The Back Story of “The Story of Ferdinand” (A Book for All Ages)

Some children’s books stay with us forever.  We even reread them as adults.  The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, published in 1936, is one of those books.

In case you spent a deprived childhood without reading the book, let me recap.  Ferdinand, the bull, was born on a farm with other bulls who liked to run and jump and butt their heads.  But Ferdinand liked to smell the flowers and sit under the cork tree.  When some men came from Madrid to “recruit” bulls for fighting, they saw Ferdinand who was puffing and snorting, and butting and pawing.  They were delighted and promptly declared him the  is fiercest bull of all and loaded him into the cart.  What they didn’t  know was that Ferdinand had sat on a bee, and was reacting to a bee sting!

The day of the fight arrived.  “What a day it was.  Flags were flying, bands were playing…and all the lovely ladies had flowers in their hair.”

Alas when Ferdinand entered the bull ring, he promptly sat down in the middle of the ring and stared at the ladies with flowers in their hair.  He refused to fight.  Ferdinand was then sent home to his favorite pasture and spends his days sitting under the cork tree.

Ferdinand bull
One of the bull topiaries in the yard of the house, where the late Munro Leaf used to live.

Leaf wrote the 800 words in less than an hour. The reviews of the book were so-so, and sales started out slowly before taking off and selling 3,000 copies a week.  The Story of Ferdinand soon knocked Gone With the Wind off the top of the best-seller list.  Many of the sales were generated by adults purchasing the book for themselves.  However, the book was not without controversy.  Although Life Magazine called it, “the greatest juvenile classic since, Winnie the Pooh,” the Cleveland Plain Dealer “accused the book of corrupting the youth of America.”

Ferdinand was accused of being a fascist, a communist, an anarchist, and a pacifist.  (Please folks make up your mind!)  Hitler burned copies of the translated book, and Spain banned it until after Franco, the dictator, died.   H.G. Wells and Gandhi, on the other hand,  loved the book and FDR requested a copy be delivered to the White House.  Interest in the book has not diminished.  Translated into 60 languages, it has never been out of print.

A good children’s book appeals to all ages.  As C.S. Lewis said,  “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story.”    Munro Leaf says he wrote the book because he wanted to make readers laugh and  remind them that Ferdinand wanted to be true to himself.  Reading Ferdinand again and again reminds me of just how valuable this lesson is.

The late author lived in a house about two miles from where we live.

Ferdinand house plate
This is the plaque on the house were the late author, Munro Leaf, lived in Garrett Park, Maryland

TeddyBoy and I would like to thank the current owners of Ferdinand’s House, Margaret and Karol Edward Soltan, who graciously allowed us to trample through their yard for photos.

She is an English professor at the George Washington University, and he is a professor of political science at University of Maryland.  The Soltons maintain the bull topiaries in the front yard, an homage to Ferdinand.


TeddyBoy, the kitty in the top photo, did a PawReview of The Story of Ferdinand.  Go to: teddyboysinclair.com and read his PawReview.

A 1950’s Fairy Tale: Grandpa and the Lion

As we climbed into bed each evening and pulled the covers up to our chins, a daily ritual began for my brother and I when we were kids:  the bedtime story, usually told by our dad.  One of those stories,  a 1950’s fairy tale, was different.  It was a true story about a rescued African lioness who lived as a tame tabby cat with a Washington State couple, and my grandpa Folkenberg’s visits with the young lion.

Unfortunately, this bedtime story does not have a pretty beginning.  Little Tyke was born at the Point Defiance Zoo in the late 1940’s in Tacoma, Washington to a lioness who had killed her previous five cubs.  The small cub nearly suffered the same fate; as her mother flung her against the bars of the cage severely injuring her.  A couple, George and Margaret Westbeau, who ran a rescue ranch, The Hidden Valley Ranch, in a neighboring town, took the small cub home.  A constant round of bottle feedings and bandage changes (which caused excruciating pain to the cub), brought her back to health and she grew up to be a 350 pound lioness who lived in the house like a domestic tabby cat.

