Childrens’ and young adult literature historically has been full of horror stories. Terrible things happen to children, who must undergo brutal trials and surpass impossible milestones in order to emerge triumphant in the end—that is, to reach adulthood. Despite established expectations, the unsuccessful hero—who undergoes such trials and does not emerge better or matured at the story’s conclusion—is a relatively recent development in young adult literature. Robert Cormier’s works are in large part responsible for encouraging this maturing shift in story and character structure, and his 1977 novel I Am the Cheese is perhaps both the pinnacle and the nadir of the early form of these stories.
A New England-born, bookish child, Cormier grew into a newspaper reporter who wrote fiction in his spare time, at least initially. He published I Am the Cheese three years after his breakthrough 1974 novel The Chocolate War, and both books are similar in many ways. Each tells a story of outsiders trying unsuccessfully to break through the system, although the protagonists of the two novels fail on different levels. The loss of innocence stands as a clear theme in I Am the Cheese, where not only adulthood but also self-knowledge is deferred at all costs.
I Am the Cheese was a turning point in Cormier’s work; he has stated in interviews that he had no intention of being a young adult writer, even if...
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