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Children’s Book Week: Un Gorrión en la Guerra de las Fieras

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”

— Groucho Marx

Un Gorrión en la Guerra de las Fieras
Antoniorrobles (1895 – 1983)
México: Secretario de Educación Pública, 1942
PQ6633 O2 S62 1942

Established in 1919, Children’s Book Week is the longest-running national literacy initiative in the United States. The idea first originated with Franklin K. Mathiews, librarian for the Boy Scouts of America. He believed that the literacy skills developed from children’s could be life-changing, and in 1913 Mathiews set out on a cross-country tour to promote higher standards in children’s literature. He propositioned publishers, booksellers, and librarians to create a Children’s Book Week with the notion that, “A great nation is a reading nation.”

The importance of children’s books was well noted all over the world. Like the United States, countries like Russia, Germany, Spain, and Mexico were also beginning to change how and what children were reading. In many cases, children’s book authors were replacing fantasy with realism, insisting that such stories did not require imagined beings, but rather should be told with contemporary characters and situations. In Spain, one such author was Antonio Joaquín Robles Soler (1895 – 1983). Under the pseudonym, Antoniorrobles, he published 16 books and more than one hundred stories — granting him the title, “Father of Contemporary Children’s Literature” in Spain. 

Antoniorrobles’ career as a children’s book author began in 1930 with the publication of two children’s books, in addition to the founding of a children’s magazine, The Dog, the Mouse and the Cat (1930 – 1931). His ultimate goal was to help young people develop an understanding of peace, friendship, and solidarity. Through reading his stories, he hoped children would grow to have kind attitudes towards the environment; to have a love for all people, objects, and animals; and to reject violence and cruelty entirely.

His fight for new literacy practices coincided with the Spanish Civil War. During this time, Antoniorrobles — who unequivocally supported the Republic — published several collections of propaganda stories, including versions of classic children’s tales which he adapted to the contemporary moment. After the defeat of the Republic, Antoniorrobles fled to Mexico with his wife, where he remained in exile for 33 years. 

While in Mexico, Antoniorrobles became established with numerous intellectuals and artists, even rising to the title of Chair of Children’s Literature in National School of Teachers. Working with the Ministry of Education, Antoniorrobles was introduced to Gabriel Fernández Ledesma (1900-1983) — Mexican painter, printmaker, sculptor, graphic artist, writer and teacher. As an artist, Fernández Ledesma worked on several projects related to and with the Mexican government, often collaborating with other artists such as his wife Isabel Villaseñor and muralist Roberto Montenegro. It was through his appointment as Artistic Director by the Education Minister, José Vasconcelos, that Fernández Ledesma began his own career in publishing and education.

After developing an extensive resume in the 1920s, which included illustrating and developing printing workshops, Fernández Ledesma found crucial support from the Ministry of Education. By 1935, he was promoted to head of the editorial offices at the Secretary of Public Education, overseeing the publication and distribution of children’s texts. Like Antoniorrobles,  Fernández Ledesma challenged the status quo of art education, particularly the notion of “art for art’s sake.” Under this premise, he co-founded ¡30-30! — a movement known for its hostility towards traditional academia and its conviction that art should have a social purpose above all else. 

In 1942, Antoniorrobles and Fernández Ledesma published Un Gorrión en la Guerra de las Fieras (A Sparrow in the War of Wild Beasts) — a children’s book with a critical perspective of World War II. Un Gorrión was produced as a direct response to the sinking of Mexican ships by German submarines, while its title derives from the events which subsequently followed. President of Mexico, Manuel Ávila Camacho, responded to the attack with a declaration of war against Germany, to which Hitler is said to have remarked, “It’s as if a little bird just entered an elephant fight.”

Un Gorrión playfully portrays the Allied and Axis powers as wild beasts in the jungle. In this story, the Axis powers are represented by an elephant, a jackal, and a wolf. Together, the three animals bully the rest of the jungle with their brute force and deceitful nature. With teamwork, friendship and intelligence, the other animals are able to defeat the mighty elephant and his dogs, winning peace in the jungle at last. Despite the innocence of Fernández Ledesma’s illustrations, there is a clear message for the children who read this book: bullying and violence have no place in this world. Antoniorrobles and Fernández Ledesma express this moral judgement, not through fantasy and tall-tales, but rather through contemporary events which add historical value to the narrative — creating both children’s literature for a new generation and art with a social purpose. 

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