Robert Cormier Biography

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.

Biography

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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.

While censors immediately attacked The Chocolate War upon its publication, they did not challenge I Am the Cheese (1977) for nearly ten years. In 1986 three separate incidents of successful censorship occurred. In one episode, in Panama City, Florida, a teacher received death threats for teaching the novel, and a woman who publicly defended the book on television had her car firebombed. The censors attacked the book because of its coarse language, portrayal of government as an evil institution, and premise that parents lie to their children. Their complaint that the novel is too complex has, perhaps, a grain of truth: The tale is told by Adam, fourteen years old, as his mind disintegrates under the pressures of a ruthless government agency that is supposed to protect his family from gangland revenge.

Cormier’s later novels have also provoked controversy, largely because of his pessimistic view of human nature and the devastating endings of his novels, in which evil often destroys innocent youth. In After the First Death (1979), children die during a terrorist hijacking. In The Bumblebee Flies Away (1983), terminally ill youngsters face death in an experimental hospital. Fade (1988) deals with recurrent manic violence, while We All Fall Down (1991) chronicles high school seniors vandalizing and maiming other youngsters. For his part, Cormier has maintained that his chief worry is not outright censorship but the “quiet censorship” practiced by librarians and teachers who sometimes are afraid to order and teach the novels due to the pressures and threats which are often put upon these school officials by outraged members of the community.

Bibliography

Campbell, Patricia J. Presenting Robert Cormier. Boston: Twayne, 1985. Campbell provides biographical information, examines how Cormier’s life relates to his novels, and critically analyzes chosen titles. An extensive bibliography is included.

Cormier, Robert. “An Interview with Robert Cormier.” Interview by Anita Silvey. Horn Book 61, no. 2 (March/April, 1985): 145-155. Cormier shares his motivations and thoughts relating to his writing a sequel to The Chocolate War.

Cormier, Robert. “Kind of a Funny Dichotomy: A Conversation with Robert Cormier.” Interview by Roger Sutton. School Library Journal 37, no. 6 (June, 1991): 28-33. Cormier describes his adolescence and writing process.

Keeley, Jennifer. Understanding “I Am the Cheese.” San Diego, Calif.: Lucent, 2001. Chapter 1 recounts the life of Cormier. A chronology and an annotated bibliography are included.

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