Robert Cormier is one of the fathers of contemporary young adult literature. Unlike other fiction for teenagers in the 70s and earlier, Cormier’s fiction explores taboo themes such as mental illness, abuse, masturbation, and sex. While completing my PhD in YA literature, I read I Am the Cheese, which is about mental health issues, and the first paragraph (and incidentally the last) has stayed with me:
“I am riding the bicycle and I am on Route 31 in Monument, Massachusetts, on my way to Rutterburg, Vermont, and I’m pedaling furiously because this is an old-fashioned bike, no speeds, no fenders, only the warped tires and the brakes that don’t always work and the handlebars with cracked rubber grips to steer with. A plain bike - the kind my father rode as a kid years ago. It’s cold as I pedal along, the wind like a snake slithering up my sleeves and into my jacket and my pants legs, too. But I keep pedaling, I keep pedaling.” (I Am the Cheese)
Not only is his work aimed at a YA audience, he treats his readership as the intelligent and curious beings that they are. There’s no dumbing down complex topics. Since I Am the Cheese, I’ve wanted to read more by Cormier and so the category of Banned Books in this current Book Challenge gave me the opportunity.
Set in a Catholic all boys school, it switches between characters, revealing the manipulation and bullying of certain students and staff during a chocolate fundraiser. I hated some characters and sympathised with others, but the human interactions were horribly real at times. It’s been ages for me since I was in school, but I was suddenly thrown back into the highly political and complex social hierarchy of highschool. And don’t get me started on the dreaded chocolate fundraisers!
I was lucky enough to get a spot on a 6 week exchange trip to Germany and as a group, we decided to put on a fundraiser. We had boxes of chocolate Freddo frogs and Carmello Koalas (amazing chocolates for those outside of Australia) and it was rediculous the amount of IOUs I ended up juggling. However, to make things difficult, our Vice-Principal banned us from selling the chocolates in school. Even though our exchange trip was a school sanctioned event and we were going to be representing our school in another country, he said that since the sports teams sold the chocolates for their events, he didn’t want us to affect their sales. So yeah, The Chocolate War kind of hit home for me in a way I hadn’t predicted.