Call It Courage

October 6, 2017
Call it Courage Book Cover Call it Courage
Armstrong Sperry
Listening Library
January 22nd, 2008

A boy tries to overcome his fear of the sea in this treasured classic and winner of the Newbery Medal.

Maftu was afraid of the sea. It had taken his mother when he was a baby, and it seemed to him that the sea gods sought vengeance at having been cheated of Mafatu. So, though he was the son of the Great Chief of Hikueru, a race of Polynesians who worshipped courage, and he was named Stout Heart, he feared and avoided tha sea, till everyone branded him a coward. When he could no longer bear their taunts and jibes, he determined to conquer that fear or be conquered-- so he went off in his canoe, alone except for his little dog and pet albatross. A storm gave him his first challenge. Then days on a desert island found him resourceful beyond his own expectation. This is the story of how his courage grew and how he finally returned home. This is a legend. It happened many years ago, but even today the people of Hikueru sing this story and tell it over their evening fires.

(via Goodreads)


I’m just going to get this out of the way — Yes, this 1940 Newbery Award winner certainly has some representation issues. Yes, Call It Courage does play on all the noble-savage action-adventure boy serial tropes, such as those in the Tarzan serials. Yes, it portrays sexism, bullying, and submitting to peer pressure in a positive light. Yes, it does fall into a bit of a predictable storytelling mode where our protagonist magically conquers everything.

But this is still a great book. And a wonderful book when the era in which it was written is considered. Afterall, the expectations and standards in the world were quite different in 1940. I personally believe that the cultural context in which this was written is essential to appreciate the text.

Maftu, the son of the Great Chief Hikueru, is afraid of the sea. After getting caught in a hurricane with his mother and being the only survivor, this isn’t all that surprising. But his name means “Stout Heart”. And Stout Heart cannot get in a boat, fish, or do anything which is expected of the men on this Polynesian island. Once he reaches the age in which boys go off to the ocean to partake in the ritual where boys become men, Mufatu hears the boys making fun of him. No longer will he stand by and let the ocean scare him. He steals a canoe, takes his dog and his bird, and sets out in the ocean to face his fears and come back victorious.

As part of my quest to read all the Newbery Winners, I listened to the audiobook for Call It Courage. And I am so thankful I did! As the story begins Sperry identifies that this is a tale told around the fires to this day on the Polynesian- and it feels just like it! The bold and mythic storytelling tone, along with the Listening Library’s sound effects and music, made me feel like I was hearing this story told around the fire. Listening to Lou Diamond Phillip’s depiction is powerful, but also enlightening. I won’t lie, if I was reading this all the Polynesian words would have been nonsense to me. I really appreciate hearing the proper pronunciation.

The message of this story is simple: Find your own courage no matter what adversity you may find. Your fears look different compared to those around you, but courage is always the same. In a fashion similar to The Odyssey, Mufatu’s hair-raising adventures quickly pile one on top of the other. These adventures follow the structure of a traditional survival story. Despite the predictability of these events, I still found myself enraptured with Mufatu’s plight. Will he survive? Will he be able to return and show the Great Chief Hikueru the courage he has found?

In the end, Call It Courage is about facing your fears no matter the form they take. It could be the wildness of nature, the cruelty of your peers, the disappointment of your family, or any other thing. Most of the terrible stereotypes called out in this book are ones our society has now abandoned. If you can remember to let that go, you’ll be magically transported along with Mufatu on a seemingly impossible adventure and rise to victory. This book’s pages contain not a lesson in history, but a lesson in moral courage– A lesson so many of us still need today.


What do you think?

  • Have you read Call It Courage? What do you think of it?
  • Are there books with problematic content you still recommend to people? If so, what are they? If not, why don’t you?
  • What is the last book you read which focused on facing your fears?
  • Can you recommend other books set on the Polynesian islands?


  • Resh Susan @ The Book Satchel October 6, 2017 at 11:53 pm

    Great review. I am glad you pointed out the predictability of the characters and plot so that readers who pick the book are warned. Nice to know that the book does full justice to the title and deals with bullying and being courageous under adverse situations

    • Jackie B October 8, 2017 at 2:24 pm

      Thank you! It’s a fairly easy and quick read, but the predictability will probably not appeal to most of those who read my reviews. That said, I know quite a few younger children who will love this book! 🙂

  • theorangutanlibrarian October 7, 2017 at 6:29 pm

    Yeah I definitely think it’s worth taking into considering cultural context for any text to be honest. This sounds really good- I agree that we could all do with a lesson in moral courage. Great review!

