[an error occurred while processing this directive]Armstrong Sperry and his Work

by Helen Follett


fromThe Publishers' Weekly, June 21, 1941, pp. 2462-2464

This year's Newbery Medal winner -- his career and the quality of his work as author and artist of children's book -- is sympathetically discussed by a fellow author. Some years ago Mr. Sperry illustrated two of Mrs. Follett's own juvenile books.

At last the opportunity has come my way -- and I seize it gladly -- of putting down in words what some of us have said to Armstrong Sperry on those happy occasions when a new book of his greeted an eager public. "The astonishing thing about you, Arm, is not that you're a fine artists, or a fine writer, but that you are both!" And what do you think his answer has always been to such an accusation? A smile, accompanied by the inimitable Sperry chuckle that means he's having a good time inside himself, and the dry comment: "Its just a lot of hard work, if you ask me." Then he would run his hand over the new book, ruffle the page, give it an approving thump, and say: "They did a good job, don't you think?" And if any of us insisted tenaciously that he really must have had fun building up that exciting story and drawing the pictures to go with it, he would answer: "Oh sure, sure, lots of fun." At that point he would praise his wife, his small daughter (when the next book comes out he'll include his smaller son), his friends, and the publishers for what they had done for him. As if he had done nothing at all for us! In another moment he would beat a hasty retreat to the pantry where, soon after, would come the sound of tinkling ice and a shout: "Must celebrate the publishers -- God bless 'em!" . . . That is Armstrong Sperry, the first person in the world to give praise to the other fellow, the last one to accept it for himself.

And now I go back ten years or more, to the time when Armstrong Sperry was known only as an illustrator of other people's books. How lucky some of us were then! Shall I ever forget my own good fortune in finding an artist who had sailed half the navigable globe in a schooner, who knew the sea like an old sailor, and who had sat under a banana tree on a tropical island? Or shall I ever forget the thrill I had when I saw the pictures ranged along the shelf in the Sperrys' living room? They were the first Sperry pictures I had ever seen, and they were for the first book I had ever written. I don't recall what sort of pictures I had expected to see -- the kind, perhaps, that make no sense without the text. But those Sperry pictures were not like that. They portrayed by themselves the beauty and life of the islands, and something more -- that tantalizing, elusive spirit of the tropics so difficult to describe in words. At the same time it was clear that the interest and significance of my story had suddenly heightened. in short, the book had become the artist's as much as the writer's. . . . This feeling for imaginative interpretation, so apparent in the early pictures, is the essence, I believe of the success Armstrong Sperry has won as an artist.

Today I realize that even then, ten years ago, the artist was being spirited on by the writer. My guess is that the writer began to assert himself during Armstrong Sperry's visit to the South Sea islands. It seems fairly certain that even while the artist was sitting under a banana tree making sketches, the writer was storing away impressions of a different sort. How could it be otherwise? -- for if a fellow had the smallest wisp of a writer's soul he would be sure to discover it (as Armstrong Sperry himself must admit) in that land of legend among a people who themselves spend half their lives in story telling.

But what good is a story teller without an audience? Old Chief Opu Nui used to order all Bora Bora to sit around when he was in a story telling mood. But Armstrong Sperry, being a New Englander, was clannish in only a very small way. One person would suit him, if what person were quite the right one. It must be a very young person because he still remembered his young friends of Bora Bora. So -- Susan Sperry came to the rescue! Now, if you can multiply three hundred and sixty-five days by seven years (maybe it's eight!) you'll get an idea of the nightly stories demanded by that exciting audience. What were the stories about? Your guess is as good as mine. Only Susan known and the story teller himself -- and neither will tell! but you'll admit, I think, that the story teller has had plenty of practice.

Then, as if to prove it, there appeared in 1933 "One Day with Manu," the story of how a small boy spends his time on a South Sea island. It was a publishing event of importance because in this book, for the first time, artist and story teller got together. The superb result of this accomplishment has been vouched for ever since by the children the country over, by their parents, and by the librarians -- and all that added together certainly means success. Some of us, who always view with amazement the presentation of a double talent by one man, acknowledged soon that Armstrong Sperry has what it takes so make each profession proud to shake his hand. Surely, he himself must have chuckled when he saw how extremely well his typewriter and his drawing got along together. Of course what he said was: "It's double work, if you ask me!" And about the fun? "Yes, and double the fun," he admitted, as he hurried off to the pantry. "Must celebrate 'Manu' and the publishers, you know!"

