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Twentieth-Century Children's Writers

Armstrong Sperry


from pp. 722-723 of Twentieth Century Children's Writers. [Rest of citation currently missing.]



SPERRY, Armstrong. American. Born in New Haven Connecticutt, 7 November 1897. Educated at Yale School of Fine Arts, New Haven, 1918; Art Students' League, New York, 1919-1921; Académie Colarossis, Paris, 1922. Served in the United States Navy 1917. Married Margaret Mitchell [sic*] in 1930; one son and one daughter. Assistant Ethnologist, Kaimiloa expedition to the South Pacific, 1925-1926; commercial artist and illustrator. Recipient: American Library Association Newbery Medal, 1941; New York Herald Tribune Festival Award, 1944. Died in April 1976.

PUBLICATIONS FOR CHILDREN (illustrated by the author)

Fiction

Other

*

Illustrator: Stars to Steer By, 1934, and House Afire!, 1941, both by Helen T. Follett; Shuttered Windows by Florence Cranell Means, 1938; Jungle River, 1938, and Thunderbolt House, 1944, both by Howard Pease; Boat Builder by Clara Ingram Judson, 1940; Teri Taro from Bora Bora by William S. Stone, 1940; Two Children of Brazil by Rosa Brown, 1940; Nicholas Arnold, Toolmaker by Marion Hansing, 1941; Winabojo, Master of Life by James Clyde Bowman, 1941; Dogie Boy by Edith Heal, 1943; Clipper Ship Men by Alexander Laing, 1944; Courage Over the Andes by Frederick Kummer, 1944; Sky Highways by Trevor Lloyd, 1945; Story of Hiawatha edited by Allen Chaffee, 1951.

* * *

Two of Armstrong Sperry's interests shaped the course of his writings for children. As an ethnologist in the South Pacific, he developed a deep and abiding interest in the life and dulture of the island peoples. His service in the U.S. Navy gave an added dimension to his love of the sea and things nautical. Together, these two loves, plus his talent as an artist, gave shape and direction to his work.

His early work, such as the tales of Manu, Jambi, and Tuktu, are unlikely to be found in library collections of today, n an era rendered more sensitive to the feelings of minority cultures and racial pride than in the 1930's. Coloured as they were by the prevailing attitudes of his day, Sperry's ethnological works for young readers would by critics of today be stigmatized as condescending in their approach: it is all too easy to lose the historical perspective that would credit him with enlightenment and objectivity, given their date of publication. A similar change in perspective has effectively ended the usefulness of such later titles as Lost Lagoon and Hull-Down for Action. They partake of the fierce emotions of the Second World War, specifically of the highly charged Pearl Harbor era, and naturally enough reflect the rage and rancour of that unhappy time. As with any "boys' book" produced during wartime, stereotypes of the antagonists as unredeemed villains are predictably two-dimensional.

Where Sperry shone, and continues to shine, and where he earned his place in the galaxy of notable children's writers, is with the timeless tale, in particular, with Call It Courage. It is the story of a Polynesian youth, Mafatu, a child of the sea people who fears the sea. As a tiny child, just old enough to remember, he suffered the loss of his mother in a hurricane as sea. and was rescued barely alive after the ordeal. Now, when the young men of the island are eager for thechallenge of the deep, Mafatu hangs back, busying himself with net mending. He is pitied and despised by his people, and is the despair of his father, the chief. At last life becomes unedurable to Mafatu. He determines to face that which he fears -- and if he must die, it will as least be a man's death. In a frail outrigger canoe, Mafatu sets of to find his fate, accompanied only by a dog, and without the knowledge or consent of his people. There follows a gripping account of adventure and survivial with a veritable boyish Robinson Crusoe, alone on a remote island that is sometimes visited by a terrifying cannibal tribe. Of course Mafatu returns at last to his people in glorious triumph. His father, who had mourned him as dead, now sees his son wearing a necklace of boar's teeth, and carrying a spear, a man's weapon he has earned and now deserves. It is a tremendously satisfying story -- the epic struggle of child-man against the elements, yet writing will within the grasp of young readers not yet ready for full-length adult stories of survival. It is written unaffectedly, yet in the language of myth and legend. Sperry's own illustrations admireably support the simple power of his heroic theme.

Sperry's ethnological material have come to honourable retirement, and his style of sentimental fictionalized biography is no longer much admired, but Sperry's achievement in Call It Courage ensures his continued presence in the best of children's collections.

--Joan McGrath


* Correction: He married Margaret Mitchell Robertson, M.D.



This page last updated Friday, 04/03/09, by Margo Burns, margo@ogram.org
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