    • Jackie B October 9, 2017 at 12:02 pm

      It’s so easy for us to dismiss literature in this age of #OwnVoices and #BlackLivesMatter (etc) that I feel people often ignore the historical context. It makes me so sad seeing great works being dismissed because they don’t adhere to our modern values.


  • Grab the Lapels October 7, 2017 at 8:14 pm

    I don’t feel like I’ve read many Newbery winners. Let me check, BRB… Wow, I’ve only read four of them. I wonder why that is? Wouldn’t schools push the books?

    • Jackie B October 9, 2017 at 12:04 pm

      When I was in elementary school, I remember reading at least one Honor or Award winner each year. There are quite a few I’ve read and forgotten, honestly! This is one of the reasons I want to re-read them. Younger Jackie remembers adoring them. But will older Jackie?

      Of the 4 you recall reading, which sticks out in your memory the most?

      • Grab the Lapels October 9, 2017 at 12:23 pm

        Bridge to Terabithia. After that, I knew life would always be unfair and sucky. Patterson’s other novel I adore, which didn’t make the list, The Great Gilly Hopkins, also gutted me.

        • Jackie B October 12, 2017 at 3:46 pm

          No, it didn’t. But Jacob I Have Loved made the list, and I adore it. I really should explore more of her works, I guess! I have never read The Great Gilly Hopkins. That said, it did win a Newbery Honor. Perhaps someday I’ll progress to that list of winners, too. 😉

  • Dani @ Perspective of a Writer October 8, 2017 at 3:28 pm

    Gah Jackie! Fie on you for making this audiobook sound excellent! ♥️ Actually I have such trouble concentrating when listening to one… Peer pressure actually used to be a positive thing back when if you didn’t conform the society would cast you out and you’d die… still I agree though predictable it may be there is so much good in survival stories! If only I could just touch a book to read it… I would read everything then I loved this shorter review and the great points you brought up! (It’s such a trial to write a mini-review… isn’t it?!)

    • Jackie B October 10, 2017 at 1:05 pm

      I love audiobooks when I’m driving to/from work and when I’m running. When I’m heading to/from work I can get my brain all amped up with anxiety over stuff I didn’t do. When I’m running I tend to get bored or frustrated and just want to stop and go home. In both cases, I use audiobooks as a distraction to keep me focused and on the task at hand. It’s not too bad!

      Oh yeah, society casting you out was just Darwin at work. We needed to cull the less desirable traits! But this was definitely a fun book to read even with the predictability. I am actually a bit shocked at how few survival stories have been written for younger audiences in the last few years. Hm.

      Mini reviews are SO HARD. I don’t know why! I have a review I recently wrote for I, Robot which is SO LONG I’m embarrassed to post it! O_o It’s a weird dichotomy to be in.

  • KrystiYAandWine October 9, 2017 at 4:34 pm

    I hadn’t heard of this one before, so it was really fun to read your review. I love seeing that your still plugging along on your Newberry challenge. This one sounds really interesting. I think there is usually at least some problematic content in classic novels, but I also think it’s great to see how far we’ve come since then too. Wonderful review, lady!

    • Jackie B October 12, 2017 at 11:49 am

      Thank you so much! I don’t read enough classics, sadly– so I’m not surprised that the novels we label as classics contain problematic details. I’m so embarrassed to say I haven’t thought of that before! The feminist in me surely gets frustrated with almost every hard sci-fi book I read. So, this should be a logical conclusion. Can you think of any great classics containing problematic content I should try reading? I’m so limited in my classics knowledge…

      • KrystiYAandWine October 13, 2017 at 10:36 am

        Classics and YA are my two genres that I like to read, which is a funny combo now that I think about it. Honestly, most classic novels have some content that we would deem problematic by our social standards today. I try to judge them based on the values of their own time, but sometimes it can be difficult. I’m trying to think of a classic that doesn’t have any problematic content, and I’m struggling. Almost all of them have some kind of sexism or other types of discrimination, particularly around the role of women in the world.

        • Jackie B October 13, 2017 at 12:39 pm

          It’s not that funny– they are so different from each other, I can imagine how alternating between the two genres can be like a breath of fresh air. Sometimes, I really want to challenge myself and take a long time reading a text– and others (like right now!) I want to just find a fast and engaging read. Often, I find that the Classics fall into the former category and YA in the latter– but it could be reversed, too!