Usually dedications are not the public's affair. But the dedication in "One Day with Manu" seems to me very important, and cannot, at this time, be overlooked. "This book is for Margaret who helped to make it grow." Now, I don't pretend to know all the ways in which Margaret Sperry helped to make this book grow, and all the other as well. But I venture to suggest one very important way. It's not because she pounds typewriter (I've never caught her at it); and not because she's an efficient planner of meals (I've known her to forget them); and it's something different from being a grand wife and mother, and even a whiz in the science of medicine. Her important contribution, I believe, to the making of her husband's books lies in the fact that she herself is an inspiring individual who understands and respects the needs of others. She realizes, of course, that a studio without a telephone is part of the working equipment for the daily routine her husband has established so definitely for himself. But what is really important is something far more subtle than that. She understands the deep and insistent need of a creative artist for spiritual isolation, and that such a need for Armstrong Sperry is as essential as the air he breathes. Whatever ways and means he takes to secure that isolation are all right with her. The great thing is that she respects the necessity that prompts them. To her, it is as if he sought the refuge of a banana tree on some tropical island, his typewriter and drawing board beside him. Sometimes, she says, you can almost hear them recede as he walks into the living room to become once again the head of the family, delightful host, and sterling friend.

So the Sperry shelf of author-artist books began with "One Day with Manu," in 1933. Since that time adventurous and exciting companions have found their places on that shelf.

"One Day with Jambi" appeared, another story against a tropical background, this time the jungle of Sumatra. After that, Armstrong Sperry interested himself, for the first time, in research, and learned its difficulties -- what to keep and what to throw away -- in order to bring his material to life. As a result, "One Day with Tuktu" (an Eskimo boy) with its delightful pictures of the frozen north, stands with the others.

With "All Sail Set" came another first attempt. The new assignment, self-imposed, was even more difficult: the old clipper ship, "Flying Cloud," and Donald McKay's shipyard in East Boston must be brought to life. This time Armstrong Sperry had a desire to acknowledge the men in his family to whom he owed his love for the sea and its ships. His grandfather and great-grandfather were New England sea captains, who knew the ways of clipper ships, knew the cares as well as the joys of the sea, and carried in their hearts the ever present longing for the sight of distant places. What more natural, than for the great-grandson of Captain Sereno Armstrong to write a tale of the sea and a clipper ship -- and to write such a tale what would have won a nod of approval from the old sea captain himself? in doing this the author had another purpose in mind. He would share his own enthusiasm for ships that began in his boyhood with the older boys and girls; and he knew that they demanded a more exciting story with a more fully developed plot than the younger audience of the earlier books, and they got it -- in such a way as not only thrilled them, but likewise would have pleased the old captain.

Then he became curious again about his own ability. Could he write "land books" as well as "sea books"? He'd find out. Ever eager to visit new places and widen his horizon to appease both his paintbrush and his typewriter, he piled his family into the car and set out on the old trail to Santa Fé. Could he write a vigorous adventure story about the land? His public decided enthusiastically that he could! There was "Wagons Westward" to prove it, a rough and exciting take of the Southwest in the wild days of the 'Forties. And later there was the story of a Navaho Indian boy -- "Little Eagle."

Still this author-artist wanted to try something else. No facts this time, no research, no dates, no historical events. He would let his imagination go on a spree, and that meant no restraint in pictures, either. A riot of imagination appeared in "Lost Lagoon," a story as full of pearls and whales, cannibals and sunken gold as any girl or boy could desire.

For the inspiration of his next book Armstrong Sperry went back to an island in the South Seas. There he had once seen a simple and contented people suddenly lifted to bewildering affluence by a boom in the vanilla crop, then become an easy prey to the traders, and softened by the useless luxuries that flooded the island. Just as suddenly came the hurricane that wiped out everything, leaving a naked island and a frightened people. But it was through that disaster that these islanders found themselves again, and proved that they had in their own hearts the same enduring quality they worshipped in the ancient heroes of their race. You may call it what you will. Armstrong Sperry called it courage.

And in 1940 in his book "Call It Courage," he paid tribute to that spirit, and showed its force in one small boy who must prove to himself that in his own world of disaster he too had that same admirable quality of courage. A beautiful book in all ways, it can be regarded, for the moment, as the climax to Armstrong Sperry's achievement as author-artist. A children's book, exciting and absorbing, yes -- and also, in its timely call to courage, an inspiring book for all America


Note from thre Webweaver: Armstrong Sperry would ultimately illustrate a total of four books by Helen Follett, the author of this article: Magic Portholes (1932), Stars to Steer By (1934), House Afire (1941), and Ocean Outposts (1942).



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