Call It Courage by Armstrong Sperry (J)

Call it Courage

Call It Courage

Armstrong Sperry (Juvenile Fiction)

 It happened many years ago, before the traders and missionaries first 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 the story in their chants and tell it over the evening fires.  It is the story of Mafatu, the Boy Who Was Afraid.

Fifteen-year-old Mafatu was afraid of the sea.  He’s had this fear for as long as he could remember.  His father, Tavana Nui, the Great Chief of Hikeuru, was ashamed of him for his people were great seafarers who worshipped courage.  There was no room—no tolerance—for cowardice.  It’s no wonder that Mafatu felt alone and out of place.  Angry and ashamed, Mafatu sets off one night in a canoe with his dog, Uri, and his albatross, Kivi, as his only companions.  His father had christened him “Stout Heart” upon his birth and Mafatu was determined to earn that name…or perish trying.

Armstrong Sperry’s Call It Courage was the recipient of the Newbery Medal in 1941.  Although there are mentions of Maui (God of the Fishermen) and Moana (the Sea God) and even Maui’s famed fishhook, Disney fans shouldn’t confuse this book with the movie about a spunky Polynesian princess.  Rather, it is more along the lines of Island of the Blue Dolphins (1961 Newbery Medal recipient) by Scott O’Dell, but told from a boy’s perspective.  If you enjoyed O’Dell’s book, you’ll most likely enjoy Sperry’s as well.

Sperry gives readers the story of a boy who not only has to deal with his own fears and shortcomings, but has to do so under the weight of being the island chief’s son.  To be a coward amongst people who worship heroism is one thing, but add the burden of being the island’s heir apparent and you’ve got quite a heavy load.  As the ridicule—especially from one who was seemingly a friend—intensifies, we see Mafatu being crushed under its unforgiving and unrelenting weight day after day until he sees no other alternative but to flee his homeland in search of courage and worth.

Call It Courage is fast-paced, tense, and suspenseful due to its numerous forms of conflict: Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Society, Man vs. Fate/Supernatural, and Man vs. Self.  Like in Island of the Blue Dolphins, we have a smart protagonist who relies heavily on wit and skill to survive.  The mundane tasks that Mafatu was assigned while on Hikueru are quickly utilized and performed with speed and skill.  Rushes or lapses in judgement could mean death so we see Mafatu being patient, deliberate, calculating, and thoughtful in all of his decision making.  Books (especially for younger readers) could use more characters like this.

Sperry delivers a powerful message in a very short book (mine was only 92 pages).  He shows us a boy who despite his insecurity, frailty, and vulnerability, is capable of doing rather extraordinary things.  Whether you call it courage, impulse, or instinct, Mafatu discovers his inner strength which allows him to begin believing in himself.  Famed American pianist Liberace once said, “Nobody will believe in you unless you believe in yourself.”  Mafatu, along with a yellow dog and a gimpy albatross, found the courage to believe in himself and I would call that pretty remarkable.

Rating: 5/5

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Shadow of a Bull by Maia Wojciechowska (J)

Shadow of a Bull

Shadow of a Bull    

Maia Wojciechowska (Juvenile Fiction)

When Manolo was nine he became aware of three important facts in his life.  First: the older he became, the more he looked like his father. Second: he, Manolo Olivar, was a coward.  Third: everyone in the town of Arcangel expected him to grow up to be a famous bullfighter, like his father.

To be a bullfighter was to be revered for a bullfighter was a hero, a magician, and a killer of death.  In Arcangel, death came in the form of a bull and to conquer death brought glory to yourself, your family, and your country.  Manolo was the son of Juan Olivar, the greatest bullfighter in Spain.  Ever since his father’s death, everyone anxiously awaited the day when Manolo would take his father’s place and Spain would once again have a hero.  But unlike his father, Manolo’s future was not prophesied for greatness and he worried that his heart would never allow him to live up to the expectations of his town or the legacy left by his father.

Maia Wojciechowska’s Shadow of a Bull (winner of the 1965 Newberry Award) is a book brimming with valuable lessons and important messages of self-worth, self-confidence, and self-importance.  She encourages the reader to question the idea of heroes and those we choose to idolize—the celebrated sports figure or the wizened town physician—and she shows us the emotional and physical price of sacrificing your own future in order to carry on someone else’s.  She writes of life versus death, bravery versus fear, and a dream versus destiny.  It’s a lot to take in, but Wojciechowska lays out all of these issues as smoothly as a matador works his cape.

