A Disturbing Master and Mentor
Robert Cormier was, and remains, the consummate master of young adult literary fiction. He was the first to show the literary world that YA novels could be not only realistic about adolescent concerns but also unflinchingly honest about the big questions like the abuse of power, the roles of courage and forgiveness and redemption, and the struggle to stay human in the face of evil. While the daring of his subjects has often drawn censorship attack, the brilliance of his writing earned him many literary prizes and places on honor lists. He was the recipient of the American Library Association's Margaret A. Edwards Award and the ALAN Award of the National Council of Teachers of English, both given for lifetime achievement in young adult literature, as well as many other honors, both national and international. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages, among them French, German, Italian, Swedish, Chinese, and Japanese, and three of his novels were made into motion pictures.
The publication in 1974 of Cormier's first YA novel, The Chocolate War, initiated a new level of literary excellence in the fledgling genre of young adult fiction and also unleashed a storm of controversy about the darkness and hard truth-saying of his work that continues to this day. The stunned critical reception of The Chocolate War led to the realization that fiction for teens could be great literature, and eventually made possible the recognition of the young adult novel by the literary establishment with such honors as the National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, as well as the American Library Association's Michael L. Printz Award. Consequently the door was opened for many other young adult writers to find their own way to honesty and excellence.
Noted critic and author Michael Cart says, "As a writer of young adult novels, Robert Cormier is without peer. He is, simply, the single most important writer in a field that is made distinguished by his contributions to it."1 Throughout the twenty-six years of his time as a young adult author Cormier continued to raise the stakes as to what could be said in a book for teens and how it could be said. He repeatedly surprised his readers with the originality of each new novel, while maintaining a continuity of recognizable style and themes that came to be called "Cormieresque"--short, cinematic scenes, taut dialogue, a deceptively straightforward story undergirded by intricate structure and layers of tricky allusion and metaphor, an intense focus on the emotion of the situation, doubling and parallels, an ironic interactivity with the reader that has only recently been recognized as postmodern, and a dark awareness of evil as an implacable obstacle in human affairs. But the crucial point about his importance in the development of young adult literature is that by being faithful to his vision, he freed other writers to follow their own. His work has inspired and given courage to many of the other greats in the field.
Contemporary YA writers have been quick to pay him tribute for that example:
Chris Crutcher offers heartfelt homage: "It's as simple as this . . . had there been no Bob Cormier . . . there certainly would be no Chris Crutcher."2
Chris Lynch, author of many powerful YA novels such as Iceman and Freewill, has credited Cormier with providing an epiphany in his own work: "I Am the Cheese was without question the most important YA title in my development as a writer. It was the book that made me say, 'Hot damn, you can do that? You can write a story that raw and real without translating it for the reader?' I cannot tell you how liberating that was for me."3
Gail Giles, whose Shattering Glass critics have related to The Chocolate War, says simply, "He's the master. That's all there is."4
Virginia Euwer Wolff, a National Book Award winner for True Believer, also credits Cormier with her own genesis as a writer: "I probably wouldn't be writing today if I hadn't read The Chocolate War, which had to live in the back of my mind for at least a decade before I put fingers to keyboard to try my own YA fiction. What a gift he was to our field, what a consciousness."5
Cormier was not only a literary example but also a counselor and friend to many young writers at the beginnings of their careers. Michael Cadnum, who nowadays writes unusual YA historical novels but whose early realistic titles like Calling Home were often referred to as Cormieresque, remembers that "Bob's manner to a younger writer was one of matter-of-fact graciousness, of intellectual hospitality. . . . No writer could meet Bob and feel that his life, and his relationship with his profession, was anything but gilded by the contact. We come away from this author and friend, and from his work, with a renewed faith in life. We have been told that we matter."6
Cormier's editors, too, were aware of his stature from the first. George Nicholson, who published several of his books for Delacorte Press, remembers that when Cormier's first novels appeared, "all of us who were editors in this [then] new thing called YA saw that here was a level of achievement that we had to go out and fill."7
One can measure Robert Cormier's influence on young adult literature by tracing the position his works hold in the history of the genre--what came before and after his groundbreaking books. The prototype of the form is, of course, J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, a book Cormier admired. In Catcher we first hear that self-absorbed, angry, and touchingly vulnerable voice of the One True Outsider and see the adult world through his limited but judgmental perception, a point of view that became definitive for the form. Published in 1951, it was more than a decade ahead of its time. As Cormier himself has observed, if it had appeared later it would undoubtedly have been categorized as a young adult novel. But in the fifties, and for most of the sixties, fiction written for teens was a very different matter. Saccharine, heavily didactic, and careful to avoid taboo subjects, these "junior novels" dealt with trivial adolescent concerns like boyfriends and the senior prom, with an all-wise adult on hand to straighten things out in the end.
