::Literate Blather::
Thursday, August 31, 2006
Robert Cormier and the Radicalization of YA Fiction

“I woke up one day to find out I was a young adult author and a controversial one.”

Author Robert Cormier was a radical.

Who could have predicted that? Certainly not Robert. By the time I met him in the mid-1990s he was already an old man, yet still writing novels (he was in the process of writing one of his best works “Frenchtown Summer,” a book-length piece of free verse poetry).

He was a slight, delicate man with a gnomish face, white hair, and thick eyeglasses. Mornings he haunted the Leominster, Massachusetts public library (sometimes with a hint of booze on his breath). Afternoons were spent at his typewriter – click clacking away. He was a soft-spoken man – gentle, articulate, and unfailingly polite.

Yet this was the man who tore up the rule book for young adult (YA) fiction. He did it with the 1974 publication of the “The Chocolate War” – a novel that was so radical for its time that Booklist ran an unprecedented critical review surrounded by a black border. The magazine accused Cormier of corrupting the youth of America.

Cormier’s crime? Realism.

“The Chocolate War,” which still sells tens of thousands of copies every year, featured stark language, sexual references, and a sad, discouraging ending. The novel is about teenager Jerry Renault who refuses to take part in his school’s annual chocolate sale. It’s a powerful take on conformity and moral failings. It ends with Renault taking a terrible beating from his fellow students and these chilling words:
“They tell you to do your thing but they don’t mean it. They don’t want you to do your thing, not unless it happens to be their thing, too. It’s a laugh… a fake. Don’t disturb the universe… no matter what the posters say.”
At the time, it was as if Cormier had arrived at a society garden party in his underwear, promptly kicked over the tea servings, urinated in the hydrangea bushes, and then mooned the hostess on his way out. Cormier had shattered convention at time when young adult (YA) novels were paint-by-the-numbers stories about romance, sports, and dating. And the strongest component of the YA formula was the happy ending.

Even new authors like S.E. Hinton and Paul Zindell, who were breaking new ground in the genre at the time, didn’t mess with the happy ending.

Cormier did; which is why “The Chocolate War” was number 5 on the list of the 50 most banned books in America through the 1990s.

“The Chocolate War” and Cormier’s two follow-ups, “I am the Cheese” and “After the First Death” are considered YA classics. This, despite the fact, that Cormier never had any intention of writing for teenagers.

His first book, called “Now and At the Hour,” a fictionalize account of his father’s death from cancer, was written for adults and published in 1960 to rave reviews – but the book sold poorly. His publisher tried to push him into writing an epic French-Canadian novel, but Cormier didn’t bite. Instead, he wrote “A Little Raw on Monday Mornings,” a novel about a Catholic woman debating whether to have an abortion.

Cormier had discovered that he liked small stories – rather than big ones. His next book was about an old man in a nursing home called “Take Me Where the Good Times Are.” The second and third books also didn’t sell.

For awhile, no one would touch him. Two other novels were rejected.

Then Cormier wrote “The Chocolate War.”

“I was bothered at first that it was going to be a YA novel,” Cormier told me in 1997. “I didn’t consider it a book for kids, but I trusted my agent and the publisher. I woke up one day to find out I was a young adult author and a controversial one.”

Cormier single-handedly changed YA fiction. An entire movement of realistic youth literature surged to the bookshelves – led by a man who was rejected from fighting in World War II because he was so delicate. He was a newspaperman who worked and lived in his hometown for his whole life (and even published his home phone number in one of his books).

Robert Cormier died in 2000. He was 75 years old.

Yet even six years after his death, Cormier still hasn’t received the recognition that he deserves. In fact, his work has begun a slow downward spiral into obscurity. The YA label has hurt Cormier and doomed his books to the teenage section of bookstores (in the same section as the Hardy Boys). As a result, he gets a cold shoulder from critics and literature pundits.

“The Chocolate War” deserves to be elevated up with other classics focused on coming of age – books that avoided the YA label simply because the genre didn’t exist when they were published -- such as “Catcher in the Rye,” “A Separate Peace” and even “Lord of the Flies.”

It’s time for literary circles to honor Cormier as a daring writer – a trailblazer and a man who changed an entire genre – for the better.

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