Young Jerry Renault just wants to be a part of the school. He wants to be on the football team, make friends, and be one of the guys, but when an annual fundraiser comes around to sell chocolates, he is roped in my a secret society of boys that control the school behind the scenes.
Set in a fictional all boys Catholic school, the story follows this secret organization that manipulates the student body to the point of creating a mob against Jerry. Full of realistic high school characters and the teacher all students love to hate, Robert Cormier pushes the boundaries on young adult fiction earning his novel a place on the ALA’s “Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books in 2000-2009.”
For Banned Books Week this year I decided to revisit To Kill a Mockingbird and find a book I had not previously read. Going through the exhaustively long lists of challenged books by year, I kept coming across The Chocolate War and thought there must be a reason why this book was challenged time and time again. Always a fan of dipping into young adult fiction from time to time, I looked up the book at my local library and found it available for checkout.
So I dived in.
Let me start by saying, this is definitely the type of young adult fiction that appeals more to young adults than anyone else. There are some young adult novels that I find enjoying and get sucked into just like any other book, but this was not one of them. The dialogue was almost trying too hard to appeal to teenagers at some points. It was like the friend we all had growing up whose parent just tried a little too hard to be “cool” and more of a friend than a boring parent.
With that said, I did not see too much of why this book would be challenged so often. Yes, there were a couple of scenes that insinuated one of the boys was masturbating and even a scene where a boy was “caught” masturbating in the school bathroom, but let’s be honest here. High school boys do masturbate, so challenging this novel solely based on that fact is just some teacher being uncomfortable with and everyday occurrence and sexuality in general.
Then there is this whole secret society, The Vigils, that run the school. Everyone knows they run the school, including the teachers, but no one speaks of them aloud. It is like the “He Who Shall Not Be Named” of groups, but I found it unrealistic. I went to private school, obviously not an all boys one, and to even remotely consider that there was a group of students calling all of the shots was unbelievable. It seemed more fictional that it was most likely intended to be and I just wasn’t buying it, but, again, this is the young adult appeal. Wouldn’t we all like to think as teenagers that we were in control of our school more than the adults were? Sorry guys, not happening.
Now, it may seem that I am dumping a lot of negatives onto this book than necessary, especially considering I gave it 2 stars on Goodreads.
For me, this book was just characteristic of the genre and it just didn’t speak to me. Now, if my oldest were to read it, he might love it, but I could be wrong there too. If he were assigned this book, would I stop him from reading it? Absolutely not! Because it does address parts of growing up that sometimes we need to hear from someone other than our parents when we are teenagers. Jerry wants to fit in. He wants to be liked and be a part of the school, even if that means doing what The Vigils tell him to do. But somewhere along the line, Jerry finds himself and realizes that he doesn’t have to do what they tell him to do in order to be liked. Yes, he gets some grief from the student body and The Vigils all but create a witch hunt at one point, but he also gets support, albeit secret, from some students that understand his actions. This is one of those lessons that we all learn the hard way at some point: It is okay to be yourself and fight for what you believe in, even if that means going against the crowd and swimming upstream alone.
The chapters were short and sweet and I did enjoy some of the flashbacks to high school life, but I probably would appreciate it more if I were: #1 male and #2 in high school.
So this book wasn’t a total flop. I can understand why it would be assigned to a high school class, but it just wasn’t one of those books that can be read as an adult and truly appreciated. I can, however, check it off of my list of banned books that I have read.
Now… for a novel more my taste…