The publication of The Chocolate War in 1974 is now seen as a groundbreaking event in the establishment of young adult literature as a separate genre. Robert Cormier's novel was originally conceived as an adult book, for all his previous fiction had been for adults. Nevertheless, it quickly became both an inspiration to other writers and publishers for teens and the standard by which much subsequent young adult literature has been judged. Shocking in its relentless and unsentimental representation of the power and control exerted by bullying adults and boys at a Catholic school, the novel was criticized by some early reviewers for its failure to include for its young readers a redeeming resolution. (Cormier had resisted pressure from a number of publishers to alter the ending.)
The plot for The Chocolate War was inspired by an event in Cormier's own life. When his son decided, without repercussion, not to sell chocolates in his school's annual sale, Cormier asked himself, "What if?" This question, he has declared, is the spark for all his writing. If the novel had been simply about harassment and intimidation among a group of boys, it would not have been in any way remarkable. What makes it disturbing is the collusion between the Catholic teaching staff and a group of boys known as the Vigils who exert a Mafia-like influence at the school and employ psychological tactics against other pupils and staff. One of The Chocolate War's principle themes is the futility of individual protests and resistance in the face of such power structures and, by implication, the importance of collective action.