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Newbery Award Acceptance Paper

by Armstrong Sperry

Delivered in Harvard Yard, Cambridge, MA, June 20, 1941



NOTE: During his delivery of this speech, at the climax when he wasdescribing the hurricane, Mother Nature added dramatic special effects: it thundered and hailed while the audience sat under a huge tent!

It is exactly sixteen years ago this month that I was standing on the deck of a copra schooner sailing from Tahiti to a small island called Bora Bora. And because that little island had a definite part to play in the making of this book of mine, Call It Courage, which the American Library Association has so generously honored, I should like to tell you something about Bora Bora -- of what I found when I reached there; of the race of friendly savages who peopled its shores. And I should like to tell you, if I can, something of what I brought home with me when I sailed away.

The beginning starts a long way back. In my childhood I had read Melville, of course, and the South Sea stories of Stevenson and Jack London. From the very first those islands fired my imagination, and made me long to throw all my schoolbooks out the window and stow away on the first ship I could find that was sailing South. As the years passed, those childhood fancies were shelved and forgotten -- but they didn't die. And then one day I read a book by Frederick O'Brien and that brought them all to life again. The name of that book was White Shadows in the South Seas. I thought then, and I still think, that it is one of the most fascinating yarns I have ever read. I have heard learned scientists scoff at it. O'Brien, they said, was an Irishman with an Irishman's imagination, who never let fact stand in the way of making a good story. Well -- perhaps that is true. But I have learned this -- there are things which the scientist has the gift to accomplish which remain forever beyond the reach of the artist. Yet the world which belongs to the artist is a world to which few scientists possess the key; it is the world which the artist shares, perhaps with children alone -- the world of the imagination. If O'Brien didn't always get his facts straight, and if his scientific observations were frequently faulty, he achieved something far beyond objective reporting. He had the power to recreate, through the medium of words, the spell that lies over the South Sea Islands -- not the conventional picture of blazing beaches and swaying palms and tinkling music, but the feeling of the immense and overwhelming solitude which envelops those little island; of the quality of epic which still persists in the handful of natives who are left, and sings through them to this day in their chants and legends.

Yes, it was O'Brien's book which turned a boyhood wish into a resolve. When I finished the last page I knew that I was going to the South Seas. It had become a certainty. Just how to go about getting there I had no idea -- for you must remember that the time of which I speak was long before Hollywood had discovered Tahiti. Finally I had the inspiration of writing to O'Brien and he replied with a cordial invitation to talk the matter over.

And that was how I came to be standing on the deck of a copra schooner, in July of 1925, sailing from Tahiti to Bora Bora. It was a small schooner. To my landlubber's eye it looked scarcely larger than an old shoe and not much more seaworthy. The paint had blistered and peeled from her hull; her rigging was a disgraceful patchwork of wire and frayed rope and bits of string. But there were bunches of red bananas swinging from the taffrail, and a crowd of friendly natives swarming her decks. And there were Chinamen with their pigs and chickens, and a deckload of lumber, and cases of cargo stowed in every available square in of space. And my ship had an exotic name -- Tiaré Taporo -- which mean Flower of the Lime Tree. The Captain was a Frenchman who wore black mustachios that looked like handlebars, and a raffish red cummerbund around his middle.

On shore a crowd gathered to wish us bon voyage. They were playing concertinas and weeping, even as they broke into a measure of the upahura -- their singing dance. The rusty old cannon on shore fired a parting shot, and the last lines that bound us to the earth were cast off. Everyone burst into a song of parting:

Ua rari au tino
I te are miti ra
It te haamanao raa e,
Ia oe tau here.

Well -- I was to find in the next few weeks that in the South Seas, Time stands still. It becomes only one more illusion of civilization. When every day as it comes is just like the day that has gone before, the sense of the division of time by minutes and hours quickly vanishes. We sailed at a leisurely pace through all the islands of the Society Group -- Moorea, Huahine, Taahaa, Raiatea -- and then one morning the Captain called out from the wheel -- "M'sieu, there is Bora Bora!"

"That's only a cloud," I said. For nothing as solid as an island could look like that. But as we sailed down upon it, the cloud began to take form and substance. With each diminishing mile, it came to life. And I saw a single great peak that towered two thousand feet, straight up from the plane of the sea. And the peak was buttressed like the walls of an ancient fortress, and it was made of basalt -- volcanic rock -- which glistened in the sun like amethyst. And there were waterfalls spilling from the clouds, and up in the mountain wild goats were leaping from peak to peak. There was something so fresh about the island that it seemed as if it had just risen up from the floor of the sea that morning and the spray was still shining on it. There wasn't a single flaw in the picture. Bora Bora was everything a South Sea island ought to be.

As the schooner tacked in a through the opening in the reef, we could see that a crowd was gathering on shore -- the entire population of Bora Bora came to greet us. As I stepped ashore one man, a huge white-haired giant of a man, came forward to great me. He was dressed in a pareu and he had a crown of banana leaves on his head. He was straight out of Herman Melville. And he called out, "Ia ora na oe!" meaning, How Do You Do? And then he added, "O vai to oe io'a."