Little Tyke, lioness
Little Tyke cuddles a kitten between her paws.

She lounged on the kitchen floor, loved watching TV from her seat on the sofa,  and napped with her head resting on the lap of Margaret Westbeau.   When the Westbeaus took road trips with her, she would often stick her shoulder and paws out of the car window, her fur blowing in the wind.  Pit stops were made and she would take care of business by the side of the road, just like a well-trained house pet, never running away.  If the Westbeaus stayed in a motel they always got one room with two beds:  one for them and one for Little Tyke.

Part of the Zoo’s motivation in allowing the Westbeaus to rescue the injured cub, was that George owned a freezer plant, where he stored large amounts of meat.  And there could be no better home for a carnivore who eventually reached 350 pounds, than a family who owned a meat freezer plant.  Lions eat up to 16 pounds of meat a day.

But there was one glitch, Little Tyke refused to eat meat, no matter how hard the Westbeaus tried.  They would decrease the amounts of meat in her food to miniscule portions, but she still refused.  They were so desperate that they even tried going from just 10 drops of beef blood to one drop of blood in a meal, but Little Tyke turned up her nose.  There’s even a photo of George  holding a cut of meat up to her while she turns her head away.  They finally gave up and served her a special vegetarian diet that would take care of her nutritional needs.

It’s unclear how my grandparents, who lived in California, knew the Westbeaus.  They had numerous relatives in the Portland, Oregon area, so perhaps there was a connection there.  Several visits were made to the ranch; to my grandfather’s delight, but to my grandmother’s apprehension.  My grandfather would rush out of the car to greet Little Tyke, who placed her fore paws on his shoulders, embracing him.  They would roll around the kitchen floor playing together while my grandmother would remain in the car, or stand off to the side, stiff-lipped and frowning.  The magnitude of the visits was so great that my grandfather could talk of nothing else for days when he returned home.

Little Tyke defied expectations in another respect–her species’s reputation for being fierce hunters.    Her favorite companion, for example was Becky, the lamb, who often rested between her paws.

Little Tyke with Becky, the lamb.

Other photos show Little Tyke with a kitten between her fore paws, a small toddler climbing on her, and day old chicks frolicking around her.  She would even allow “Imp,” a black kitten to share her food.  She wandered among the peacocks, who also lived on the ranch.

She was so tame, that she rode unshackled on local parade floats. Little Tyke also was featured in an ad campaign for a local auto dealership, sitting in the driver’s seat surrounded by three men.  (Note the apprehensive look on the faces of the men in the back seat.)

There are also home movies, which show Little Tyke walking with Margaret in the snow and cuddling with her, cheek to jowl.  In another scene, George climbs out of the river in his swimsuit and wrestles with his favorite feline friend.

Of course, Hollywood soon beckoned and that rarely ends well. Cecil  B. DeMille, an early Hollywood producer and director,  had Little Tyke audition in 1952 for a part in “The Greatest Show on Earth.”  And in 1955, Little Tyke appeared in Art Baker’s popular TV show, “You Asked for It.”  After her final TV appearance that same year, Little Tyke became ill with viral pneumonia, and died in July in the arms of George at Hidden Valley Ranch, her home.  The stress of filming and the sudden change in climate from Washington to California had been too much for her.  She was nearly 10 years old at the time of her death.

Little Tyke helps sell cars at a local auto dealership, Herb Satterlee Motors. George Westbeau sits in the front.

My brother and I loved the story of grandpa and Little Tyke,  told numerous times by our dad at bedtime.  It wasn’t your typical fairy tale, but it had many of its elements:  enchantment, magic, wonder, and a most fantastic creature;  a lion, who was so tame that you could pet and frolic with her.  But fairy tales also resonant with adults…at least this adult.  The story of Little Tyke delighted and shocked me and gave me a glimpse of something greater. That the improbable could happen.  That miracles might be possible.


