Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1084
Born: January 17, 1925
Birthplace: Leominster, Massachusetts
Died: November 2, 2000
Place of death: Boston, Massachusetts
The Chocolate War (1974)
I Am the Cheese (1977)
We All Fall Down (1991)
Robert Cormier, who died in 2000, was one of the best-known young adult authors in the United States for his 1974 book The Chocolate War, a dark take on power and corruption at a prep school. The book is one of the most frequently banned in the country but also one of the most admired. Cormier wrote fourteen books for young adults, among them the thrillers I Am the Cheese (1977) and We All Fall Down (1991) as well as a novel titled Tenderness (1997) about a teenage girl who falls in love with a serial killer. In 1991 he received the Margaret A. Edwards Award for his contribution to young adult literature. The iconic author never shied away from difficult characters and themes (such as sex, murder, manipulation, power, betrayal, and physical abuse), which put him at odds with adults who defined the merit of a young adult book by the clear-cut moral provided at the end of it. However, the complexity of his stories is exactly what has helped them endure decades after they were written. To date, four of his novels have been adapted for film, including I Am the Cheese in 1983, The Chocolate War in 1988, The Bumblebee Flies Anyway (1983) in 1999, and Tenderness in 2009.
Cormier was born on January 17, 1925, in Leominster, Massachusetts—the town in which he would live his entire life. His neighborhood, French Hill, was working class and largely French Canadian. The second of eight children, Cormier was bruised by early brushes with death. His three-year-old brother died of pneumonia and a cousin died very young, as did a friend after falling from a cliff. At school, he was tormented by bullies but found a home in the local library. He began writing when he was just twelve. Cormier graduated from St. Cecilia's School in 1938 and from Leominster High School in 1942. Rejected from military service during World War II, he attended Fitchburg State College, where he was the president of his class, from 1943 to 1944. He wrote radio commercials before taking up a career in journalism in 1948, writing for the Worcester Telegram and then the Fitchburg Sentinel.
After writing his first novel, Now and at the Hour, in 1960, and successfully publishing The Chocolate War and I Am the Cheese, he quit his job as a reporter in 1978. Cormier had been in the local news business for exactly thirty years, allowing him to draw inspiration from the people of Leominster and French Hill. His novels are even set in a similar neighborhood called Frenchtown.
In 1948, Cormier married Constance Senay, a woman from Leominster. Together they had four children, including a son named Peter, who served as the inspiration for the protagonist of The Chocolate War. Cormier died at age seventy-five in Boston following complications from a blood clot on November 2, 2000. According to his obituary in the New York Times, he listed his real phone number in his novel I Am the Cheese, and for years after its publication, he accepted phone calls from young fans “who felt lonely or distraught.”
Cormier has been widely praised and admired for his uniquely honest, real, and relatable treatment of young adult topics at a time when the genre did not quite exist yet—especially not in its modern form. Famous for claiming that no subject, handled well, was too taboo despite the audience, he consistently strove to remain faithful to his vision with every book that he published. Therefore, he also became known for refusing to sacrifice the authenticity of such important issues by wrapping up the story in a neat and happy conclusion.
When Cormier's son, Peter, was a freshman in high school, he refused to participate in his school's candy sale. The Chocolate War features Jerry Renault, a freshman at a boy's prep school called Trinity High, where a secret society known as the Vigils lords over the social pecking order. Jerry is told to refuse, for two weeks, to participate in the school's chocolate sale. For reasons that are unclear to Jerry himself, he continues the prank passed its appointed end date, earning the ire of the Vigils themselves. The Chocolate War is a bleak tale about power, peer pressure, and psychological warfare. It was lauded for extracting terror from familiar surroundings and subverting the ubiquitous happy ending of young adult literature.
Cormier's other well-known works include I Am the Cheese, a psychological thriller told from the point of view of an unreliable narrator in the form of a twelve-year-old boy bicycling from Massachusetts to Vermont to reach his father. We All Fall Down, told from various perspectives, focuses on an incident in which a group of teenage boys vandalize a family's house and push a young girl down the stairs, putting her in a coma. “Parents want to protect their children and so there's a tendency to have books with happy endings, to whitewash things,” Cormier said in a May 5, 1985, interview with Merri Rosenberg for the New York Times. “But the kids can absorb my kind of book because they know this kind of thing happens in life.”
- Roney-O'Brien, Susan. “Robert Cormier Lived Next Door.” Worcester Review 29 (2008): 43–47. Literary Reference Center. Web. 2 June 2015. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=36400972&site=ehost-live&scope=site>.
- Woo, Elaine. “Robert Cormier; Author Gave Dark Touch to Juvenile Fiction.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 11 Nov. 2000. Web. 2 June 2015. <http://articles.latimes.com/2000/nov/11/local/me-50378>.
- Campbell, Patricia J. Robert Cormier: Daring to Disturb the Universe. New York: Delacorte, 2006. Print.
- Cormier, Robert. Interview by Anita Silvey. Rpt. Horn Book Magazine 16 Aug. 2013: n. pag. Horn Book. Web. 11 June 2015. <http://www.hbook.com/2013/08/authors-illustrators/interviews/an-interview-with-robert-cormier>.
- Gardner, Lyn. “Robert Cormier.” Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 5 Nov. 2000. Web. 2 June 2015. <http://www.theguardian.com/news/2000/nov/06/guardianobituaries.books>.
- Gavin, Adrienne E., ed. Robert Cormier. New York: Palgrave, 2012. Print.
- Honan, William H. “Robert E. Cormier, 75, Author of Enduring Books for Teenagers.” New York Times. New York Times, 5 Nov. 2000. Web. 2 June 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2000/11/05/nyregion/robert-e-cormier-75-author-of-enduring-books-for-teenagers.html>.
- “On Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War.” PEN America. PEN American Center, 15 Oct. 2012. Web. 11 June 2015. <http://www.pen.org/nonfiction/robert-cormier%E2%80%99s-chocolate-war>.
- Rosenberg, Merri. “Children's Books; Teen-Agers Face Evil.” New York Times. New York Times, 5 May 1985. Web. 2 June 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/1985/05/05/books/children-s-books-teen-agers-face-evil.html>.