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On Writing for Young People

by Armstrong Sperry

(Unpublished,1959)


From the private papers of the Sperry family, posted at this website for educational purposes only. All rights reserved. © The Estate of Armstrong Sperry, 1999.


Often I am asked how I happen to write books for a living, and why so many of them have been for young people -- almost all of them, in fact. Well, the beginning was entirely accidental. It is something I never thought of doing when I was young. And so I think you may be interested in hearing how it came about; and I should like to tell you also, if I can, what it is (over the years) that I have tried to put into books for young readers.

Incidentally, many people think that writing is an easy way of loafing through life. You buy a typewriter and a box of paper, you pound away for a few weeks and the book comes out at the other end. Then you take a nice trip around the world on the royalties.

I wish I could tell you that it is as easy as that. I have no wish to discourage any budding authors who may be in the audience. Writing offers many rewards. But, believe me, it requires as long and arduous an apprenticeship as a doctor puts into medicine or a lawyer into law.

It was particularly difficult for me because I came to it late. All my training had been in illustrating and drawing. I knew nothing about the craft of writing. For ten years before I ever produced a book I earned a living making illustrations -- for books, magazines, newspapers, advertisements -- all sorts of commercial work. So when I really began to write, I had to lean heavily on pictures to help me tell the story. Naturally the outlet for that kind of work was the juvenile field.

The first book was a simple story of one day in the life of a boy who lived on an island in the South Pacific -- an island when I myself once lived many years ago. I had planned to tell the story entirely in pictures; so I went ahead and made forty or fifty or them before I ever wrote a line of the script. Then I decided that captions were needed. The captions grew longer and longer, and the first thing I knew, I was writing a book. It was as accidental as that.

The second book repeated the same sort of story against a background of Sumatra which, as you know, is also a tropical island, though very different from the islands of the eastern Pacific. For the third book the publisher suggested that I get as far away from the tropics as possible, and write a book about an Eskimo. So (although I had never seen an Eskimo) I repeated the formula, putting icebergs in the background instead of palm trees.

Fortunately for me those three books clicked, and I suppose I could have gone on for years telling the identical story against different geographical backgrounds. But I knew that there would be no growth or development in doing that. And I knew, instinctively I suppose, that when an artist or a writer loses interest in what he is doing he cannot possibly capture the interest of anyone else. Also, by that time writing had become a challenge. I didn't want to have to lean on illustrations to tell a story: I wanted to be able to create pictures in words that would carry their own weight.

I had always been interested in sailing ships, particularly the old square-riggers; and it occurred to me to do a book, a sort of biography, of a great and famous ship: the Flying Cloud, designed and built by Donald McKay in East Boston, way back in 1850.

I decided to tell the story from the time the first tree that formed the keel was felled in the forest and floated down the rivers to the seacoast, to be set up in the shipyard in East Boston. I would follow that ship through her building, her launching, through all her voyages until (as happened with the Flying Cloud) she finally perished in fire.

And it seemed to me that if I were to bring that ship to life, I must see it through the eyes of a boy who loved ships -- an apprentice perhaps, who worked in McKay's shipyard, who had a hand in building the Flying Cloud; who sailed on her maiden voyage; and who, when a time came, very nearly lost his own life trying to save the life of that beautiful ship he had come to love.

But when I outlined the idea for an editor, I was told that while I had produced three elegant enough picture books, such a project as a biography of a ship would call for a literary skill far beyond my own. In other words, I had better stick with the picture books and forgot all about trying to learn to write. Now, I am sure that editor was giving me excellent advice but -- I paid no attention to it and set out on that long, uncertain road that beckons to a writer.

At that time I knew only a little more about clipper ships than I did about the craft of writing. I knew nothing about the economic conditions that had made the clippers possible; and next to nothing about the historical background of America in the 1850's. In short, I was preparing to write a book for which I had neither skill nor knowledge. On my side there was only enthusiasm and determination. Perhaps I should say desperation.

