Monday, July 21, 2008

The Story of Ferdinand

Bookseller v. Collector

As a bookseller who happens to have a passion for the genre of books I sell, there is a constant struggle between my internal bookseller and book collector. I often have the impulse to keep a number of books that come into my hands. However, I am running a business and do need to actually sell books to make a living. Often times, I will sit on a book I particularly like for awhile, and when I stop thinking about it, or images or passages from the book stop appearing in my consciousness, I know it is time to let it move on.

A Hard Learned Lesson

I am slowly learning what books I definitely do want to collect. A number of years ago, I had in my possession a first edition of The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, illustrated by Robert Lawson. As I was cataloging it, I found myself reading it and really looking at the pictures. I was so taken with it, that that night I read it to my partner. He, too, fell in love with it.

A few months went by and it was time for me to put a catalog together. The highlight of the catalog was Ferdinand. When I put it in the catalog, I really didn't know if it would sell or not as I didn't have a specific customer for it, but I knew it to be a very desirable title.
Wouldn't you know it? It was one of, if not the first book to sell. So, I packed it up and sent it off to its new owner. As the days went by, a knot in my stomach grew and twisted about. What was it that was bothering me?:

The absence of Ferdinand on my bookshelf.

It was on that day I vowed that if another first edition were to come up for sale, I would buy it immediately. It is one of those books that appears so infrequently, that I would have even bought in worn condition with or without a dust jacket.

Reunited at Long Last
A few weeks ago I received my list of Books Matched from I scrolled down the page expecting to see what I usually see: New copies of Ferdinand, later printings, Spanish editions, Disney versions, etc... To my delight and surprise, a bookseller was offering a first edition in dust jacket, and happily, it was in my price range. I snatched it up and was so pleased when I finally received it.

A Brief History of Ferdinand

Ferdinand would be the jumping off point for Robert Lawson's long history of drawing and writing about animals. Previous to this book, he was mostly engaged in illustrating fairy stories and fantasies. Lawson's friend, Munro Leaf, proposed to write a picture book for Lawson to illustrate. The subject matter was, of course, to be about gnomes, leprechauns and the like. However, when Leaf showed the manuscript to Lawson, it was none other than the Story of Ferdinand. To which Lawson replied that he had never drawn a bull in his life! And that it would be a great opportunity for someone else.

Fortunately for us, the story stuck with Lawson and he felt it necessary to begin researching bulls and Spain at the library. Once he began sketching and drawing, both Lawson and Leaf were so pleased with its evolution, that both were genuinely excited by its possiblities.

The book was risky at the time as it is one of the earliest instances of the pictures in the book being as important as the text they illustrate. Originally it was refused by Little, Brown. However, Kay Massee at Viking was willing to take the risk (It was she who had pushed Bemelmans to do his first picture book, Hansi). The book did not, however, see a large first print run. I don't know the exact number and have found no definitive answer, but I have heard as few as 500 and the highest number is 1500 copies printed. The book was immediately successful and saw many printings in the first year. It is still one of the most popular picturebooks of the 20th Century and has been in print since it was first published.

It was the first original story to be bought by Disney to be made into a film.

It was also controversial in Europe and labeled as pacifist propaganda.

Why Do I Love This Book?
It's simple really. The story is clear, concise and avoids the pitfalls of many picture books, which is that it does not date itself. The images are perfect for the text and have almost a film-like quality. Lawson handles the animals with grace, he gives them just enough human qualities to give the reader a reference point and completely avoids the vulgarity of dressing them in human clothes. The expressions on the faces of both the animals and the people speak volumes where the text is mute. Ferdinand prefers quiet nature to the cruelty of violent sport--which Leaf thought showed that Ferdinand had class, as he noted in reaction to the "propaganda" accusations made by critics.

In Ferdinand, I can still see hints of Lawson's influences such as Charles and W. Heath Robinson, Hugh Thomson and Arthur Rackham. His use of line is impeccable, because the book was to be printed in b&w without half-tones he had to adapt his usual style.
I can read it again, and again and never tire of it, which for me is a testament to why this will stay in my personal collection.

What You Can Expect to Pay for a First Edition of Ferdinand?

It's hard to say, really. It doesn't show up often, so there aren't many records for recent sales. However, at a recent ABAA bookfair, a dealer from Boston had a first edition signed by both Leaf and Lawson in Fine condition in what appeared to be a Near Fine unrestored dust jacket. Their price? $15,000.

I sold my first edition copy, which was Good in a Good dust jacket, for $1500. In reality, I probably could have gotten more, but I didn't know better at the time.

A few years ago there was a book seller in Canada offering a first edition for $3200 USD. The jacket was in pieces with a damp stain. The book also had a damp stain that ran through the entire book.

Linda and Stan Zielinski's Children's Picturebook Price Guide estimates that a Very Good+ copy should sell for $5,000.

So, the range is great. Again, this is one of the few books that I would be very lenient about condition when a first edition becomes available. I assure you, if you don't buy it, someone else will...and quickly!


I have pulled some information from the following sources:

Robert Lawson, Illustrator: A Selection of His Characteristic Illustration With Introduction and Comment by Helen L. Jones. Published by Little, Brown in 1972.

American Picturebooks from Noah's Ark to The Beast Within by Barbara Bader. Published by MacMillan in 1976.

Children's Picturebook Price Guide by Linda and Stan Zielinski, published by Flying Moose Books in 2006.

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