[an error occurred while processing this directive]A Part of Victory

by Armstrong Sperry

from The Horn Book Magazine, May-June 1943, pp. 185-188

IT is my conviction that we who are parents or editors or teachers or writers of books -- people whose work in any way influences the development of children -- today have a great opportunity, and perhaps also a great privilege. There was I time (and not so long ago) when men and women could look ahead and say: " When John is twelve or thirteen years old we'll send him to such and such a school. We'll choose this college or that. We'll help him prepare for law or medicine or one of the sciences or the arts. . . ." It was as simple as that! But who today dares to plan with such utter certainty, such blind conviction that by tomorrow or the day after, the very institutions upon which our society is grounded will not have crumbled like the walls of some city that we fondly believed was invulnerable.

And please let no one imagine that in this I am sounding any note of defeat, for nothing could be farther from my thought or intention. There have always been troubled times, and the future never has been wholly predictable. Yet men and women still have looked ahead, they have trained their eye upon the unattainable just exactly as the astronomer trains his telescope upon the most distant star. Of course we have with us, and I suppose always will have, those timid and faint-hearted ones who declare that there is no solution to the problems that perplex us. And we have as well those people whose attitude of cynicism is, I believe, the very attitude that was basically responsible for the downfall of France: that attitude "Je m'en fiche -- what's the use?" And so here in America it is well for us to remember, I think, that out of the most troubled times in our history great leaders have always risen, and the common man himself has at such times seen human life with greatest clarity, not alone for what it is, but for what it may be.

How good a job have we made of this present-day world to bequeath to our children? Won't there be many of them who will turn upon us with scorn for this heritage? And if they do, what are we going to give to them that will help them meet and deal with this world of the future, which will be their present?

These children are going out into a world where the only certainty is the utter uncertainty of their future; a world where all the values by which you and I have grown are being challenged. Many of those values already have been overthrown. Some of them will not be reinstated in our time. How are we going to make those values important and vital and exciting to children? Therein, I believed lies the opportunity of which I am speaking, and the privilege as well.

0ur forefathers were individualists in a day when a man couldn't see the smoke from his nearest neighbor's chimney, and when he could, he pulled up stakes and moved along. Things were getting too crowded. He wanted more elbow room. More wing room. And above all he demanded the right to be let alone, that most comprehensive of rights and the right still most highly valued by civilized men. I think I am not blind to the fact that change is a part of the basic nature of all things, that that which doesn't change in one form of another becomes static -- dies. Races either go forward, or they begin the long march to extinction. And today, when the whole of America has been welded into one great gregarious community, the particular kind of self-sufficiency which was our forefathers' no longer is possible. Now men must give and take, offer and receive, in a social sense, of themselves. There's not so much elbow room any more. But there's still wing room for anyone's spirit! And I believe that that ideal of personal integrity is our most precious inheritance. It is our genius. It is the thing about us that the European, with his totally different heritage, finds almost impossible to understand, yet it is as much a part of us as this air we breathe, this soil to which the bones of our fathers have returned.

How are we going to preserve that ideal of personal integrity for children? Perhaps, as one approach, through the medium of words. I am aware that, in these days of violent action, it may sound futile to talk about the power of mere words. And yet, surely, words are one of the weapons dictators have feared most of all. What better proof of that statement do we need than this -- today, in the occupied countries of Europe, the dictators have made bonfires of the books written by the most constructive thinkers, by the wisest philosophers. They have hounded from nation to nation the courageous few who have held out publicly for that ideal of personal integrity. And they have threatened with death the man or woman who dares to listen to the words that come in over the short-waves of the air -- those words spoken out of a free heritage by free men. Yet, in spite of these threats, what is the picture brought back to us by those who know the situation inside Europe? It is a picture of men and women shutting themselves into their cellars and garrets, darkening the windows, plugging up the keyholes, risking their lives to listen to those forbidden words of freedom. It appears that the need to believe in a man's right to choose a way of life for himself is a rather universal need. It dies hard. But it can die! And it is through this same medium of words that we, you and I, can help to keep that need alive -- to keep for children that vision of personal integrity. It is as important as a victory on the field of battle. It is a part of victory. For what will it profit us to win a war if the things we fought for are forgotten?

We hear a great deal about "escapist " literature (even for children) and usually on a note of scorn -- implying that any book which doesn't concern itself with immediate social and economic problems is a disgraceful flight from "reality," I believe this to be a false concept. For what can be more real than the great themes of literature -- those themes by which the human race has climbed? Simple themes! Justice . . . Compassion . . . Integrity . . . Love. . . . The plight of Romeo and Juliet, the wisdom of Portia, the predicament of Macbeth (to choose but a few) have been translated into many tongues and understood by all who listened; because the themes themselves transcend time and changing fashion, and speak to something universal buried deep within the hearts of men.

When children in their books demand above all else a good story, a story where things happen and keep on happening, how are we going to get over to them these other, these intangible things? I can only tell you the way I tried it myself in a book. It is a story about a boy who lived on a small island in the South Pacific, yet who was profoundly afraid of the sea. So before his whole tribe of seafaring, warrior people, he was branded as a coward. He came to realize that the only way he could win his proper place in the tribe as the son of a chief, and win also his integrity, was to go out to face this thing he feared -- to face it and conquer it or else be destroyed by it. Well, he went out to face it. And those of you who have read Call It Courage, know what happened to that boy.

When I wrote that story I didn't concern myself with Age Groups or Word Lists, or any of those bugbears of the person striving to do a piece of creative work. I wanted only to tell my story as well as I could and with whatever distinction I could bring to the telling. But when I had finished it I was concerned that children themselves might find a concept of spiritual courage much less exciting than a tale of more obvious bravery and action. But I have received literally hundreds of letters from children in every State of this Union, telling me how much Call It Courage has meant to them. A fact which, I need scarcely add, has strengthened my deep-seated conviction that there is no call for anyone to write down to children. Tell your story as well and as honestly as you can. Children will understand it, and they'll ask for more!

All of which brings me back to my starting-point -- the great opportunity which is ours today. 0ne of these days the United Nations will win the final battle of this war. And when men start in again at the beginning laboriously to rebuild, what is it that they'll remember? Will it be the deeds of conquerors or tyrants, or even of heroes? I don't think so! They'll remember the words that men have spoken and men have written, that proclaim the ideal of freedom which is the inalienable right of all men. They'll remember such inspiring and incorruptible words as our own forefathers wrote into the Constitution of these United States. They'll remember such words as Lincoln spoke in his second Inaugural Address, with the simple grandeur of those closing lines: "With malice toward none, with charity for all." They'll remember the words of the man who cried out his demand for liberty and gave as his alternative -- death. Those are the things that they'll remember.

And so I say I think it is our great privilege -- yours and mine the privilege of all people who work in any way with children -- to help to keep alive that vision of freedom, that these children of today may carry it with them into the world of tomorrow : that imperishable dream of the right to lived to work, and to worship, as free men -- in peace.

Some of the above material was used in a talk before a conference of the California Library Association held in Del Monte in 1942.

This page last updated Sunday, 05/02/21,, by Margo Burns, margo@ogram.org
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