November 2003

Chris Zammarelli

banned bookslut

Even When You Win, You Lose

Robert Cormier died three weeks after a North Carolina school board determined his book The Chocolate War was appropriate reading for ninth-graders, despite the objections of concerned parents.

I'm not saying the battle over the book killed him. I'm just pointing out that he was fighting for his book pretty much until the day he died. Cormier frequently became personally involved with challenges to his work, even though he indicated to Herbert Foerstel in an interview for the latter's book Banned in the U.S.A. that he hated having to do so. "I wrote them," he said. "Why should I have to defend them?"

As tired as he was of the battles, he didn't stop fighting the war. However, he often felt that the victories were pyrrhic. He pointed out that often, when a book was restored to reading lists or libraries, it would have a special content advisory attached to it, making anyone who wanted to read it get parental permission first.

The Chocolate War is widely regarded as a landmark of adolescent literature, although Cormier himself thought of it as an adult novel about high school students. The story follows Jerry as he refuses to participate in a chocolate sale organized by his high school's gang, The Vigils. Led by Archie, they make Jerry's life a living hell, taunting him and getting him beat up. The book ends with him fighting with one of the Vigil members in a fight and left with a broken jaw and internal injuries. He concludes he never should have stood up to the gang, who are unrepentant over what they did.

The Virginia-based organization Parents Against Bad Books In Schools (PABBIS), founded to challenge books they feel in appropriate for children to be reading in class, lays out fairly succinctly why The Chocolate War was the fourth most challenged book in the 1990s. Firstly, they count up the amount of profanity used in the novel, although they point out they lost count of how many times "Jesus", "Christ," and "hell" were used.

Of course, if they think that's bad, they should probably eavesdrop on some frosh at a mall sometime.

They also decry the frequent references to masturbation and sexual thought, as well as the violence perpetrated on Jerry. Many parents have also criticized the book's world view, with the hero savagely beaten and telling his only friend during his ordeal, "Don't disturb the universe."

Making matters worse, a number of opponents to The Chocolate War took sections of the novel out of context, if they even bothered to read it at all. As Franklin Hall, the pastor at Bethel Baptist Church in Virginia, said, "I don't have to dig down into a trash can to know it's garbage."

Cormier argued to Foerstel that his novel "[reflected] on the world as it is, not as we wish it to be." He also felt that challenging books like his should be read in class, "where, under the guidance of a teacher, the book can be discussed and evaluated." He also felt if a student wanted to refuse to read the book, that was the student's prerogative, but it shouldn't be left up to outside forces to decide what all kids should be allowed to read in schools.

As is often the case with controversial books, the irony is as the controversy over The Chocolate War grew, so did Cormier's book sales, with roughly a million sold since it came out. Not bad, considering one of the publishers he brought the novel to offered him extra money if he changed the ending of the book. The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
Laure Leaf
ISBN: 0440944597 272 pages