In the magic year of 1967 young adult literature was born with the publication of S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders, a tale of gang warfare and social class that captured something real. In the same year Robert Lipsyte's The Contender appeared, and the next year saw the publication of Paul Zindel's The Pigman. Critics soon began to see a pattern, to refer to this group of novels as the New Realism, but for the next five years there were actually very few books in the wake of these that fit that pattern squarely. Although several other writers of this so-called New Realism in the YA canon were already at work--Richard Peck, M. E. Kerr, Harry and Norma Fox Mazer, Norma Klein--almost none of their books from this early period have survived as memorable.
Subgenres began to emerge during this period: Ann Head's Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones, an indisputably YA novel although published as an adult book, was followed by Zindel's My Darling, My Hamburger in 1969, and then by a trail of novels and nonfiction books about the dangers of teen sex and pregnancy. With the encouragement of publishers, new African American writers like Rosa Guy, Sharon Bell Mathis, June Jordan, and Alice Childress based young adult novels on the problems of growing up black in America. And John Donovan, Isabelle Holland, and Lynn Hall started a trend with stories of gay teens who suffered for their sexual identity.
Then The Chocolate War burst on the scene in 1974, and Robert Cormier, as Michael Cart has said, put the literature in young adult literature.8 At first no one knew what to do with this astonishing and infuriating book. Almost immediately, though, a few YA writers were inspired to reach higher. The very next year S. E. Hinton wrote what some critics feel is her most literary book, the strangely mythic Rumblefish; Richard Peck tackled some serious social issues in Representing Super Doll; M. E. Kerr looked hard at religious hypocrisy in Is That You, Miss Blue?; and Judy Blume caught the nation's attention with her wise and realistic depiction of young love and sex in Forever. When I Am the Cheese was published three years later, in 1977, it became apparent that The Chocolate War was not an anomaly but the beginning of an unprecedented body of work for teens by an extraordinary writer. It was obvious that the genre was here to stay, and with Cormier's example there were almost no limits to how high it could fly.
Although Cormier had originally been surprised to find that he was writing YA novels, he felt warmly welcomed to that fellowship: "I was caught up in a world illuminated by intelligence, wit, and enthusiasm, was introduced to the works of wonderful writers like Norma Klein . . . Robert Lipsyte . . . and M. E. Kerr. . . . These and other writers I would read with such pleasure in the years ahead made me realize I had joined a caravan of stunningly talented people."9
Critics and students continue to evaluate and comment on Cormier's writing today because his work is timeless. Cormier's greatness lies in his universality, his focus not just on adolescent concerns but also on the basic moral and spiritual issues of the larger human condition--something that never truly changes.
When Cormier died, there was an outpouring of tribute, not only from writers, editors, and dignitaries of the literary world but also from teachers, librarians, parents, and teens who had been touched and changed by an encounter with Cormier or his books. Perhaps the one he would have liked best was the "Bouquet for Bob" published in Voice of Youth Advocates, a magazine aimed at young adult librarians and their teen readers. This collection of short personal testimonials expresses love and gratitude in many voices.
The most stunning flower from this bouquet, and one that epitomizes Cormier's effect on troubled teens, is a double tribute from a mother and daughter. Kelly Milner Halls tells of her concern for her teenage daughter Kerry, who was failing at school and "carving her arms like a block of cheddar" in her anger at the world. Her mother remembers "Kerry was not a reader. She said all YA books were 'stupid.' " But Kelly, a professional book reviewer, began to search for a book that would let her daughter know she was not alone, and found it in Tenderness. "She swallowed it whole--read it in two days."
