Friday, July 25, 2008

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

This was the July selection for The Year of Reading Dangerously Challenge. I've always been curious about this book because it can be found without fail on the books most often banned or challenged list each and every year. Because I hate censorship in all of its forms, I try to read as many of these books as possible. So, I was glad to see it on this list. Censorship is a touchy subject for many people. You either feel really strongly one way or the other about the issue. Sometimes the complaints about books are just down right silly. However, there is usually some well-intentioned person or group behind most challenges. They are just misguided in their attempts. The problem with censorship is it takes away the individual's right to choose for him or herself what to read and/or view. In the case of young children, this can be a tricky thing. In my opinion, there are some things that very young children shouldn't be exposed to. However, it is not my job or anyone else's job to decide what that is for ALL children. Instead, parents or caregivers should judge what is or is not appropriate for their children. We all tend to be egocentric and assume that everyone else shares our same values, morals, and religious beliefs. But, that is simply not the case. What one parent finds highly offensive, another parent may not find offensive at all. Censorship is just a slippery slope plain and simple. The funny thing is that these attempts at banning material usually serve to heighten interest in the book or video. I really believe that this is the case with The Chocolate War. It remains in print and popular simply because of the controversy surrounding it -- not because it is great writing.

To be very honest, I expected more from this book. It is not very well-written. I know Cormier was going for a gritty tale similar to The Outsiders. But, for me it just didn't work as well. The language and story line seemed forced. As to what people may object to in the book, there is some violence and many references to masturbation. It almost seems like the author was going for shock value by purposely including these scenes instead of concentrating on writing a good story and developing well-rounded characters.

The basic story is that of Jerry Renault and his experiences at a Catholic high school. Let's face it, high school can be a pretty bad place for many kids. Jerry is bullied, beaten up and shunned because he refuses to go along with the crowd. You're always going to find this, but there was just too much of it here to be believable. Even the teachers were sadistic in this school. There were few other adults in the book and no women to speak of.

I know this book has been popular for years, and I really have to believe that it's because of all the hype, not because it's a good book. Maybe I would have felt differently if I had read this as a teen, but I don't think so. I just wasn't captured by the characters or the storyline. There are plenty of good YA novels out there, but I don't think this one belongs in the same category with A Separate Peace or Lord of the Flies. The quality shouldn't suffer because the book is written for teens. C. S. Lewis wrote a great piece entitled "On Three Ways of Writing for Children," which discusses this very subject. It was his opinion, and I agree wholeheartedly, that authors should not set out to write a story for any particular audience or age group. Instead, the author should have something to say and then use the most appropriate form available to express it. So, if that happens to be a children's story, the author writes a children's story. If not, he writes something else. But, in either case, the quality should be the same. If you've never read this essay, you should read it, especially if you're an aspiring writer.

I'm glad I finally read this one, but I don't see myself ever reading it again. It's not because I was offended by the violence or all the references to masturbation. It simply isn't a very good book.


Jessica said...

Thank you for your thoughtful review of this book. I have always been curious about it too, since it pops up on random book lists. Your review has probably saved me from this book. Thanks!

Lisa said...

jessica, I feel bad writing a negative review of the book, but I am just being honest. Of course, it doesn't mean that someone else might not love it -- but I didn't. If you'll click on the Year of Reading Dangerously button in my sidebar, you can read some other reviews of the book.

Andi said...

Ugg, I haven't been able to get through it yet. I'm SUCKING at my own challenge.

Lisa said...

andi, it goes really quickly once you get started it. But, it's just not that good. Maybe I shouldn't have read it right after Faulkner. :)