Sunday, January 28, 2018

From the Archives #30: Three Books by Munro Leaf

Most of us are familiar with Munro Leaf’s iconic anti-bullying-be-yourself book The Story of Ferdinand, especially now that it has once again been made into a movie. Ferdinand, you may recall, is a bull who refuses to fight, preferring instead to peacefully smell the flowers. Ferdinand was written in 1936, and since it takes place in Spain, critics quickly equated it with the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). In fact, the story of the “peaceful” bull was burned by the Nazi’s and banned in General Francisco Franco’s fascist Spain, bellicose countries where Ferdinand was considered to be anti-fascist and subversive for attempting to promote a pacifist agenda. 

When the Untied States entered WWII after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Leaf enlisted in the Army and while serving, he wrote two books that offer suggestions for ways in which children could participate in the war effort as the country quickly mobilized for war. After all, everyone wanted to do their bit for the war effort, including children. And, it was felt that the best way to help war-time anxieties in the young was to take advantage of their youthful energy and natural desire to help.

In his book, A War-Time Handbook for Young Americans, Leaf offers suggestions for kids age 7 and up on what they can do. The book's objective are clearly laid out in the book’s blurb:

"Munro Leaf knows that boys and girls from seven or eight up are interested in their country's war and have a right to be. He tells them what they want to know about constructive war-time behavior - incidentally good citizenship for peace-time, too. He gives dozens of practical suggestions - based on actual plans of Government Departments, and made joyful and inviting by his own lively drawings in red and black - for things boys and girls can properly do to help their country in this crisis. He tells them how they can become a real part of the job that every American citizen must share to bring Victory and Peace.

"In the family, in the neighborhood, in the community, this book will create new cooperation, new interest, new spirit, in giving boys and girls their part in the big job. It is their hat, too, and they are eager to put it on. The book will help parents, organizers and teachers to know how to use the vast energy and eager spirit of millions of young American citizens."

The suggestions are simple - from keeping themselves strong and healthy, maintaining a cheerful attitude, helping to create a harmonious atmosphere at home by doing chores cheerfully, to gathering scrape metal and paper, working in community gardens, learning first aid, running errands, and simply by being a good neighbor and a good citizen. 

A War-Time Handbook for Young Americans, along with the same kind of quirkily illustrated black and red girl and boy stick figures was quickly followed by shorter book called My Book to Help America, published “at the suggestion of the U.S. Treasury Department.” Essentially a shortened version of the Handbook, it reiterates the ways kids can get involved in the war effort. The difference is that this is a book that have another purpose:

At the very end of the book was a Savings Bond booklet that kids could use to paste their stamps in each time they bought one, and once they read $18.75 in stamps, they could trade their booklet in for a savings bond, worth $25.00 at maturity in 10 years.

Kids actually did embrace they suggestions Leaf makes in these books, though how far their actual influence went can't really be measured. Still, it goes to the power that books have to teach and inspire action in young readers. And yes, the Axis powers also used these kinds of propaganda tools to influence and inspire their young readers.

Needless to say, of the three books here, The Story of Ferdinand is fortunately still a beloved children's book.

The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, illustrated by Robert Lawson
1936, Viking Books, 72 pages;

A War-Time Handbook for Young Americans written and illustrated by Munro Leaf
1942, Frederick A. Stokes, 64 pages

My Book to Help America written and illustrated by Munro Leaf
1942, Whitman Publishers, 32 pages

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