          Haha. I’m almost happy you can’t find a Classic without problematic content. That probably means they are the right books for the classics. After all, it’s these controversial moments which really help books find their place in the canon.

          What are your favorite classics?

          • KrystiYAandWine October 14, 2017 at 6:52 pm

            That’s very true. I usually just crave one or the other and bounce back and forth. I feel the same way though. Classics I notice I read much more slowly even when they’re not long. They just require more focus, because of the language in them and all the telling vs showing language that would have been cut in YA.

            I have been thinking about that question since you asked me, and I still can’t think of a single one. I’ve never thought about it before.

            Austen, Dickens, and Fitzgerald are my favorites. Do you have any favorite classics?

            • Jackie B October 17, 2017 at 8:37 am

              Yes! Classics definitely require more focus. I picked up a copy of The Old Man and the Sea this weekend, expecting to blow through it at 127 pages in one sitting. I’m STILL reading it. Oops! There is a lot to think about and consider. In particular, I feel like Hemingway chooses his words carefully. It gives me a lot to think about.

              I appreciate that you’re still thinking about problematic content in Classics. That makes me happy that I posed a thought-provoking question!

              My favorite classics authors are Austen, Hemingway, Twain, Kipling, and Dumas. I wouldn’t say I am well-read in the Classics, however. I need to read those for a book group so I can discuss them. There is often so much to unpack that I struggle to appreciate them on my own.

              I’ve never read ANY Dickens! Where would you recommend I start?

              • KrystiYAandWine October 18, 2017 at 8:34 pm

                It’s true! Every time I read one, I severely underestimate how long it’ll take me to read. Every time.

                Ooh, I’ve never read Hemingway. I don’t know why, but his books intimidate me for some reason.

                Yes! It’s a fantastic and thought-provoking question. You should totally do a post about it. ☺️

                I could just curl up in Dickens books forever and be so happy. I’d definitely start with Great Expectations. I adore that book.

              • Jackie B October 20, 2017 at 7:09 pm

                I really love Hemingway. I strongly recommend The Old Man and the Sea, particularly if you have a book club to discuss it with you. I love short stories, and he has quite a few great ones. There are the classic greats of his, but they are all quite a bit sad. Totally worth reading, however! His writing is quite simplistic to read and understand. No fluff or bullshit. I wouldn’t be intimidated unless you need to unpack all the symbolism. 😉

                I’d love to write a post about problematic content in Classics. However, I don’t think I know enough about the Classics to do it! O_o I’ll consider.

                Great Expectations is only 500 pages! Wow. I feel like whenever I think of Dickens, I think of 1000 page books. I wonder if that’s leftover from my childhood when I thought all classics were monstrously large? I’ll definitely check it out. Plus: it’s public domain. Yesssss.

              • KrystiYAandWine October 21, 2017 at 5:55 pm

                Our book club is strictly YA, so they wouldn’t read that one with me, but I’d love to! It sounds really intriguing. All of read of him are biographies and The Paris Wife, and they’ve made me a bit intimidated for some reason.

                Some of Dicken’s books are bigger, but that ones not too bad. And it’s a great read!

              • Jackie B October 25, 2017 at 8:04 pm

                I led a discussion about The Old Man and the Sea recently. I hope to get my discussion questions posted soon. So, less worth in case they want to branch out?

                This reminds me. I shall be emailing you about book clubish things again shortly.

              • KrystiYAandWine October 27, 2017 at 11:21 am

                Oh, did you?! I would love to read that post. Both because I’m interested in that book and because I am always interested to see other people’s book club discussion questions.

                Definitely email me about book clubish things anytime. 🙂

  • Sarah @ Reviews and Readathons October 11, 2017 at 10:38 am

    Great review! It’s not surprising that a book written at that time would have content we consider problematic today–but it’s good to know it still has a good message at its heart. I’m really unsure how many Newbery award winners I’ve read, but I’ve enjoyed seeing your reviews as you read through them!

    On a side note, I also nominated you for the Blogger Recognition Award on my blog (post is here). I totally understand if you don’t get to it, but I’d love to see your post! 🙂

    • Jackie B October 12, 2017 at 8:22 am

      Thank you so much, Sarah! I appreciate that you’ve taken note of the Newbery Award Winners I’m reading. As I read the older winners I’m sure I’ll come across more and more problematic content. But I have a feeling they will all still be worthwhile reads.

