An acting headmaster at Trinity, a private Catholic prep school, goes too far with his ambitions when he forces students to sell twice as many boxes of chocolate at twice the price in an annual school sale; he enlists Archie and the other members of a school group called The Vigils to achieve his selfish goals. Archie becomes seduced by his newly-crowned authority when he forbids fellow member, Jerry, from selling any chocolate for ten days. Jerry submits to the will of the group, but then persists in his refusal to sell even after the ten days have passed; an act that threatens the Vigils’ ability to control the student body. The headmaster then authorizes the group to vilify Jerry through a campaign of vandalism and harassment.
Referred to as “Watergate at the high school level” by attendees of the National Council of Teachers of English during a 1975 convention, at its core The Chocolate War (1974) is a brilliantly-crafted novel that focuses on the issues of conformity and the use of coercion to enforce cultural norms. A New York Times Book Review stated that “Mr. Cormier is almost unique in his powerful integration of the personal, political, and moral.” However, 30 years later, it has become one of the top ten most-challenged books of the 21st century for sexual content, offensive language, and violence.
In January, 2000, parents in Lancaster, Massachusetts, wanted the book removed from classrooms because of its profanity. Maura O\’Connor, a teacher for six years before starting at Lancaster, said the book “fit well” into her curriculum of using literature to study what happens when people abuse power; it also tied-in to the school\’s recent efforts to address a bullying problem.
The Chocolate War resonated with the students because it involved characters their age that were realistic and relatable. While the sexual content wasn\’t discussed, students did talk about the language. Most discussions centered on being willing to break from what\’s popular, and the consequences thereof.
“I do get tired of it,” author Robert Cormier said in an interview with the Associated Press. “I wrote the book. In a way, I feel, \’Why should I have to explain it?\’ (But) I realize you\’ve got to stand up for some things.”
Cormier died that November at the age of 75; but the challengers to his books didn’t take a grieving period in the wake of the famed author’s death, as every year since has brought more challenges and public debates.
In 2001, it was challenged in York County, Virginia, for sexually explicit language. Retained as optional reading for middle school students in Girard, Pennsylvania in spite of a grandmother who found the book offensive and didn’t want her granddaughter- or anyone else- reading it. It was also challenged at a Lisbon, Ohio, board of education meeting as \”pornography\” and removed from high school English classes.
2002 brought more challenges for profanity, masturbation, and sexual fantasy, along with “segments denigrating to girls.”
A group I\’ve mentioned before, Parents Against Bad Books in Schools, challenged it in 2003 in Fairfax, Virginia, school libraries for “profanity, descriptions of drug abuse, sexually explicit conduct, and torture.”
2004-2005 challenges echoed issues with its sexual content, offensive language, being unsuited to intended age group, violence, and for its perceived religious viewpoint.
In 2006, the book was challenged at King Philip Middle School in West Hartford, Connecticut, when the parents of an eighth grader thought the book was unsuitable for students. That same year it was challenged in Wake County, North Carolina, schools by parents who received support of the ban from Called2Action, a Christian group that says its mission is to “promote and defend our shared family and social values.” The problem with that is that they aren’t “defending” their values, they’re forcing them on everyone else; but I digress…
They take the Young Adult novel, written about teenagers for teenagers, to task over scenes and references to masturbation, wet dreams, swearing, and for “portraying the Catholic Church in a bad way” through its use of characters who employ psychological warfare, manipulation, and apathy about their actions to achieve their goals of power and control.
Oh, by the way, to those who think the book was written specifically as a rant against the Catholic Church, take note that Cormier- who attended a private Catholic school himself- was inspired to write the book after his son refused to sell candy at his Catholic school in Fitchburg.
In 2008 it was initially removed from a Harford County, Maryland, high school curriculum due to “vulgar language,” thus overshadowing its anti-bullying message. Ironically, it was challenged as optional reading in a bullying unit at a Lake Oswego, Oregon, junior high school because the novel is “peppered with profanities, ranging from derogatory slang terms to sexual encounters, and violence.” In the Coeur d\’Alene, Idaho School District – a hotbed for book banning it would seem- parents say the book, along with 5 other titles I\’ve covered, should require parental permission for students to read them.
It was also challenged as required reading for seventh grade students at the John H. Kinzie Elementary School in Chicago, Illinois, and at the Northridge School District in Johnstown, Ohio, because “if these books were a movie, they would be rated R.”
Much like members of the fictional Vigils, those who seek to remove this book to suit their own selfish goals and views through hateful rhetoric and fearmongering are the real-world bullies who abuse power to impose their intellectual will on the masses, regardless of whether those masses agree or not. It is the worst form of bullying that extends beyond the playgrounds of youth to inflict damage on wisdom and reason, which are the tools of mature adults who have long since made peace with their childhood memories and behaviors. When these pundits of tyranny spread their hate it just goes to show that while we all may grow old, we don’t all necessarily grow up.
For more information on the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project and the complete list of titles covered, please visit the official website at http://www.deepforestproductions.com/BBARK.html
Sources: American Library Association, Wikipedia, Time, Associated Press, Marshall University
© 2012 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions