34 pages 1 hour read

Armstrong Sperry

Call it Courage

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 1940

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Summary and Study Guide


Call it Courage is a middle grade novel by Armstrong Sperry. It recounts the Polynesian folktale of Mafatu, the Boy Who Was Afraid, and his adventurous journey across the sea to find courage. Sperry structures his bildungsroman according to a quest structure, in which the hero must leave home and face adversity to achieve a goal. The novel was first published in 1940 and received the Newberry Medal for excellence in American children’s literature in 1941. The story was filmed for television and aired on The Wonderful World of Disney in 1973. This guide refers to the 2011 Aladdin Paperbacks edition.

Plot Summary

Mafatu is afraid of the ocean. As a child, he was caught in a storm with his mother and their canoe was carried out to the open sea. Mafatu’s mother died, and ever since, Mafatu has felt that Moana, god of the sea, is trying to claim him. Mafatu’s fear is problematic because his culture values courage above all else. As the son of the village chief, Tavana Nui, Mafatu is ashamed of his fear. One night, Mafatu overhears the village boys talking about his cowardice, and he decides to leave the island. He resolves to travel to a distant island and stay there until he proves himself. He will not return to Hikueru until he conquers Moana and makes his father proud.

Mafatu sets out on his quest. Before long, a storm hits. He loses his food, water, and paddle, leaving him completely at the ocean’s mercy. Maui, god of the fishermen, is now his only hope for survival. Just as Mafatu loses faith in ever seeing land again, he spots an island in the distance. He collapses on the island beach after the reef destroys his canoe.

Mafatu makes a home for himself on the island, which is uninhabited. He finds signs of cannibal visitors to the island and deduces that they live on a neighboring island. Each day, Mafatu works on making a canoe and climbs a plateau to watch for signs of the cannibals approaching the island. Mafatu's need for survival outweighs his fear, and he gains confidence with every challenge he faces. He bravely takes a spearhead from a sacred place on the island and faces several animal foes, including a shark, a wild boar, and a giant octopus. Through his experiences, Mafatu gains a sense of pride and transforms from a fearful boy into a brave one.

With his canoe finished and his boar’s tooth necklace hanging around his neck, Mafatu prepares to return home. The night before his journey, he hears drums announcing the cannibals’ presence on the island. The cannibals see and pursue him, so Mafatu must leave immediately. Maui sends the wind Mafatu’s canoe needs to outpace them. Mafatu now faces another arduous journey across the sea, in which he nearly dies of starvation and dehydration. He arrives back in Hikueru transformed in the eyes of the villagers, his father, and most importantly, himself.