Kerry found the validation she needed in Cormier's book. Her mom had said, " 'This one is gonna make you think, kid,' and man, was she right," says Kerry. "Robert Cormier understood what it felt like to be on the outside. And he knew that even 'bad' kids were human. That meant a lot to me, because at the time, a lot of teachers seemed to think I was 'bad.' It may sound strange, but I always felt Robert Cormier could see me when he wrote. Maybe he didn't know me--but he knew kids like me."10
This respect and admiration between Cormier and his young readers is memorialized in the Robert Cormier Center for Young Adults at his own Leominster Public Library. The lively teen room and book discussion sessions noisily presided over by young adult librarian Diane Sanabria were close to Cormier's heart, and he often "just happened to drop in" when they were talking about one of his novels. After his death, a new center was proposed in his memory, and Sanabria and the town jumped at the chance to make it a real tribute to Leominster's most famous citizen. There were new bookshelves and tables and chairs, new paint, a brilliant neon sign of Cormier's signature. The art club at the high school created a long mural showing a young Cormier at his typewriter, his stories moving across the wall in collage and acrylic. A maxim inscribed on the wall and chosen by the teens was taken from one of Cormier's newspaper columns:
Never believe the people who tell you that dreams don't come true. Don't pay attention to those who say that it's not worth the trouble and nobody cares and why try and there must be a catch somewhere. Don't succumb to the philosophy that says it can't happen here, the odds are too high, and it's much too late and why take the risk, because they might laugh if you fail. But the people who count don't laugh. And if you don't fail, they cheer.11
It is often said that Robert Cormier, like Jerry Renault in The Chocolate War, dared to disturb his own universe, the universe of young adult literature--but he also illuminated it with the light of simple goodness. Michael Cart sees his influence pointing on into the future: "We need to encourage a new generation of young adult writers to follow the risk-taking and transformative example of Robert Cormier, who single-handedly changed young adult literature forever when he 'set free the subject of despair.' I'm not sure that 'despair' is quite the right word, though. What Cormier really set free was the acknowledgment of the very real presence of evil in young lives. . . . Cormier took his . . . readers into the heart of darkness and turned the lights on there--showing them, and us, a place that, until he tested the boundaries, had been securely off-limits."12
1. Introduction to "Probing the Dark Cellars of a Young Adult Writer's Heart," Frances Clark Sayers Lecture, University of California, Los Angeles, 1999.
2. "A Bouquet for Bob," Voice of Youth Advocates, February 2001, 390.
3. Fraustino, Lisa Rowe, "The Age of Cheese: Readers Respond to Cormier," in The Phoenix Award of the Children's Literature Association 1995-1999, edited by Alethea Helbig and Agnes Perkins, Lanham, MD, Scarecrow Press, 2001, 115.
4. Campbell, Patty, "Shattering Glass: A Reader's Guide," New Milford, CT, Roaring Brook Press, 2002.
5. Wolff, Virginia Euwer, e-mail to the author January 9, 2002.
6. "Robert Cormier Remembered," Publishers Weekly, January 1, 2001, 28.
7. Glick, Andrea, "Robert Cormier Dead at 75," School Library Journal online, December 1, 2000.
8. Cart, Michael, "Carte Blanche," Booklist, November 15, 2002, 587.
9. Cormier, Robert, "The Gradual Education of a YA Novelist," introduction to Twentieth-Century Young Adult Writers, Farmington Hills, MI, St. James Press, edited by Laura Standley Berger, 1994.
10. Halls, Kelly Milner, e-mail to the author, November 18, 2003.
11. Cormier, Robert, "The Cheers Were Like an Embrace," (And So On . . . , John Fitch IV column), Fitchburg-Leominster Sentinel and Enterprise, May 10, 1983, B2.
12. Cart, Michael, From Romance to Realism: 50 Years of Growth and Change in Young Adult Literature, New York, HarperCollins, 1996, 270.From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from Robert Cormier: Daring to Disturb the Universe by Patty Campbell. Copyright © 2006 by Patricia Campbell. Excerpted by permission of Delacorte Books for Young Readers, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.