I took out my Tahitian phrase-book and looked that one up. I found he was asking me my name. So in his own language I replied, "My name's Sperry. What's yours?"

To which he answered, "My name is Opu Nui. I am the Tavana Rahi, the Great Chief of Bora Bora."

Then I asked him where I could find a house to live in.

"You shall have my house," he told me. And picking up my baggage he swung it across his shoulder and I followed him down the path through the village, under the breadfruit groves, and the whole population of the island, men, women and children, and barking dogs, trailed after us.
And that was my introduction to Bora Bora.

Opu Nui's house stood at the edge of the lagoon perched on stilts. The walls were of bamboo and the roof of thatch. It looked exactly like a birdcage. All day long the wind from the sea blew in and out through the bamboo walls, and at night rats and lizards fought together in the thatch. The house was a single long room. Opu Nui moved his wife and four children to one end of the room and indicated that the other end was to be my home. And there I settled down to live.

Those first weeks on that South Sea island, as I look back at them from these troubled and unpredictable days, seem entirely unreal. Within the span of a few weeks I had been physically transported from the uproar and thunder of New York City to an island forgotten at the opposite end of the world. There was not another white man there with whom I could exchange ideas. I had only my Tahitian phrase-book, and a great desire to learn as much as I could about these people -- and from them. I began first, of course, with the language. Then, because such things interested me, with their legends, their heroic sagas, their ancient chants. And it was astonishing to see their quick response to my interest. For hours at a time they would sit on the mats in my house, going over and over a song until they were sure I had caught every inflection and shade of meaning. Their patience was inexhaustible. I went up into the mountains with them to hunt the wild pig, or to bring back great bunches of golden bananas or sacks of oranges. At night, by the light of torches, we went fishing on the barrier-reef, and the great fish, attracted by the flares, leaped up from the black waters like moths to a flame, while the fishermen ran them through with their spears. And back in the bamboo house, seated on the lanai beside the lagoon, old Opu Nui told us his endless tales of daring.

I found that I was living in a world for which nothing in my previous life had prepared me for. It seemed almost too good to be true, and I told myself it could not last. Something, something terrible would certainly happen to bring it to an end.

Well -- something did.

An event occurred which changed the whole picture almost overnight. That event had its origins in the lowly vanilla bean. It seems that the vanilla vines of Bora Bora had long been recognized as among the best in that part of the Pacific. Then a blight came along that struck all the islands -- except Bora Bora. Overnight the price of vanilla jumped from three francs a kilo to seventy-five francs. The people of Bora Bora woke up to find themselves in the position of a man who sees an oil geyser gushing over his front lawn. They were, literally, millionaires.

At first they were dazed by their good fortune. Then schooners began to arrive from Tahiti, and Chinese merchants and shopkeepers swarmed over the island, and such an orgy of spending began as had never occurred before in that part of the globe. Bora Bora took on the aspect of a boom town in the Gold Rush.

Only old Opu Nui held aloof from this madness. "I don't like it, Sperry tané," he told me. "My people are forgetting the old ways. That is not good. We were a great people. We crossed the ocean in our sailing-canoes when the world was young. We were without fear. But who hunts the wild pig to-day? Who spears the octopus or stabs the shark?"

And what he said was true. Why should a man spend hours out at sea fishing, when he could buy a whole case of canned sardines with one sack of vanilla? Why should he go up into the mountains to hunt the wild pig when the shelves of the Chinese shopkeeper were stocked with produce from Chicago? Why should a man walk when he could ride in a fine automobile? Why should a woman pound tapa cloth from the inner bark of the mulberry tree when satins and fine silks would be sent from France for the asking?

And so it went. Then other things began to occur. One night an old Chinaman, on his way home from his bakeshop, was held up by three boys with pistols. He was shot, and his money-bag taken from him. The boys had nothing against the Chinaman and they didn't want his money -- but they had seen it done in the movies. It was the White Man's way. Up in the mountains the men sat on guard over their vanilla patches with rifles across their knees, because now there were poachers stealing other men's vanilla -- in Bora Bora, where theft always had been unknown! Often, at night now, the report of a rifle could be heard on the mountainside.

It was a terrible experience to see this change come over the island; above all to realize that the civilization for which I stood should have brought it about. I made up my mind to leave when the next schooner arrived. When I told Opu Nui of my decision, he pressed my hand and tears ran down the furrows of his old face. He knew why I was leaving. But he begged me to wait until after the season of storm. February was at hand, and this was the time when, once in every decade or so, the great hurricanes moved in out of the doldrum belt. But the weeks passed and no schooner arrived. Great sacks of vanilla were piling up in the sheds. It didn't dawn upon the people that new vanilla vines had replaced the stricken ones in the other islands. The rich volcanic soil and tropic sun forced quick crops. Bora Bora no longer had the corner on the vanilla market. The party was coming to an end. But only old Opu Nui saw the handwriting on the wall. He tried to warn his people, but they laughed at him. They said he belonged to a time that had vanished. This was a new age. Men had new ideas. Men were fools to work when one machine could do the labor of a hundred hands.
As February drew to a close the season of storm settled in. The sun was clouded over. The blue sky vanished -- and you have no idea how desolate those islands become when robbed of light and color. The sea was gray and sullen, and out on the barrier-reef the surf grew heavier and heavier, and the wind -- instead of dropping with nightfall -- rose to a high whining hum. Opu Nui began to look alarmed. He ordered all those who possessed roofs of thatch to weight them down with heavy poles. He ordered the canoes to be pulled up beyond the high-water mark. No one paid any attention to what he said.

