For our March Book Club, we decided to check out two old-school novels by the late Robert Cormier, who some consider the grandfather of young adult literature. Cormier wrote novels with teen protagonists at a time when the genre was still developing. Random House has reissued paperbacks of his two classic YA books, “I am the Cheese” and “The Chocolate War,” with redesigned covers. Cormier (1925-2000) was the author of many award-winning and provocative novels for young adults. In 1991 Robert Cormier received the prestigious Margaret A. Edwards Award, honoring his lifetime contribution to writing for teens. Many thanks to Random House for sending us copies of the books to read and give away!
Adam Farmer is on a journey – he has to get to Rutterburg with a parcel for his father. But as he travels, he starts to remember the events leading up to this point, memories which are also being prised out in gruelling psychiatric interviews. What is the secret of Adam Farmer? And what will happen when he finds out?
Cara graded the book an A:
Although this book is nearly 40 years old, and is often assigned by high school English teachers, I had never read it. Knowing it was an older book with a well known story, I consciously stayed away from its page on Goodreads and any other mentions of it. I didn’t want to inadvertently stumble onto a spoiler or taint my experience with other people’s reviews. Now, having finished the book, I am glad I took those precautions. I knew nothing beyond the publisher’s synopsis, so each page was a new discovery for me, and in a book like this, I think that is important for the first read experience.
The book bounces back and forth between a teenage boy’s epic bicycle ride from Massachusetts to Vermont and his agonizing Q and A with an unidentified interrogator, presumably a psychiatrist. We don’t know when these two timelines take place in relation to each other, or if one is the cause of the other, but both are grueling. The timelines parallel each other; as significant turns occur in his bicycle ride, he recovers important memories about his life during the interview. The two converge in an unexpected and emotional ending.
It’s not often that I am completely surprised by a book. I can see why this one has enjoyed such longevity. The emotions the boy feels, the confusion and anger, the determination and love, are all so compellingly portrayed. There are anachronisms (the telephone booth – remember those!), but rather than make the book feel dated, they add to the realism of a different time. It is extremely rare nowadays that I will reread books that I have already read, I just have too many books on my TBR list, but I anticipate I WILL reread this one, it’s that good.
Sandie grades the book an B+:
There’s an underlying sense of unease as you read “I Am the Cheese” that never really subsides. There are brief respites when Adam talks about Amy, the girl he loves, or some sweet conversations he remembers having with his parents, but this isn’t an “easy” read. I had been spoiled — unknowingly — by Diana, who once mentioned the book after we were discussing something related to the plot. So at a certain point in the story, remembering that conversation made it clear that my niggling suspicion would be proven right. I apologize for being vague, but this is definitely a book you should read without any spoilers!
I will say that I was really impressed with how Cormier used the three different narrative styles in the story, from the first person present part of Adam pedaling on his bike from Massachusetts to Vermont to the third person perspective describing details of his past to the Q&A “memo” style when he’s being interviewed by someone who seems like a psychiatrist, but Adam isn’t completely sure.
I can see why some readers would be dissatisfied with “I Am the Cheese,” particularly if they are the kind of readers that crave particular outcomes or endings, but I found it clever, suspense-filled and reminiscent of a couple of my favorite films. It’s definitely worth a read!
Jerry Renault ponders the question on the poster in his locker: Do I dare disturb the universe? Refusing to sell chocolates in the annual Trinity school fund-raiser may not seem like a radical thing to do. But when Jerry challenges a secret school society called The Vigils, his defiant act turns into an all-out war. Now the only question is: Who will survive? First published in 1974, Robert Cormier’s groundbreaking novel, an unflinching portrait of corruption and cruelty, has become a modern classic.
Erin graded the book an A-:
The book Chocolate Wars, by Robert Cormier, follows Jerry, an average student at an exclusive private high school. Cormier created another world within this school in which a vicious gang, the vigils, are the law. Unlike common gangs though, the Vigils inflict mental pain on their victims, and aren’t choosy about who they target. When their attention turns to Jerry, he is eager to complete the task assigned to him, knowing that if he doesn’t complete it the Vigils will see to it that the entire school turns against him. Jerry is supposed to refuse to sell chocolates as a school fundraiser. Selling chocolates is a rite of passage at this school, and nobody refuses. After a week of refusals, the Vigils instruct Jerry to accept the responsibility of selling chocolates. Jerry considers a poster in his locker: “Do I dare disturb the universe?” and continues to refuse to sell chocolates even after the Vigils order him to do so. Cormier throws in a dirty teacher and a student body turned vicious to give this book a dramatic climax.
