The following introduction to The Chocolate War was written by Robert Cormier in 1997.
The Chocolate War was written during weekday evening hours and Saturday mornings in parts of 1969, 1970, and 1971 while I was working full-time as a newspaper editor and columnist.
Writing the novel was a labor of love. Although the setting was a Catholic boys’ high school, I regarded the school as a metaphor for the world. On the other hand, I knew that, on its primary level, this was a story about a school chocolate sale. Who would be interested in reading such a story? I sometimes wondered. Yet I was having such a good time as the words leaped and danced on the page and the characters of Jerry Renault, Archie Costello, and Brother Leon came alive that I didn’t worry about it.
It seems incredible to me that more than two decades later, The Chocolate War continues to be read and taught (and to cause problems) in classrooms here in the United States and in such places as England, Australia, Sweden, France, and Japan, among others.
Yet the novel was almost stillborn and existed for more than a year in a kind of literary no-man’s-land. Seven major publishers rejected it over the course of thirteen months in 1972 and 1973. The reasons? Too complicated. Too many characters. A downbeat ending, which teenagers of the 1970s would find difficult to accept. Too violent. Not quite an adult novel, too sophisticated to be a juvenile novel. Too unbelievable. That frustrating “Not for us,” without further comment. One publisher, however, seriously considered accepting it if some changes were made, particularly to the ending.
I decided not to change or revise the novel. This was not a heroic gesture but an act of innocence. I knew nothing of the young adult market, was unaware of its then traditions and taboos, the domination of “safe” stories with role-model heroes walking off into the sunset of happy endings.
Although The Chocolate War does not have that hoped-for happy ending, its history has had happy moments and its share of heroes.
My son, Peter, inspired the novel when he refused, as a matter of principle, to sell the chocolates at his school’s annual sale.
Marilyn E. Marlow, my literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd., supported my decision against revisions and insisted that the novel, as written, would find its place in the world of young adult literature, convinced that the young adult market was entering a period of change, heralded by the earlier appearances of S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and Paul Zindel’s The Pigman.
Finally, Fabio Coen, then publisher of Books for Young Readers at Pantheon Books and Knopf, the eighth publisher to whom the book was submitted, accepted it for publication in April of 1973.
I worried about revisions. Needlessly, as it turned out. At a brief “editing session” at Fabio Coen’s office, his suggestions were few and minor, scrawled on a single sheet of paper. But he was doubtful about a short chapter toward the end of the novel.
Astonished, I realized it was a chapter I had agonized about earlier, actually removing it at one time, then reinstating it. I had found an editor who shared my instincts and my intentions. The chapter was removed. Otherwise, the novel was published essentially as I wrote it, in April of 1974. Fabio Coen became my mentor and remained so until his retirement several books later.
The success of The Chocolate War is testimony to all the other heroes involved in its history–teachers who have taught the book in the face of censorship attempts that sometimes threatened their jobs; librarians who have had to fight to keep the novel available to readers; critics, writers, and educators who supported the novel in countless reviews and essays; all the young people who continue to write me letters, who call me up, who organize protests when the book faces yet another banning threat; Pantheon Books, followed by Knopf and Dell Laurel-Leaf, who have kept the book in continuous print in hardback and softcover.
Talk about happy endings!
Leominster, Massachusetts, 1997