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Current Biography (1941)

Armstrong Sperry

from pp. 813-814 of Current Biography: Who's News and Why: 1941, Maxine Block, Editor, Managing Editor E. Mary Trow, The H. W. Wilson Company, New York, N.Y.

SPERRY, ARMSTRONG Nov. (?), 1897- Author; artist
Address: b. The Macmillan Co, 60 Fifth Avenue, New York City; h. New Canaan, Conn.

The Newbery Medal for "the most distinguished contribution to American books for children in 1940" was awarded to Armstrong Sperry, author and illustrator of Call It Courage (1940), a story for boys about a Polynesian youth, Mafatu, who learned to overcome fear. The Medal was presented to Mr. Sperry in June 1941 at a meeting of the American Library Association in Boston, together with a presentation of the 1940 Caldecott Medal to illustrator Robert Lawson (see sketch this issue).

At least two special qualifications make Armstrong Sperry outstanding among the many notable writers of children's books. One is his unusual and authentic South Sea subject matter; another the fact that he is both writer and artist. Helen Follett, whose own juvenile books Sperry has illustrated, said to him, "The astonishing thing about you, 'Arm,' is not that you're a fine artist, or a fine writer, but that you are both!" At which "Arm" chuckled and remarked that being both was a "lot of hard work," but also "lots of fun." Since the appearance of his book he had had the opportunity of doing some more hard work that is "lots of fun": lecturing to groups of young students as well as to librarians and teachers.

The high standard of literary and artistic accomplishment in Call It Courage is the outgrowth of meticulous work in the juvenile book field, of careful and loving study of young readers' needs. In his Medal acceptance speech Sperry said: "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 outstares 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." Of the book's style Doris Patee his written, "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 the language."

Connecticut-born, Armstrong Sperry's forebears were among the state's earliest settlers. On one side of the family the men followed the sea; on the other side they were farmers. "To this day Armstrong Sperry is aware of these two conflicting impulses with himself. He has a farm in the green hills of Vermont, and he likes to make his acres yield a fine crop. Then he hankers for the sound of surf breaking, for the sight of tall ships. This hankering on a number of occasions has brought him down from the hills to the sea." As a boy young Sperry listened wide-eyed to the yarns of his great-grandfather, Captain Sereno Armstrong, who could tell of hair-raising adventures with pirates in the China Sea and among cannibals in lagoon-islands rich with pearls. In particular he spoke of a wonderful South Sea island, Bora Bora. Some day, the boy knew, he would have to find that island. Meantime, like other adventure-loving boys, he had to go to school. But at the Stamford Preparatory School he spent most of his time drawing pictures and scribbling stories. "His teachers shook their heads in gloomy doubt, certain that no good could come of any boy who preferred drawing cannibals to solving the knotty problems of algebra."

Sperry got his first formal training in art when he entered the Yale Art School. Then came the First World War, and he joined the Navy. But as soon as he was mustered out of service he headed for New York City and the Art Students League, where he studied for three years under George Bellows and Luis Mora. His practical career began when he answered an ad for "Help Wanted -- Artist." He got the position -- at $25 a week. A year followed during which he drew luscious pictures of vacuum cleaners, canned soup and beautiful blonde ladies who wore Venida hair nets. Somehow he found himself thinking more and more of old Captain Armstrong, the South Seas, and Bora Bora in particular. Sperry says that is was really Frederick O'Brien's White Shadows in the South Seas, which so enchanted him in his youth, that gave him the impetus to go there. "But this was before Hollywood discovered Tahiti, and before Miss Dorothy Lamour had made the sarong a national commodity." He wrote to O'Brien, however, concerning ways and means. "And that was how I came to be standing on the deck of a copra schooner, 16 years ago this month [June 1941], sailing from Tahiti to Bora Bora."

And his first sight of Bora Bora was all that he had ever dreamed: "I saw a single great peak that towered 2,000 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 mountains the 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."

He spent several months on this primitive enchanted island. He tells what happened there during a vanilla-bean boom, when a blight of the vanilla vine struck all the other islands except Bora Bora, which took on the aspect of a boom town in the Gold Rush days. The people found themselves millionaires over night: movie palaces sprang up, the men bought automobiles, the women Paris gowns. Murder and theft, too, came with these riches. As the old chief Opu Nui, observed sadly, the people were losing their initiative, their good native customs and ways of living. Then suddenly the vanilla boom was over -- new vines replaced the stricken ones in other islands. And the season of storms arrived. Their fine houses and possessions destroyed, the people fled to the mountains. They faced famine, and they had grown soft from easy living. Yet, led by the old chief, they rallied to win "a victory not so much over elemental disaster as a personal victory over themselves."

Sperry says: "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."

Children seemed the logical audience for the wealth of material in these South Sea experiences which he dually visualized in words and pictures. Sperry's first book, One Day With Manu, a tale of everyday life in Bora Bora, appeared in 1933. An immediate success, it was followed by One Day with Jambi in Sumatra (1934) , with a Sumatran background. One Day with Tuktu, an Eskimo Boy (1935), telling of the life of an Eskimo boy, was based on research, not firsthand experience, and Sperry found such a book more difficult to do. There followed a sea story, All Sail Set (1935), a story of the clipper ship Flying Cloud. Then a land story, Wagons Westward (1936), based on his journey, by car, over the old Sante Fe Trail. The Southwest opened up a new field for him. Out of this came Little Eagle, a Navaho Boy (1938), a story of the Navahos. One more South Sea book, Lost Lagoon (1939), appeared just prior to Call It Courage, his eighth book for children. He illustrated Helen Follett's Stars to Steer By (1934).

Armstrong Sperry lives with his family in New Canaan, Connecticut. There is a daughter, Susan, who is the first audience and critic of her father's tales of high adventure. Young John Armstrong will be ready in a few years to lend her a hand. Sperry's first book was dedicated to his wife, Margaret, "who helped to make it grow." Of her Helen Follett writes, "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. 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... 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 the swish of encircling waters that make the isolation complete. Then, later on, 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."


A.L.A. Bul 35:422-3 Jl '41 il
Horn Book 17:269-72 Jl '41 por
Library J 66:589-90 Jl '41 il por
NY Times p32 Je 21 '41 por
Pub W 139:2462-4 Je 21 '41 por

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