      Ohemgeee! Thank you for nominating me! I really appreciate it. 😀 I’ll head over to check out your post shortly.

  • Captain's Quarters October 13, 2017 at 7:57 pm

    Glad to see another Newbery winner appear here. I have heard of but not read this one. I should read it given that it involves the sea. Arrrr! The premise sounds a bit of island of the blue dolphins in tone. Will definitely read this one but just don’t know when!
    x The Captain

    • Jackie B October 15, 2017 at 3:33 pm

      You’re right– it is quite a bit like The Island of the Blue Dolphins! I don’t know why I didn’t make that connection… it’s a super short book; I feel like most bloggers could read it in a single sitting. I hope that when you get to reading this you enjoy it!

  • Evelina @ AvalinahsBooks October 18, 2017 at 3:03 pm

    I love that cover 🙂 and the book sounds good, even if it’s got issues if you view it in today’s perspective. That’s actually why I don’t have a problem with most older sci-fi – it’s sexist as hell, but it’s also a product of its time.
    Also, if you’re wondering why I’m not answering any of your comments… it’s because I need a PC for that xD I’m on the phone… so I’m sort of pigeonholing them until o can properly answer 😀

    • Jackie B October 21, 2017 at 3:43 pm

      Mwahaha! I love that you’re holding off on replying to my comments until you have a computer around. It’s been one heck of a week so I can relate to that silence. I finally have some time this weekend to catch up on bloghopping! I feel like I’ve been totally negligent. But I’m sure that’s just in my head.

      I don’t know why I can forgive problematic content like this noble savage trope, but I can’t forgive sexism. I wonder if that’s because I am the one affected? So two-faced. But I get frustrated with sexism in a way which prevents me from appreciating what I’m reading. Oops!

      • Evelina @ AvalinahsBooks October 24, 2017 at 2:40 pm

        I kept holding off but now I’m just annoyed to be skipping your comments, and also you don’t reply on Twitter, and I MISS YOU and it’s nonsense so I’m just going to bear with the phone xD

        Hmmmm now I actually wonder if I am so calloused to sexism because I spent four years in a university with guys only (we used to say if you see three girls huddling in the corridor, there is a big probability of a black hole somewhere near… engineering uni), and I’ve had my share of sexism and just got used to it cause there was nothing else to do. So now I can’t even tell it apart lol. Maybe it’s that.

        • Jackie B October 27, 2017 at 11:06 pm

          D’aw. Thank you! I miss you too. I’m so sorry about the Twitter thing! I really need to work on my social media savvy. I am totally struggling to keep involved in Twitter. Twitter chats? Yes. Awesome. Let’s do it. Everything else? I just don’t get it for some reason…

          Ugh. It would make me SO SAD if you are numb to sexism due to the constant expsosure you had to it. It happens more often than you think– there is certainly a normalization of sexism and sexual behaviors happening because we grew up with it. We expect it. It’s considered “normal”. There is so much daily sexism which falls into a category where we are taught this is just how society should be run. I could go on a huge diatribe about this, honestly, but I’ll spare you (and the world). Regardless, I hope that you aren’t completely bought into the normalization of sexism.

          Also– you went to uni for engineering?!

          • Evelina @ AvalinahsBooks November 6, 2017 at 3:06 pm

            I actually don’t do Twitter chats either. I absolutely fail to understand how they work 😀 you are not alone 😀

            Normalization of sexism… actually, as with anything, I might just have it normalized for myself, but I won’t let anyone treat other women like it. It’s probably because I was alone there, so I started feeling one of the guys. Due to being constantly called sub-par and not pretty, I struggle to identify as a woman :/ I feel half-guy, which is embarrassing, especially because it has nothing to do with sexuality 😀 but I don’t cook, and I do all the manly stuff (including some fixing), I am the breadwinner… I have also never felt like a lady. So this might have something to do with it. I am just desensitized in regards to myself. Spend 7 years with guys only. You get used to it.

            Yep, I went to an engineering uni. I graduated an electronics engineering bachelor’s with honors. Bleh. Worked three years in the field until I felt like it was enough for a lifetime. Went on my way 😀

            • Jackie B November 10, 2017 at 1:03 pm

              XD This is why we are meant for each other. Totally the same.