This book was a little bit of a downer. I appreciated the strong imagery and symbolism, as well as the artfully crafted plot. The ending was definitely not predictable. Cormier found a way to make the high school into its own little universe and I felt that he spent a long time developing each and every mentioned character. This novel was a very introspective piece that focused on the phycology of those that are in power, and those that will do anything to stay there. This book is different from anything else I have ever read, and despite my original misgivings, I ended up really enjoying this book.
Cassie graded the book a B+:
I was first introduced to Robert Cormier in high school. My freshman English teacher adored him and was always pushing us to read his books — unfortunately, she did this so obsessively that I was kinda turned off actually reading any. So while I’ve been aware of him for years, this was the first time I ever cracked a cover.
“The Chocolate War” is not the sort of story I think we’ve become accustomed to. Jerry Renault, a nothing of a freshman at a private Catholic high school, is given a secret assignment by a secret society called the Vigils — disrupt the status quo by refusing to participate in the school’s annual fundraiser. But he was only supposed to rock the boat a little, and then let it steady. Instead, Jerry continues to “disturb the universe,” to question the authority of both his teachers and the Vigils. And his attitude catches like wildfire, and soon dissent and dissatisfaction are rampant throughout the school, the spark of a rebellion beginning to take hold.
It sounds like a story of the triumph of the underdog, but if you go in expecting that sort of ending, you’re going to be disappointed. Because this book does not end the way we want. At the end of the novel, the status quo is unchanged. The corrupt have won, the underdogs are underdogs still, and the only lesson anyone has learned it to keep your head down and the boat still. Life will continue at this school as it always has. No one and nothing has changed.
Because the events of “The Chocolate War” are not meant to help the characters grow, but to help the reader grow. The end of this book is unsettling. It doesn’t sit well. It’s not supposed to. We are supposed to feel unsettled. We are supposed to feel uncomfortable. We are supposed to ask ourselves why? And if that was Cormier’s goal, he achieved it astonishingly well. It’s not a book to reread over and over, but it is a book to make you think.
Amanda graded the book a B:
Cormier has the ability to add complex and thought provoking layers to the stories he tells. The Chocolate War is no exception.
The story starts out with Jerry Renault, joining the Vigils, a secret peer group at Trinity School for boys. Upon joining, he must complete a hazing ritual of sorts by going against school culture and saying “No” to selling chocolates for 10 days. After 10 days, he is expected to stop refusing and begin to sell. But does he?
The story continues to unfold with bullying and peer pressure, not on with Jerry, but as a repeated series of events. The author shows us the intricacies and horrors of extreme peer control through social and psychological manipulation tactics.
Cormier brought attention to the issues of bullying and gangs to the forefront of his reader’s minds and did it masterfully with multiple layers.
While I realize this book is an important young adult lit book and has been a topic for many censorship debates, this book is not one of my favorites. Maybe because of my discomfort or my inability to relate, I did not enjoy this story, however, it was well written and a story that has repeatedly revisited my thought process.
Diana graded the book a B-:
” The Chocolate War” is set in a Catholic boy’s school called Trinity. Trinity has many traditions which have never been challenged. A secret society, called The Vigils, runs the student body behind the scenes. Although The Vigils is supposedly a “secret” society everyone knows about them including the teachers who usually look the other way.
So, when freshman Jerry Renault is told to resist the school’s traditional annual chocolate sale for ten days it causes problems until everyone realized it’s just an assignment from The Vigils and will soon come to an end. However, for reasons that he himself doesn’t full understand, Jerry continues to refuse the chocolate sale. As a result, his life becomes the brunt of much harassment.
Included in the story are a tyrannical headmaster, bullies, violence and mob-mentality. Cormier has stated that the school is a metaphor for the world and the characters represent the types of people that everyone encounters in their lives. For this reason, it’s a good book to read. However, it’s not a “feel-good” kind of book and many of the characters can be hard to relate to.
To win one of two packages containing both paperbacks, simply leave a comment and let us know why you want to read Cormier’s classics! We’ll choose two random winners on Tuesday, April 8, so leave your comment by 11:59PM on April 7. Because we are sending physical copies, we can only offer this giveaway to readers with a domestic address.