The Story of the Story

The Story of The Story of Ferdinand

Once upon a time in New York City there was a little boy and his name was William. More than anything, he loved to read. One of his favorite illustrated books, which he enjoyed reading with his mother as well as on his own, was The Story of Ferdinand the Bull. In this story, Ferdinand liked to just sit quietly and smell the flowers. He had no interest in butting heads with the other young bulls or in going to Madrid to fight matadors.

The Story of Ferdinand

Many summers later, William was learning Castilian, the national language of Spain. He had visited Spain the previous winter, including Madrid, Toledo, cities and towns around Andalusia, and Barcelona. While asking a question about how the Spanish language indicates two noun phrases are in apposition, he wrote an example with the words mi toro Ferdinand.

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It had been decades since William had read The Story of Ferdinand the Bull, because he had not read it with his own children, so he decided to revisit the book. He started with the Wikipedia article, where he learned this little book was first published in 1936 and became immensely popular in the US among adults as well as children, outselling Gone with the Wind and topping bestseller lists. William also learned the story was banned in Spain during his childhood because it was considered a pacifist book against the Franco regime, as well as in Germany because Hitler considered it democratic propaganda. He learned the book drew the admiration of Thomas Mann, H.G. Wells, Mahatma Gandhi, and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. It compelled Ernest Hemingway, that inveterate admirer of bullfighting, to write his own children’s story in response. He realized that the illustrations included the iconic Puente Nueve spanning Ronda, the town where Hemingway spent many summers and which William and his family had visited last January.

2560px Parador de Ronda 1

It had also been decades since William saw the short Disney film, which won the 1938 Oscar for Best Animated Short. Watching it again, he winced at the narrator’s imitation of a Spanish accent, as well as the clichéd drawings of the women (who all looked like Snow White) and the matador (depicted as a fool). But he was still pleased to see the bridge in Ronda, adjacent to the parador where he and his family had stayed.

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William also learned that another film adaptation had been made in 2017. While apprehensive about the padding necessary to stretch this simple tale into a full-length feature, he requested a DVD from his local library, which he had not visited in five months because of COVID-19.


COVID-19 is the disease that ravaged New York City, coursed across Spain, and shuttered libraries everywhere, not only at home. The closures of these public space disturbed William. Wherever they traveled, he and his family sought refuge among the stacks. On their family vacations in the last three years, they had visited libraries in Spain, Hong Kong, Ohio, Massachusetts, California, Utah, and Iceland. This summer, for the first time in memory, they are homebound.

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Millions of children are homebound too. Searching now for videos of “ferdinand the bull”, there are many read-aloud videos made since last March by librarians, teachers, and other book lovers. These are lovely, sharing the pleasure of reading with children whose caregivers may also be home but are occupied. Still, these videos are not as intimate as two people reading in the same room together: pointing at letters and pictures, taking turns, wondering aloud about the thoughts and relationships of the characters, looking at each other, laughing with each other, making up back stories, admiring the art, flipping back to remind themselves of something that happened earlier — traveling through at their own pace, making it their own, reading as an activity.

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