              Ahhhh. *That* I can relate to. I have a degree in Percussion performance. It was me, two other girls, and 24 guys. I definitely saw myself as “one of the guys”. I had very few female friends and I felt bad about it. I was *supposed* to be into girly things and like having female friends, right? Really, I just wasn’t interested in those things. But, there is a difference between not feeling like a woman and feeling like “one of the guys”. I eventually realized I love wearing dresses and heels and I love to cook. But I would still rather play video games than go dancing. Or I’d rather read a book than stay up late talking on the phone. And this gets into the socialization of the sexes– does it make me more or less of a woman because I like to watch American football? Because I like lifting? And does it make David any less of a man because he likes to bake and do yoga? Who cares. What matters is that we are happy.

              But if you aren’t happy with who you are or where you are, you best get out.

              Is that why you left engineering? How did you get from engineering to marketing?

              • Evelina @ AvalinahsBooks December 5, 2017 at 1:30 pm

                I left engineering mostly because it made me feel horrible every day. The process is “make – it doesn’t work – fix – fix – fix” and so basically the fixing and it not working is a normal part of the process and is maybe 95% of the whole thing. It’s very unrewarding and it just made me so depressed. I also saw no point in it. I wouldn’t have done it even if they paid me a lot (which they didn’t). It was torture. It was plainly not for me. And weight lifting? Dang! That’s tough! I actually do like to dance, but we can’t take any classes here because of Ebil’s language barrier. But I don’t like cooking 😀 percussion performance though! So was it drums? :0

              • Jackie B December 14, 2017 at 4:45 pm

                I totally understand why you might dislike engineering if you aren’t into fixing things and figuring out why they are broken. That’s one of the reasons I love Lean, actually– it’s nice to look at something and puzzle out how I can make it better. Sometimes these things are working in the first place, but certainly not all….

                Pft. I love working out. Yoga and weight lifting are my favorite things to do when I’m not reading/blogging, honestly. I love how sore I feel the next day and how envigorated I get. I think I’m addicting to my endorphins! O_o

                Ebil’s language barrier means you can’t take dance classes? What does that mean exactly?

                Yup! Percussion performance means drums– but I focused on classical and solo percussion performance. My favorite instruments to play are the ones in the orchestra: tambourine, triangle, cymbals, etc. I love making fun and different sounds. As a soloist, I perfer to play marimba or vibraphone. I love the melodic qualities. Drum set? Not so much. I get bored with the repetition. But I do enjoy playing in a Scottish Bagpipe and Drum band! Or, fife and drum in a more British/American classical military fashion. <3 drumming!

              • Evelina @ AvalinahsBooks December 16, 2017 at 2:36 pm

                Yeah, I love making things better – to the thing with lean is that you know what’s going on. You don’t really know in electronics. It’s all kind of under the hood, electricity is invisible. You have to know so many work arounds to see what’s going on. I guess that’s the part I hated. As for Ebil’s language barrier, lol, I can clearly see your American xD well, would you be able to live, say, in Japan, and take a dance class in Japanese? Would you be able to understand what’s going on at all? I’m betting no xD we talk Lithuanian here. Ebil doesn’t talk Lithuanian. He would have no clue what anyone would be saying in the dance class. And contrary to popular belief, dance classes are not about watching, they’re a lot about listening to instructions. If you don’t understand the language, you can’t really participate. It’s as simple as that 😀 I mean, you did know English was not my native language, right? XD

              • Jackie B December 22, 2017 at 5:06 pm

                Hi. Privilaged American here. Ugh. Sometimes I embarrass myself and I don’t even realize. I also didn’t realize Ebil didn’t speak Lithuanian! Where is he from then? That’s what I was missing in this whole thing… I just assumed that you had two common languages as opposed to just one. Right? You guys only share English as a language?!

                THIS IS SO COOL.

              • Evelina @ AvalinahsBooks January 1, 2018 at 6:25 am

                Wait, so how did you miss the fact that Ebil is from England, he is English and he moved down to my country just to be with me? Or did we never talk about this? XD yeah, we only share English. He speaks no other language. Like most English-native people 😀 which should explain to you some of the family problems we have, as absolutely no one in my immediate family speaks ANY English. Imagine all the family parties. We barely have any friends as well, cause everybody’s afraid of speaking English to us, and the only two friends we have are ironically moving to America this month.

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