(A book titled, “Little Tyke,” was written by George Westbeau–with added chapters by Margaret in later editions.  It’s available on Amazon in soft cover and on Kindle and published by Quest Books.)

One Lovely Library

Interior Thayer Memorial Library

“Libraries raised me.” —Ray Bradbury

When the good citizens of the small Massachusetts town, Lancaster (founded in 1653), decided to build a memorial for the 39 home town soldiers killed in the Civil War, they built “a free public library, with well-laden shelves, a reading-room, and needful appliances.” (Little did the founding fathers know, that “needful appliances” would include computers some 125 years later.)

Rather than a statue to honor them, the town’s citizens felt a Library would better commemorate the soldiers’ sacrifices.

I lived in Lancaster for about three years during my girlhood, and once a week, my mother would take my brother and me to the Thayer Memorial Library.  It was a sturdy brick building, with large floor-to-ceiling windows.  Bookcases lined the walls of the first floor and the walls of the second floor balcony, which was reached by a spiral staircase.  Large round wooden tables were scattered throughout the Library…you could spread your books out and gaze at them, thumbing through the pages.

Interior of the Library

My favorite books included a series with  “Little Maid,” in the title (A little Maid of Massachusetts Colony, A Little Maid of Bunker Hill, A Little Maid of Mohawk Valley, etc,).  No, these were not books about household servants but a series of historical novels about little girls who helped fight the revolutionary war.

In these books, little girls carried secret messages to generals, helped capture English privateers, and served as spies.  Of course, they performed these duties all while being impeccably dressed  in pretty dresses with pinafores, and in their high button boots.  Those little girls could accomplish anything, and I almost believed the Revolutionary War wouldn’t have been won without their efforts.

Memorials to fallen soldiers come in many guises, but I can’t think of a better one, than a “free public library,” to the town’s future residents.  I didn’t know the names of the solders but their sacrifice resulted in a gift that was immeasurable:   light-filled rooms full of books, which fostered my imagination and a life-long love of books.

I encountered librarians who didn’t mind a small girl asking loads of questions, and who helped me choose the “best” books.

As Ray Bradbury said in the opening quote; “libraries raised me.” And I can’t think of a better parent.

(National Library Week is April 9-15, 2017)

By Hand

Enchantment comes in many forms but rarely when we expect it.  So when I signed up for a two day course in making clam shell boxes at the Cat Tail Run Hand Bookbinding Studio in Winchester, Virginia, I anticipated a detailed workshop on the finer points of box-making.  One box would have a curved spine, a more complicated structure.

cat tail bindery photo
Cat Tail Bindery

Clam shell boxes, are boxes most often used to house rare, fragile, or valuable books, or loose papers.  Each box is custom made and the parts of each box must be cut precisely by hand, and measured multiple times before cuts are made. Pasting is done by hand and at each stage of the structure, several things can go wrong.  As often as not, your eye is the best guide.

We arrived for our two-day workshop on a warm October day.   We walked on a small bridge over a Koi pond and entered a large, light-filled, high-ceilinged studio in the Virginia countryside.    We listened to the music of Bach while a gentle breeze wafted through our space.

We worked in a space full of tools and books, handmade paper, and rolls of book cloth with a dedicated teacher who has restored General Sherman’s battle plans, books from George Washington’s Library, the White House, and Ford’s Theatre.   Our activities were over-seen by Molly, the cat, and Bailey, the black lab.

photo of Molly the bindery cat
Molly, the bindery cat

We left the digital world behind and entered a world where things are done by hand and we could  sit back and admire our work at each step of the way.

When I make a book, or a box to hold that book by hand, I feel a connection to communities from hundreds of years ago:  To monks in monastery  libraries who labored by candlelight; to book artisans in small shops along the Grand Canal in Venice; and to palace libraries that exist to this day.  Yes, the materials have changed over hundreds of years, but the techniques are the same and many of the tools are similar.  And isn’t that one definition of enchantment–to be part of a grand community of artists and artisans, going back hundreds of years?