I remember beginning like a blind man feeling his way through the dark. In old newspaper files and out-of-date magazines I read every article I could find dealing with that period of our history, or with the type of ship with which I was concerned. In every library or second-hand bookstore that I happened to be near, I dug out books dealing with that same material. And often those books were written by men so insignificant that they were published anonymously, by publishers that no longer exist. Mostly they were written by men who were not writers at all, but men of the sea: retired captains, whalemen, or possibly a castaway who had come home to tell a hair-raising story of shipwreck and cannibals.

In that way, very slowly, I built up a feeling for and a knowledge of the ships of that period and the men who sailed them. I got hold of blueprints of the Flying Cloud and studied every timber that went into that ship. I learned her sail plan and how it worked, the function of the rigging, the duties of the various officers and men.

And since in writing about a ship I would also be writing about the sea, it seemed to me that the moods of the sea -- its storms and calms and fair trade winds -- should be used as a running accompaniment to heighten the moods of the story itself. But how to project those moods, those rhythms, in words, seemed an insoluble problem.

By the time I finally began to write my story, I was so steeped in the subject and in the characters I had imagined that I would wake up in the night and jot down an idea that seemed to appear out of nowhere; or perhaps just one word that I had been searching for and couldn't find. But more often there were days on end when the words would not come, and the story moved not one inch ahead no matter how hard I worked. The worst of it was that I didn't know what to do about it.

Well, after I had been plugging away for about a year, I gave the manuscript to a friend of mine to read. This friend was not a professional writer, but he had a fine natural writing talent plus one of the keenest critical faculties I have yet to come across. He went over that manuscript with a surgeon's scalpel. He took me to task for every word that I had used thoughtlessly or reached for too easily. He drew a blue line through ninety percent of the adjectives -- that hallmark of the amateur! -- and challenged the validity of the few he allowed to remain. He persuaded me that every adverb was guilty until proven innocent. In short, he destroyed ruthlessly everything that I had so laboriously built, but only to show me how I could rebuild it a little better.

It was a great but often disheartening experience; and as I look back now I often wonder why I didn't give myself the order to "abandon ship" and be done with it. Actually, it was three years to a months from the time I first began that book until it was published as All Sail Set. During those three years there was no time when it was not in my typewriter or in my mind. I lived that story.

It was not a long book -- scarcely fifty thousand words; but those fifty thousand words were the distilled essence of the million or more that I wrote and discarded; and I'm sure no one can write a million words (unless he's an absolute numbskull) without learning something of the craft of stringing words into a sequence that tells and story and captures the interest of a reader. And incidentally it was at this point that I had my first real encouragement: All Sail Set was runner-up to first place that year for the Newbery Medal. I didn't make it, but I felt it in my bones that I was on my way.

Out of that first experience, I learned that there is no essential difference between writing for young people and writing for adults, except that the former is perhaps more exacting. It calls for a discipline of words almost as demanding as the discipline of poetry. Every word must tell. The writer who loses himself in the windy descriptive passages, who indulges too many flights of philosophical fancy, will wake up to find that his reader has gone out to play ball. His story must move. It must have pace, action, drama and suspense. His characters, whether they are likable or not, must be entirely believable.

A child identifies himself with the characters he reads about. He suffers their defeats, enjoys their triumphs, dreams their dreams. And so it becomes an obligation on the part of the author to create the kind of characters with whom we want our children to be associated. I don't need to tell this audience that I am not referring to those insufferable little heroes of the Horatio Alger Age, or their innumerable descendants. I mean characters of flesh and blood, of fire and spirit. Characters who often make mistakes, perhaps, but who have the particular fiber it takes to see a mistake through to some kind of victory. Characters who, even if they are defeated, admit not disgrace in defeat -- but only in surrender.

Another quality that I learned is tremendously important in writing for young people is euphony: the quality of pleasing sound. A good ear is almost as important to the writer as it is to a musician. Joseph Conrad, in that magnificent preface to the Nigger of the Narcissus, makes the statement that men are more moved by sound than by sense -- which is only another way of saying, perhaps, that music is more fundamental than logic. And certain it is that children will be caught and entranced by the music and rhythm of words even if they don't always understand what those words mean. There is nothing more tiresome than a dry, unmusical style.

