[an error occurred while processing this directive]Armstrong Sperry, 1940 Newbery Winner

by Doris S. Patee

Editor, Juvenile Books, Macmillan Company, New York, N.Y.


from The Library Journal, July 1941, Vol. 66, pp. 589-590


"It happened many years ago, before the traders and missionaries came into the South Seas, while the Polynesians were still great in numbers and fierce of heart. But even today the people of Hikueru sing this song in their chants and tell it over the evening fired. It is the story of Mafatu, the Boy Who Was Afraid.

"They worshiped courage, those early Polynesians. The spirit which had urged them across the Pacific in their sailing canoes, before the dawn of recorded history, not knowing where they were going nor caring what their fate might be, still sang its songs of danger in their blood. There was only courage. A man who was afraid -- what place had he in their midst? And the boy Mafatu -- son of Tavana Nui, the great Chief of Hikueru -- always had been afraid. So the people drove him forth. Not by violence, but by indifference.

"Mafatu went out alone to face the thing he feared the most. And the people of Hikueru still sing his story in their chants and tell it over the evening fires."

So begins the story Call It Courage. And it was around such evening fires that Armstrong Sperry learned to love and understand the legends and the music of the South Seas. For two years he wandered among the least-known islands of the Pacific, drawing, painting, and storing up impressions so vivid that they had to be shared; and fortunately for boys and girls, they have found their way into many books -- the best of which is this story of Mafatu, which the children's librarians have called "the most distinguished contribution to American books for children in 1940."

Armstrong Sperry was born in Connecticut, and his people go back to the early settlers. The men on one side of his family took to the sea, and on the other, were tillers of the soil, and to this day he feels these two conflicting urges. He is thoroughly at home in Vermont and likes nothing better than to work the soil and watch things grow, but always too he knows a yen for the salt tang of the sea. He says it may have been the hair-raising tales told by his great-grandfather, Captain Sereno Armstrong, of pirates and the China seas, or Herman Melville's magic, or Stevenson, or Jack London, or Frederick O'Brien, that made his desire crystallize into a reality. At any rate, there came a day when he found himself on the deck of a copra schooner, actually sailing among the islands of the great South Sea.

Ever since Mr. Sperry was old enough to hold a pencil he had drawn pictures and scribbled stories. He was studying at the Yale Art School when the war interrupted, and he joined the Navy. After the war came more study under George Bellows and Luis Mora and then a year of drudgery in an advertising agency, drawing vacuum cleaners, milk bottles, Campbell's Soup, etc. It was then that the friendly ghost of his sea-going grandfather nudged his shoulder and he packed up his paints and started south. Frederick O'Brien, author of White Shadows in the South Seas, said to him as he set out:

There are only two things you need to take to the South Seas with you: the first is imagination and the second is the ability to see beauty in strange things.

Armstrong Sperry was well equipped for his adventure.

It was when he returned that he started writing in earnest. Now his ideas had a two-fold presentation -- words and pictures. Mr. Sperry is a meticulous worker. Just as he revises and corrects his drawings, he writes and rewrites, never releasing a manuscript until it records his very best efforts. With a thorough understanding of children and their interests, a personal zest for adventure, a virile and honest style of writing, and high standards of literary and artistic accomplishment, each of his books has found a warm welcome with young readers, and a distinguished place in juvenile literature.

In Call It Courage he tells the story of Mafatu, the small boy who was afraid of the sea -- of how when he could no longer bear being branded a coward, he went off alone with his small dog and pet albatross, determined to conquer his fear or be conquered by it; and of how his courage grew through severe tests and perilous experiences, and how he finally returned home exhausted in body, but strong and fearless in spirit. In Armstrong Sperry's beautiful prose the tale moves smoothly and rapidly like a native chant, and its music rises and falls like the billows of the sea in its setting. Storytellers who have used the story often find children entranced not only by the story itself but by the cadence and rhythm of its language. The author says:

Call It Courage meant a great deal to me in the writing but I had no idea that the response to the book would be so wide among children. I had feared that the concept of spiritual courage might be too adult for the age group such a book would reach, and that young people would find it less thrilling than the physical courage which battles pirates unconcerned or out-stares the crouching lion. But it seems I was wrong -- which only serves to prove that children have imagination enough to grasp any idea which you present to them with honesty and without patronage!

The award book is Mr. Sperry's ninth book for children. For younger readers there is a group of picture books like One Day with Jambi, which gives children a glimpse of everyday life in strange lands, and Little Eagle, the story of a Navajo boy. For the old young people there are stories of high adventure like All Sails Set and Lost Lagoon. Armstrong Sperry's contribution goes beyond his own books, for, as an artist, he has added color and beauty to many books by other writers whose stories he has interpreted in pictures. His art work has a depth and strength and a unique sense of design that bring a distinctive touch to any book on which he collaborates.

Armstrong Sperry lives with his family in New Canaan, Connecticut. His small daughter Susan, aged eight, has already learned to love her father's tales of Little Eagle, of Tuktu, and of Mafatu. And as for young John Armstrong Sperry, now only five months old, what high adventure is in store for him! Boys and girls of all ages will be reassured to know that Mr. Sperry's storehouse of book ideas is still full.

It is always especially gratifying to have the Newbery Award go to an author whose contribution to the children's bookshelves has been long standing. Call It Courage is a distinguished book to culminate a fine list of earlier ones; and the Newbery Medal to Armstrong Sperry is not only a reward for past accomplishments but a challenge to new ones.


DORIS PATEE'S responsibilities at The Macmillan Company reach far beyond an editor's desk, to children's book manufacturing, promotion, advertising, and countless other details. The Macmillan children's book list is probably the largest in the country, and the policy has been to publish children's books of permanent interest. Before joining the staff at Macmillan, Miss Patee worked in the well-known Hampshire bookshop in Northampton, Mass., and spent four years with the National Association of Book Publishers. One of Miss Patee's hobbies is gardening, and in addition to writing several manuals on book selling and a number of stories for children, she is a frequent contributor to garden magazines.



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