolato". Apparently any word with an appropriate "o" tacked on the end is instantly Spanish.
"Ferdinand" is the sweetest of the Leaf/Lawson tales. However you feel about the nature of violence (and about how it is almost required of the males of society) this is the quintessential story about being yourself. The angry over-masculine bulls may fight and brawl but peaceful Ferdinand is the one to outwit the men in the end.