The Book That Made Me: James Mayhew
Published on: 17 July 2019 Author: James Mayhew
In the latest edition of The Book That Made Me, James Mayhew explains how The Story of Ferdinand provided comfort in childhood - and helped him through a huge personal moment later in life.
I'd struggled to learn to read at school and was a reluctant reader, so I spent time in libraries just looking at illustrations and day-dreaming. I regularly borrowed Maurice Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are; at home, I cherished Ian Fleming's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, with the astonishing illustrations by John Burningham - so different to the movie.
We had very few picture books, and I wasn't quite ready for the delights of Moominvalley or Narnia. But we did have The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson - a slim book, with glorious black and white drawings and a text I could manage, with a powerful message.
This story of a Spanish bull who sits under a cork tree and smells flowers always struck me as different. All around me there were expectations that boys should be tough, not gentle; that I should man up, defend myself, fight back. School wasn't a happy place; I was the shortest kid, easy prey for bullies. But this beloved book was a complete contradiction to all of that.
Ferdinand's mother accepts that he is different to the other, more aggressive bulls. When bullfighters come to seek the most ferocious bull, Ferdinand accidentally sits on a bee, and his reaction is such that they choose him for the bull ring. But he refuses to fight.
Instead, he smells the flowers in the lovely ladies' hair. The bullfighters give up, and return him to his favourite cork tree to smell the flowers. The final sentence was the most powerful:
'He is very happy'.
Isn't that what we all hope for in life, to be happy? Ferdinand knew the secret - just be yourself.
The gifts Ferdinand gave me
Of course, I didn't grasp half of this when I was a child, but I took the gentle hero to my heart, recognising, even at a young age, that we had something in common. Growing up in the Suffolk countryside, I even had a 'pet' cockerel called Ferdinand.
Now I can see that Ferdinand gave me several great gifts. He taught me that being gentle and kind is okay. He showed me that fighting isn't the answer. He taught me to be passionately against any kind of cruelty to animals, and to be a pacifist. He reminded me that there is beauty and solace in nature, whether flowers or cork trees, and that solitude doesn't always mean loneliness.
Discovering a love of illustration
At the same time, illustrator Robert Lawson inspired and dazzled me with his filigree line drawings. The exotic Spanish ladies, the famous bridge at Ronda - how beautiful that expert observation, that liquid black line, capturing the characters, expression, humour and atmosphere, even when printed on soft, mushy paper with intricate details bleeding into an intriguing blur.
For years, I wondered how these drawings had been done. Then something magical happened. A supply teacher introduced my class to pen and ink. I was about nine or ten and I still remember that first moment, taking off the lids from the bottles, smelling the pungent ink, and relishing the sharp metal nibs. Now I was able to create my own line drawings, just like in Ferdinand.
We went sketching in the tiny village where I lived, and I fell in love with this technique, one which I've used ever since, for almost every project. My work is very different to Lawson's, but an echo of that early fascination with his line drawing remains to this day. I collect antique nibs and different kinds of inks and never tire of exploring the possibilities, on different papers, different surfaces.
Ferdinand's help in a big personal moment
Many years later, as a published author and illustrator, I read The Story of Ferdinand to a group of children, and something extraordinary happened... I began to cry.
There was something so powerful and so meaningful in the words, wrapped up in distant memories. And a huge sadness. Because, unlike Ferdinand, I wasn't happy.
This realisation came with a great deal of personal pain and fear. Through counselling, I finally confronted that childhood bullying, and those societal expectations of who I should be, and what it means to 'be a man'.
It wasn't easy, coming out at 50; I'd married and had a family. But Ferdinand was right - you have to be yourself. I realised it was the only way I'd ever be truly happy. I so wish there had been more books, diverse and empathetic, growing up. It could have saved many people a lot of sadness if there had been.
Ferdinand had one last gift for me: Spain. All those years ago I gazed at the illustrations and dreamed of visiting such a beautiful country. After coming out I met my wonderful Spanish partner, an artist called Toto. Every time we visit Spain, Ferdinand is there beside me, smelling the flowers, quietly.