The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier

17 May

2000 edition, Random House, ISBN 978-0-440-94459-1

Plot Summary: Still reeling from his mother’s death, Jeremy Renault starts high school at the private Trinity School as a freshmen. Trinity’s secret society, The Vigils, targets him for an “assignment” – to refuse to sell chocolates for the first week of the school chocolate sale. After the week is up, Jeremy continues to refuse to sell the chocolates, taking a stand for himself. The Vigils, quietly sanctioned by the school’s principal, Brother Leon, begins a campaign of bullying and harassment in order to save face and force Jeremy to comply. In 1985, Cormier published a sequel, Beyond the Chocolate War.

Critical EvaluationThe Chocolate War is an often brutal book in its depictions of psychological and physical abuse. Jeremy and his friends endure their assignments from the vigils and all the guilt that comes with the consequences of their actions. Archie, the Vigil who creates the “assignments”, is unsettling in his cold ability to dole out punishment to students and antagonistic to his teachers. We never get any reasons why he is the way he is – he simply is. The most fleshed out character here is Jeremy, because he is the focal point of the book. His grief over his mother, his frustration with his distant father, and the derision he endures day after day in school can be difficult to read, but Cormier creates a respect for Jeremy by his sheer force of will. Although originally published in 1974, the book’s themes are just as relevant today.

Reviews: School Library Journal (starred review): “The characterization of the boys are superb. …This novel [is] unique in its uncomprimising portrait of human cruelty and conformity.”
Kirkus Reviews: “Vicious and vilent mob cruelty in a boys’ prep school is not a new theme but Cormier makes it compellingly immediate… Readers will respect the uncomprimising ending.”
Awards: Number three on the American Library Association’s (ALA) Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books in 2000-2009; ALA Best Book for Young Adults; School Library Journal Best Book of the Year; Kirkus Reviews Choice; New York Times Outstanding Book of the Year; Margaret A. Edwards Award.
Author Information: Robert Cormier was a YA author and journalist who preferred to write about the harsher realities in life, as seen in his more famous books, The Chocolate War, I Am the Cheese,and The Cheese Stands Alone. He passed away in 2000, but the Internet Public LIbrary has a link to a biography and interview with him from 1996. 
Reader’s Annotation: When the school chocolate sale comes to Trinity Prep, Jeremy Renault knows he must take a stand for what he believes in.
Genre: Classics. Subgenres: Realistic fiction, bullying, abuse, grief/loss.
Booktalking Ideas: How many times has a candy sale, a chocolate sale or a plant sale come to your school? Do you feel pressure to sell these things for your school? Do you ever wish you could say “No,” like Jeremy did? And what would happen if you did?
Reading Level/Interest Age: 14+
Challenge Issues/Defense: Abuse, bullying, abuse of power by religious authorities, references to masturbation. Defense: This is a book on bullying and depicts realistic portrayals of teenage boys. It creates a scenario that many teens can relate to – a chocolate sale at schoool – and how school support of such sales could go haywire.
Why did you include this book in the titles you selected?
This was one of my favorite books as a teen, and I wanted to revisit it to see how it held up.

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