Shadow of a Bull is rich in its history and detail regarding the art of bullfighting.  Readers will learn the training involved and will be introduced to several Spanish terms (pronunciation guide and definitions are included at the back of the book).   It’s an effective primer for the sport that may test the patience of a few readers, but proves interesting nonetheless.  Above all else, Wojciechowska doesn’t let us forget that the heart of this book is young Manolo, a boy wishing to bring honor to his family by fulfilling a future that is beyond his desire or control.  He carries the hopes and dreams of an entire country on his very small shoulders and we feel the weight of this burden grow heavier as the day of his testing nears.  It’s a beautifully told coming-of-age story of a boy trying to discover his place in the world.

Walter M. Schirra, Sr.—a fighter pilot during World War I and father of Wally Schirra, the only astronaut to fly in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs—once said, “You don’t raise heroes, you raise sons.  And if you treat them like sons, they’ll turn out to be heroes, even if it’s just in your own eyes.”  By being true to himself, Manolo found honor beyond the shadow of a bull and was able to become a hero in his own right.

Rating: 5/5

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Abel’s Island by William Steig (J)

Abels Island

Abel’s Island    

William Steig (Juvenile Fiction)

Abelard Hassam di Chirico Flint, of the Mossville Flints, is a very pampered mouse who likes things “just so”.  Living off the wealth of his mother, he shares a comfortable house with his wife, Amanda, and lives a life that is predictable, satiable, and pleasant.  But on one particular day, during a perfectly nice picnic, Abel’s life is turned upside down when a sudden hurricane separates him from everyone he loves and all that he knows.  Lost and alone, can one small mouse—who has been surrounded by ease and extravagance all his life—conjure up enough wit and grit to survive?

I grew up adoring William Steig’s Sylvester and the Magic Pebble and so I was delighted to see that Abel’s Island shared the same valuable moral:  possessions can never equal the riches and wealth provided by family.  Abel’s cup overflows with friends, family, and fortune, but when circumstances place him in a life-or-death situation, he begins to question his life and his worth and wonders if there might be a bigger being in charge: “Was it just an accident that he was here on this uninhabited island?  Abel began to wonder.  Was he being singled out for some reason: was he being tested?  If so, why?”  All of us, at one time or another, have felt like Abel.  That just when life seems to be going along swimmingly, the rug suddenly is pulled right out from under us.  Is it because we’ve become too complacent?  Too comfortable?  Or is it simply a reminder of how fragile and temporary life is and that every minute should be cherished and savored and never taken for granted.

I love books for young readers that reinforce the idea that there is strength, resilience, and courage in each of us and these things are waiting for just the right opportunity to emerge.  A. A. Milne passed away twenty years before Abel was born on paper, but the words of encouragement that he offered to a bear full of stuff and fluff could very well have been meant for Abel as well: “You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”  In the end, Abel proved that he WAS quite able after all.  Silly old mouse.

Rating: 5/5

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The Witches by Roald Dahl (J)

The Witches

The Witches   

Roald Dahl (Juvenile Fiction)

“In fairy-tales, witches always wear silly black hats and black cloaks, and they ride on broomsticks.  But this is not a fairy-tale.  This is about REAL WITCHES.”

Our story is told through the eyes of a seven-year old boy.  He’s quite ordinary really, but we soon find out that this rather ordinary boy is about to do some particularly extraordinary things.  Before he is eight years old, he tells us that he has had not one, but TWO encounters with witches…and he has lived to tell about it through this book.  I implore you to read this book so that you too will know how to spot a witch, for witches look just like ordinary women.  Miss the signs and alas poor reader, you might as well count yourself squelched!

Told in true Roald-Dahl fashion, the author gives us yet another whimsical, comical, and delightful story.  Dahl treats us to a young hero who shows courage, cleverness, and cunning in the most dangerous and dire of circumstances.  Even when he is at his lowest (and I mean that quite literally), our protagonist always seems to find the bright spot and never resorts to self-pity or defeatism.  His “can do” attitude and spunk will cast a wickedly delightful spell on your heart and is sure to entrance readers of all ages.  A few gory details of the supreme witch’s appearance may leave younger readers a tad squeamish, but it’s all told in good fun.

Dahl presents us with two very different groups of people whose appearance hide who they truly are.  When the narrator’s grandmother poses a question to him about identity and appearance, he responds, “It doesn’t matter who you are or what you look like so long as somebody loves you.”  And that, friends, is about as bewitching and magical a message as you can hope for.

Rating: 4/5

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