 

 

 

 

That Old Italian Opera Book

Old Italian opera book
Title page of the Pietro Metastasio opera book.

Here’s what I know about this old book whose pages have puffed out the covers because moisture made the pages swell.  I picked it up for $25 in used bookstore in Maryland. 

It was published in 1764 in Venice.  The book contains the libretti (words) of an Italian poet and librettist. Pietro Metastasio, considered the most important writer of opera libretti during this period.  He spent his time between Venice and Vienna, opera capitals of the then world.

This guy was opera writing machine.

More than 800 operas have a libretto by Metastasio.    Handel and Gluck wrote music to Metastasio librettos as did Mozart.

The book is made up of two volumes. I have a 12th printing, implying that this opera author was a best-seller.  But after all this is Italy.

I love holding the book.  Despite the fact, that it’s over 250 years old, the paper is not brittle, but lovely, soft, strong and quite white with a few blotches on some pages.  Back then, paper was made out of old linen and hemp rags, which were spread out in fields, and repeatedly bleached in the sun.  The cover is made out of vellum, calf skin.

I’m not sure why I bought this book.  I don’t read Italian, I don’t particularly like opera.  And the book is warped as a friend reminded me.

spine of old Italian book
Spine of the book

I love a good mystery.  So I imagine the story behind this 4 by 6 inch book.  How did it get from a Venetian publisher to a second hand used book store in Maryland, where hundreds of books are stacked on mental shelves?  How many Italians held this book in the 1700’s and 1800’s?  When and how did it get to the United States?   Did this book survive two world wars, or was it already safely in the United States?

But I do know that by holding this book and thumbing through the pages, I’m part of a chain of book lovers going back nearly 300 years.  I’ve never been a part of such a lengthy chain.  And what fun is that?

 

Only in Venice

Venice books
Much of the material for this blog piece comes from the book, “Bound in Venice.”

If you traveled back in time to Venice in the latter half of the 1400’s, you would have encountered dozens and dozens of bookshops and printers. An unusual, almost revolutionary sight indeed. Because within two or three decades, “publishing” had gone from monks painstakingly copying a miniscule number manuscripts, to a mechanical mechanism that published thousands of books.

Gutenberg may have invented the printing press and moveable type in Germany, but it was the city of Venice that rocked when it came to publishing in the 15th and 16th centuries. Without Venice, Gutenberg’s invention might have languished for years.

During this time, half the books in all of Europe were printed in this sea side city. Venice publishers printed the first Talmud, the first Koran, the first book in Greek and the second Bible in vernacular (Italian). They revolutionized punctuation, more or less invented the paper-back, printed the first best-seller (it sold 100,00 copies, an impressive figure even in this day and age), the first printed text of cosmetology, and some of the first medical texts.

The list continues: the first book on chocolate, and the first song books with musical notes (a challenging task for the printer). Of course, no publishing mecca would be complete without the first printed porn book, Salacious sonnets sonetti lussuriosi, by Pietro Aretino. The author was known to remark that the women in Venice were so beautiful, that they made him forget his male lover.

While the rest of Europe was slogging around in pig muck and ignorance (most of the population couldn’t read), a quarter of the male population between the ages of 6 and 15 in Venice attended school and a sophisticated bunch of citizens treasured some of the most beautiful books ever printed. Intellectuals met in Venice bookstores to discuss the issues of the day.

Why was Venice the publishing capitol of the civilized world during this time? Venice was one the three biggest cities (Naples and Paris were the other two) in Europe with a population of over 150,000. Alpine streams gushed with water, making paper production possible—a task that needs enormous amounts of water. The city had literate citizens, and was at the center of trading routes between Europe and the Middle East which meant they had plenty of capital.

Venice had the three characteristics necessary for becoming the information capitol of the then world: Industrialization, globalization, and marketing. Venice’s importance rivals the importance of today’s information giants: Google, Facebook, Apple (all who are located in one place, California’s “Silicon Valley”) and Microsoft.

