It has been over thirty-five years since Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War was published—a book that holds a third place position in the American Library Association’s Most Banned Books of this past decade. Wow. Who knew. (Me, I didn’t, until I looked up the list.) So what’s the big deal about this book, one of my own top three most beloved YA novels of all time? Aside from its violence, strong language, and the sacrilege of corrupt priests who make tactic agreements with their most powerful students in order to enforce Groupthink? Well, sure. There’s that. But I believe what really makes Cormier’s The Chocolate War the Oh-No-He-Didn’t book of Time Unending is its philosophical position that human nature is an inexorably dark place, and that the power of the mob is most dangerous when it is turned onto the spectacle of suffering. It’s a grim summation, diametrically opposed to the viewpoint most notably expressed by Anne Frank’s earnest (if ironic) assessment that: “Despite everything, I believe that people really are good at heart.”
When I first read this book, many years ago, I, too, was attending a small Catholic school very close to Cormier’s Leominster, Massachusetts. At the time, most of the book’s so-called shockers glanced off me. I wasn’t undone by the intellectual, bullying Archie—my school had its share of brutal manipulators. And I’d had my run-ins with real-live meanie nuns. For me, the most brilliant angle of Cormier multi-faceted, near-perfect gem of a YA was the fact that no matter how chaotic, how insufferable Jerry Renault’s life became, he still had. To go. To school. Had to show up and endure whatever fresh pain and humiliation lay in store for him. Rain or shine, in sickness or in health, Jerry Renault had to adapt a stance, and from that stance, just deal. And Cormier knew that like no other author I had ever read before.
The unique conundrum of the Young Adult novel, the one unalterable plot point of the genre, is that you can’t quit high school. As in: you can’t be promoted or fired or relocated or get saved by a Sabbatical, or even—except in the most rare of instances—just take a semester off. In order to survive, you need to figure out your strongest sense of self, and kick that self out the door into another day, every single day, until you get your mortarboard.
In my own book, The Julian Game, where the online bullies are anonymous and home has ceased to be a respite from the daily grind, my protagonist, Raye, is in the same predicament, and that mortarboard feels very far away, indeed. But it would be impossible for me to write a YA novel about betrayal, revenge, violence, bullies, self-reliance, and the stance of the Peaceful Warrior without looking at the path Cormier has forged. While he chose a rough setting in which to place his diamond, and while the entire story unfolds without a single text message or Google search, any teen today could slip inside Jerry’s skin and know that it fits as easily and protects as thinly in 2010 as it did in 1974. It is the book’s relevance, above all, that continues to dazzle us, not just from the summit of any given Banned Books list, but from the apex of literary excellence.
Causes Adele Griffin Supports
Brooklyn Historical Society
Harlem Village Academies
Boys Latin School of Philadelphia