Robert Cormier Biography

At a Glance

Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War is a book not everyone wants you to read. When released in the early 1970s, the novel was indifferently reviewed by critics. It nevertheless became a major success, and that is where Cormier’s troubles began. The depiction of secret societies and anarchic students was troubling to some parents and school officials. Thus, like The Catcher in the Rye and other landmark novels before it, The Chocolate War became one of the most frequently banned books in the United States. Cormier himself has often spoken out against this kind of censorship and, despite numerous attempts at suppression, The Chocolate War remains one of the most popular young adult novels ever. Readers are drawn to Cormier’s keen understanding of the pain and confusion universal to the adolescent experience.

Facts and Trivia

  • Cormier worked for a newspaper for more than three decades, and many of his books were inspired by real-life stories.
  • The Chocolate War was turned into a film in 1988 by former actor Keith Gordon. Critics have overwhelmingly preferred the book, as is the fate of most film adaptations.
  • Among his many influences, Cormier has cited Look Homeward, Angel author Thomas Wolfe as one of his most important. Cormier even tried, unsuccessfully, to copy Wolfe’s style when he began writing.
  • Cormier’s first professional success as a writer happened without his knowing it. A college professor sent one of his works to a writing competition. It won, and Cormier earned his first paycheck as an author—$75.
  • Cormier considers talent to be only part of the equation in his success as a writer. He puts equal, if not greater, emphasis on discipline.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

For a writer who has dealt with a number of extreme subjects—including death, the occult, and terrorism—Robert Cormier lived a rather quiet and unassuming life. Born in Leominster, Massachusetts, into a large French Canadian family, Cormier lived most of his life in that small town some thirty miles from Boston. After a year at Fitchburg State College, he began work at a radio station in nearby Worcester before working at newspapers, first in Worcester and then in Fitchburg. At Fitchburg newspapers he was a reporter, editor, and columnist, until he left to write full-time in 1978; during that period, he won several awards for his stories and columns. “John Fitch IV” was his pseudonym as a newspaper columnist.

Throughout his adult life, Cormier continued to produce fiction. His stories have appeared in Redbook, McCalls, and other popular publications, and he published a short-story collection, Eight Plus One (1980) as well as four adult novels—Now and at the Hour (1960), A Little Raw on Monday Mornings (1963), Take Me Where the Good Times Are (1965), and Heroes (1998). His literary career dramatically changed when his agent convinced Cormier that The Chocolate War was really a young-adult title. Pantheon Books agreed, and the novel was an instant success. Since its publication in 1974, Cormier has become known primarily as a writer for young people.

During his...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Cormier became the premier novelist of young-adult new realism in a few short years, and his works challenge readers with their grim, often violent subjects. He also offers important messages about the ability of the individual to battle the system. Until Fade, at least, Cormier’s novels are distinguished by depressing subjects but transcendent themes, and his writing is characterized by tense stories that are full of literary language and multiple points of view that intensify their suspense. Few young-adult writers have been able to match Cormier in his ability to keep younger readers entranced in a story with an important message.


(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Author Profile

Robert Cormier has claimed that he writes about youngsters, not directly for them, yet his reading audience is composed mainly of young adults. They find his books complex, hard-hitting, almost cinematic in style, with memorable characters and unexpected plot twists. Cormier’s adult detractors, however, have objected to his “vulgar” language and “ugly” sexual images; to his depressing endings, in which the good individual is often defeated; and to the subjects he has dramatized: child murder, sadism, government and religious corruption, suicide, and terrorism.

Critics have contended that Cormier’s novels are often political in nature, detailing the struggle of an individual with a malevolent institution. For example, the protagonist in Cormier’s most celebrated novel, The Chocolate War (1974), refuses to sell chocolates in a private school fund drive. He becomes an outcast, is victimized by his conforming peers and corrupt school administrators, and is nearly murdered. The sequel, Beyond the Chocolate War (1985), continues the same theme of cruelty and conformity. While students have raved about the realism of these ground-breaking novels, censors have banned the books from schools or had them put on restricted lists. Censors have condemned Cormier because of his sexual descriptions, curse words, and his derogatory portrayal of teachers, school officials, and religious ceremonies.


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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Robert Edmund Cormier was born in Leominster, Massachusetts, on January 17, 1925, to Lucien Joseph Cormier, a French-Canadian Catholic, and Irma Margaret Collins Cormier, an Irish Catholic. Lucien supported his wife and eight children by working in factories around Leominster. Cormier attended a local Catholic school, where one day in particular affected his view of religion: He had seen from the school that his home was burning. His teacher, however, demanded that he recite three prayers before leaving to rescue his mother and younger sibling.

In high school, Cormier wrote for the yearbook, sang in the chorus, and acted in plays. After graduation, he worked nights in a comb factory; he later used this work experience in his first novel, Now and at the Hour. During the day, Cormier attended Fitchburg State College (1943-1944). Professor Florence Conlon encouraged Cormier to write. She submitted his story “The Little Things That Count” to The Sign, a Catholic magazine, without his knowledge, and the story won a prize. Intrigued by the possibilities of a writing career, Cormier soon dropped out of the teachers’ college.

Cormier’s first writing job was in journalism. He wrote commercials for radio station WTAG in Worcester, Massachusetts (1946-1948). In 1948, he married Constance Senay and took a night job at the Worcester Telegram and Gazette; he worked seven years at the Telegram before beginning a day job as a reporter (1955-1959) for the Fitchburg Sentinel (later the Fitchburg-Leominster Sentinel and Enterprise). His assignments at the Fitchburg Sentinel included wire editing (1959-1966) and associate editing (1966-1978). Under the pseudonym John Fitch IV, Cormier wrote the human-interest column “1177 Main Street” (1969-1978), also for the Fitchburg Sentinel.

On January 14, 1978, Cormier resigned from the Fitchburg-Leominster Sentinel and Enterprise to write fiction full time from an alcove off the dining room in his home. He contributed to such anthologies as Celebrating Children’s Books: Essays on Children’s Literature in Honor of Zena Sutherland (1981), Sixteen: Short Stories by Outstanding Writers for Young Adults (1984), and Trust Your Children: Voices Against Censorship in Children’s Literature (1988). He died from a blood clot on November 2, 2000, in Boston. He was seventy-five years old.