Many people think of Thomas Wolfe as an uneven sort of genius; but Wolfe used sound effects for all they were worth. I recall a passage in Of Time and the River, where Wolfe us talking about the Brooklyn Bridge, and the emotional impact of a first glimpse of that bridge at dusk. Wolfe builds that passage as architecturally as Mozart built up a sonata. Using the bridge as his central theme, he weaves shifting harmonies of words back and forth through that theme in a kind of prose that becomes, finally, symphonic. Reading it is like listening to fine music. Even when Wolfe didn't always make sense, he made superb sound; and any writer who can do that for children is lucky indeed.

In regard to subject matter and approach to a story, I would like to tell you an experience that happened several years after my initial attempt at writing. I shall have to preface it in this way:--

Two or three hundred years ago a boy was born on a small island in the South Pacific. He was born among a courageous, warlike, seafaring people. Yet he was afraid of the sea. Now it's something to be born on an island and to be afraid of the water that surrounds you. It's something also to be the only son of a great chief and be afraid of anything at al. That boy tried with all his might to overcome his fear. He listened to the stories told by the old people of his forefathers who had set out to cross the Pacific Ocean in their sailing canoes, without knowing where they were going or caring what their fate might be. At night, lying on the mats, he listened to his grandfather chat the old old songs of courage that form the unwritten history of the Polynesian race. But always in his ears, night and day, there was the threat, the mutter, the thunder of the sea.

So it was no use. Try as he would, that boy could not conquer his dread, his terror. And so he was branded before the whole tribe as a coward. The other boys failed to include him in their games and the girls laughed at him, and his father, the chief, turned away from him in shame.

He came to realize that he could no longer live in their midst. He would have to seek out another island, make a new name for himself among strangers, until such time as he should have proven his metal and he could return to take his proper place in the tribe. Of course such a decision demanded that he go out to face this thing he feared, this Sea; face it and conquer it or be destroyed by it. Well -- he went out to face it. And those of you who have read Call It Courage may remember what happened to that boy.

When I wrote that story, I wondered if children would understand that concept of spiritual courage, and if they wouldn't find it much less exciting than a story of physical bravery in action. But the response to this book by children themselves (over a period of nineteen years now) affirmed something I must have suspected from the beginning: which is -- children have imagination enough to grasp almost any idea and respond to it, if it is presented to them honestly and without a patronizing pat on the head.

It is right here, I believe, that we who work in any way with children -- as writers, teachers, librarians or parents -- see our obligation come into focus. It is the point where we can help to keep alive the great themes by which human beings try to climb. The themes are simple ones. Courage. Justice. Integrity. Compassion, and love. While in the book I have just referred to I was writing about fear, the backbone of the story is the particular quality of courage that outfaces fear.

And I hope you will understand in what I am about to say, that I am merely underscoring my point: Call It Courage has been translated into some twelve or fourteen different languages*. The most unlikely ones. Arabic, Chinese, Turkish, Portuguese, Indonesian. (I didn't even know there was an Indonesian language until my publisher told me.) It has been done in all the Scandinavian tongues, in Hebrew and, I believe, in Braille. In other words, the theme of fear being conquered by courage is one that speaks to most human beings, young or old, the world around. In this Atomic Age, that may be a good thing to remember.

Nowadays, people often deplore the effects of television and the so-called comics, and wonder how long children's books can hold their own against such mass competition. But when you come to think of it, the TV image flashes across the screen for only a second, then it is gone forever, while the comics always find their way ultimately into the trash can. But each year it seems to me that the publishers' lists of children's books grow longer and longer. And the finest of those books will live on from year to year, from generation to generation -- not just on library shelves, but in the hearts of young people. Like youth itself, they never die!


* Editor's Note: The current number of languages that Call It Courage has now been translated into is well over two dozen, including French (Un garçon qui avait peur), Swedish (Een Jongen Die Moed Hat), and Chinese (Dahai de haizi), as well as Farsi, Korean, and Samoan.



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