The Chocolate War was written and published in 1974 by American author Robert Cormier (1925-2000). Cormier is most famous for this novel and another called I Am the Cheese. Mmm, chocolate and cheese… tasty. The Chocolate War tells the story of Jerry Renault, a freshman at Trinity, an all-boys Catholic high school. As Jerry quickly learns, Trinity is a dangerous place.
Trinity is especially dangerous for Jerry when he just says "No"… to selling chocolates for the school. Seriously. His "No!" gets him in trouble with The Vigils, an underground student group that controls the other kids at school with mafia-style tactics. Jerry's stand against selling chocolate also gets him trouble with Brother Leon, the Voldemort-esque schoolmaster.
Before The Chocolate War, Cormier published a couple of adult novels, which didn't make much of a splash. With this book, he really found his audience, and went on to publish over a dozen young adult books. His dark portrayals of teen life get lots of love from critics, teachers, and teens alike.
Of course, not everybody is a fan. The Chocolate War is one of the most frequently banned books in recent history (source). It still comes under fire for "adult" language, frequent sexual references, and violence… just like our favorite videogames. People also trash-talk it because they think it gives Catholic school, and school in general, a bad rap.
Cormier got kind of tired of defending the book, but he continued to do so throughout his life. He argued that teens aren't "looking for titillation, they're looking for validity. […] The language is just enough to suggest that this is the way kids talk. You don't dwell on it" (source). Sex, violence, and the occasional evil teacher are part of teens' real lives, and Cormier wasn't going to pretend otherwise.
To create the novel, Cormier drew on his own high school experiences in Leominster, Massachusetts, where he lived all his life. Apparently, he remembered his days of teen angst well. We caught him bragging in an interview. He said, "It's not as if I sit at the typewriter and say, 'How does a kid feel?' I know how a kid feels" (source). In case he forgot, his son, Peter, could remind him. In fact, the direct inspiration for the novel came from Peter, who refused to participate in a candy sale at his Catholic high school.
So, does Cormier really get teens? Do his characters talk in a believable way, like he argued? Is high school really this bad? Check out the book, and see what you think.
We don't need no education
We don't need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone
Hey! Teachers! Leave them kids alone!
All in all it's just another brick in the wall.
All in all you're just another brick in the wall.
Oh! Hey there. We were just listening to Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall, Part II," album The Wall. Too bad it didn't come out a few years earlier, like, say, 1974 when The Chocolate War was published. We think Jerry (our hero) and the guys at Trinity high school might have liked it. The song totally makes us think of the novel's villainous Brother Leon, who tortures kids with his sarcasm, manipulation, and his teacher's pointer at every turn.
Which brings us to why you might care about The Chocolate War. Maybe you've had some teachers like the kind Pink Floyd sings about in this and other songs. The Chocolate War shows how hard this is on students (as if you didn't already know), but also what this type of school situation teaches the students experiencing it. According to this novel, it teaches things like how to use violence, intimidation, and manipulation. It turns kids against each other and creates a really sick overall environment.
But, you probably already knew that. The important thing about this novel is that somebody (our hero Jerry) tries to change things by saying "No," by refusing to go along and do what he's told. Not to give anything away, but this doesn't work out all that well for him. The novel leaves it to us, the readers, to decide whether taking a stand is worth it.
Before we go, let's get one thing straight. The Chocolate War probably isn't going to make you feel all warm and fuzzy. It's looking at some pretty dark stuff, and doesn't present any easy solutions. So if you are looking for a book that will make you think, and which realistically looks at how hard it can be to change a corrupt system, this will probably be right up your alley.
Now, go listen to Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and don't forget to do your homework.