And then one afternoon the hurricane struck; it was the end of a world. The bamboo houses were ripped from the ground and carried off on the wind. Trees were stripped of their leaves, of their fruit. But the people in their frame bungalows felt secure and satisfied with themselves. Not until the galvanized roofs were torn off and sent flying did they stir from their apathy. And now the people began a desperate retreat to the upper slopes of the mountain, for the sea was rising; and with each fresh assault on the barrier-reef the whole island trembled. For a day and a night the hurricane continued, while the people crouched in caves in the mountains. And when at last the wind decreased, and they crept forth, the scene of destruction was beyond belief.

The trunks of coconut palms stood bent and bare, stripped of leaves and coconuts. The banana trees, the oranges and breadfruits -- all the staples upon which these people lived -- were ruined. Their taro patches were destroyed, their wells and springs polluted with salt water. They faced famine and thirst, without any weapons, without their canoes, without the shelter of their homes. The people of Bora Bora were overwhelmed with despair. And they had grown soft in their debauch of easy living. Only old Opu Nui remained undaunted. He rose to the crisis like one of the hero-gods of his own sagas, and he gathered his people around him. He recalled to them the great valor of their forefathers who had crossed and recrossed the Pacific in their sailing-canoes, not knowing where they were going nor caring what their fate might be. He charged them to sing the old songs, to chant the deeds of Taaroa. And the fire of his spirit at length struck sparks from their own.

It was an amazing experience to see that beaten little band of people rally, and slowly take up their old life where they had left off. It was almost a return to the stone age. But it called forth all their ingenuity and daring, all the courage with which man from the beginning of time has matched his skill against Nature's might. The people of Bora Bora swung true to their heritage, as the needle of a compass swings true to the North.

And when weeks later, a schooner arrived from Tahiti, it brought medical supplies, and food and implements for building -- all the material necessities for living in a Twentieth Century world. But by that time the people of Bora Bora had won a great victory -- a victory not so much over elemental disaster as a personal victory over themselves.

I sailed away with that schooner and left. And again, as on that day when I had arrived almost a year before, the entire population of Bora Bora gathered on shore -- this time to wish me Godspeed. And they all burst into one of their old-time songs, their himinés: two hundred voices flinging the music up to the sky. And long after my ship had sailed out through the opening in the reef, bound for the civilized world, that music followed after me -- and I can hear it to this day!

It was eight years after my return to New York City before the impulse came to me to write and illustrate a book for children. I think it's obvious why my almost instinctive choice of subject should have been Polynesian. Since that first simple book, One Day with Manu, I have used the South Sea Islands again and again in books and pictures for young people. But not, I believe, merely for the sake of picturesque local color. For the thing which remains with me most vividly from those months in Bora Bora, stronger than the manifold charm of the island, is the remembrance of the great courage with which that little band of Polynesians faced the destruction of their world and faced it down, and stooped, only to rebuild. And it is that courage which, in one form or another, I have tried to communicate to the readers of my books. In each of these books I have given to the major character some challenge he must meet, some great obstacle he must overcome, some ideal toward which he must aspire. Children identify themselves with the characters they read about, and so it becomes an obligation on the part of the author to create the kind of people with whom we want our children to be identified. I don't need to tell you that I'm not referring to the little Horatio Alger hero. I mean characters of flesh and blood and fire and spirit.

There is another thing I try always to keep in mind; children themselves are dynamos of inexhaustible energy. Nothing in their cosmos is static; everything is movement, action. And so, in their stories, they want things to happen, and keep happening. The best illustration of this point was given me by William McFee not long ago. McFee had just received the scenario of a book of his which was being considered for production in Hollywood. He said that the scenario was one of the most confusing things he had ever seen, for all the action of the story had been printed on the left-hand pages, and all the dialogue on the right-hand pages. But when he showed it to his twelve-year-old son, the boy said, "Gee, Dad! That's a swell idea! You can read everything they do, and skip everything they say!"

I had been afraid that perhaps in Call It Courage, the concept of a spiritual courage might be too adult for children, but the reception of this book has reaffirmed a belief I have long held: that children have imagination enough to grasp any idea, and respond to it, if it is put to them honestly and without a patronizing pat on the head.

In closing, I want to tell you how greatly honored I am that the American Library Association should have chosen my book from among all the fine ones that have come out this past year. It makes me want to write many, many more books -- and to make each one better than the last. For these children of to-day, who are the men and woman of to-morrow, will need the best we have to give.

--Armstrong Sperry



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