Finally, the German city of Mainz (where Gutenberg lived and made his inventions) was sacked in 1462, driving many printers and punch cutters into exile and they settled in Venice, a place very hospitable to the printing trade and in need of their skills.

The publishing period between 1450 and 1501 (Gutenberg’s first Bible was printed in 1452) is known as the “incunabula,” Latin for swaddling clothes or cradle. It is an arbitrary date, but it was during this transition period—from hand-written manuscripts to printed words—that many innovations took place. The inclusion of title pages, pagination, the author’s name, colophons (name, date and place of publishing), the printer’s mark, and indexing, none of which were present in manuscripts. All these characteristics are still present in today’s printed books.

Of course, nothing lasts forever. Venice lost its coveted position of being the center of trading routes, as the British, the Spaniards, and French took the lead in discovering new worlds. Trade routes shifted from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic Ocean—the route to North America.

The Catholic Church, always a stickler for censorship decided that Venice, which had been fairly independent, should bear the brunt of censorship. Northern Europe, where the Protestant reformation took place, was protected from the Roman Inquisition, and a free press resulted. So publishers moved up north.

By the middle of the 16th century the book burning had begun in Venice. First came the bonfires of Protestant books and then the burning of all kinds of books. If the publishers were smart they wisely disappeared before the bonfires. Rome produced an index of condemned books which had to be strictly followed. The number of printing shops greatly declined. And the golden age of Venetian printing became history.

It’s become a truism to say that, “Venice was the Silicon Valley of publishing.” But that’s backwards. “Silicon Valley is the Venice of (internet) publishing.”

A Book Bindery in Cuba—Ediciones Vigia

Without paper, it’s tough to make a book. Before Gutenberg’s press, sheepskin and calf-skin were used to make parchment and vellum on which monks painstakingly crafted manuscripts—a process that could take up to a year or more.

Shelves of hand-made books at the Ediciones Vigia
Shelves of hand-made books at the Ediciones Vigia

Which brings us to Cuba. Since the Cuban revolution (1953-1959), consumer goods, including paper, have been in short supply. Paper is a luxury item and you can’t waste paper on a book! (The Island has periodic toilet paper shortages.)

Nonetheless, in 1985, Ediciones Vigia (which means, Watchtower Editions), an independent book bindery collective, was established in Matanzas, situated on a bay of the same name, some fifty miles from Havana. The collective is housed in an old renovated colonial house on Watchtower Square which overlooks the San Juan River. A friend who recently visited Cuba brought back a book for me from the bindery.

Despite the paucity of paper, this book collective makes beautiful and artistic books using a wide variety of found and repurposed materials: craft and copier paper, crayons, yarn, leaves, cloth, wood scraps and items donated by international visitors. In the early days of the bindery, artists recycled the brown paper used in butcher shops, upon which to craft and illustrate books.  The bindery uses only two mechanical devices: a borrowed mimeograph machine and a typewriter. As a result, the artists and writers use their hands and imagination to craft these beautiful books. The collective makes a limited run (a maximum of 200 copies) of each book.

Purchased books from the Ediciones Vigia
Purchased books from the Ediciones Vigia (photo on the right shows the trademark on the back of the books)

Ediciones Vigía concentrates on printing poetry, short stories, literary criticism, and children’s literature. Some of the texts are original, while others are existing works by famous writers, such as the poems by Emily Dickenson or Jorge Luis Borges.

The British Museum and the Library of Congress both own books made by the Collective. You can currently only buy these sought-after books at the bindery itself. No stores sell them–not even in Havana. Nor can the books be purchased by mail or on the Internet (they have no web site).

You will have to take a journey. You must fly to Havana, and hire a car and driver and make the 50 mile trip to a colonial house perched on the bank of the San Juan River. Once there, you will enter a space with high ceilings, shelves of handmade books, and a couple of rocking chairs. And your book will be wrapped in plain paper when you leave.

Thomas Jefferson once said, “I cannot live without books.”It seems, some Cuban book artists echo his sentiments.