Cormier, Robert 1925–2000
Cormier, Robert 1925–2000
(Robert Edmund Cormier, John Fitch, IV)
PERSONAL: Born January 17, 1925, in Leominster, MA; died of complications from a blood clot November 2, 2000, in Boston, MA; son of Lucien Joseph (a factory worker) and Irma Margaret (Collins) Cormier; married Constance B. Senay, November 6, 1948; children: Roberta Susan, P eter Jude, Christine Judith, Renee Elizabeth. Education: Attended Fitchburg State College, 1944. Religion: Roman Catholic
CAREER: Radio WTAG, Worcester, MA, writer, 1946–48; Telegram and Gazette, Worcester, reporter, 1948–55, writing consultant 1980–83; Fitchburg Sentinel (became Fitchburg-Leominster Sentinel and Enterprise), Fitch-burg, MA, reporter, 1955–59, wire editor, 1959–66, associate editor, 1966–78; freelance writer, 1978–2000. Member of board of trustees of Leominster (MA) Public Library, 1978–93.
MEMBER: L'Union St. Jean Baptiste d'Amerique, PEN.
AWARDS, HONORS: Best human interest story of the year award, Associated Press in New England, 1959 and 1973; Bread Loaf Writers' Conference fellow, 1968; best newspaper column award, K.R. Thomson Newspapers, Inc., 1974; outstanding book of the year awards, New York Times, 1974, for The Chocolate War, 1977, for I Am the Cheese, and 1 979, for After the First Death; "Best Book for Young Adults" citations, American Library Association, 1974, for The Chocolate Wa r, 1977, for I Am the Cheese, 1979, for After the First Death, and 1983, for The Bumblebee Flies Anyway; Maxi Award, Media and Methods, 1976; Doctor of Letters, Fitchburg Sta te College, 1977; Woodward School Annual Book Award, 1978, for I Am the Cheese; Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, 1979, for The Chocolate War; "Notable Children's Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies" citation, National Council for Social Studies and Children's Book Council, 1980, for Eight Plus One; Assembly on Literature for Adolescents (ALAN) Award, National Council of Teachers of English, 1982; "Best of the Best Books, 1970–1983" citations, American Library Association, for The Chocolate War, I Am the Cheese, and After the First Death; "Best Books of 1983" citation, School Library Journal, for The Bumblebee Flies Anyway; Car negie Medal nomination, 1983, for The Bumblebee Flies Anyway; Reader's Choice Award, 1983, for the Eight Plus One short story "President Cleveland, Where Are You?"; named Massachusetts Author of the Year, Massachusetts Library Association, 1985; "Honor List" citation from Horn Book, 1986, for Beyond the Chocolate War; Young Adult Services Division "Best Book for Young Adults" citation, American Library Association, 1988, for Fade; World Fantasy Award nomination, 1989, for Fade; Margaret A. Edwards Award, American Library Association, 1991, for The Chocolate War, I Am the Cheese, and After the First Death; Best Books of the Year, Publishers Weekly, 1991, finalist for Best Young Adult award, Mystery Writers of America, 1992, California Reader Medal, 1993–94, and named to Best of the Best Books, American Library Association, 1994, all for We All Fall Down; Georgia Children's Book Award nomination, 1992–93, for Other Bells for Us to Ring; finali st for Best Young Adult award, Mystery Writers of America, 1996, for In the Middle of the Night; German Catholic Book of the Year, Bishops of Germany, 1997, for Tunes for Bears to Dance To.
YOUNG ADULT NOVELS, EXCEPT AS NOTED
The Chocolate War, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1974.
I Am the Cheese, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1977.
After the First Death, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1979.
Eight Plus One (short stories), Pantheon (New York, NY), 1980.
The Bumblebee Flies Anyway, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1983.
Beyond the Chocolate War, Knopf (New York, NY), 1985.
Other Bells for Us to Ring, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1990.
We All Fall Down, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1991.
Tunes for Bears to Dance To, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1992.
In the Middle of the Night, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1995.
Tenderness, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1997.
Heroes, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1998.
Frenchtown Summer (poetry), Delacorte (New York, NY), 1999.
The Rag and Bone Shop, Delacorte (New York, NY), 2001.
Also author of The Rumple Country and In the Midst of Winter, both unpublished novels.
Now and at the Hour, Coward (New York, NY), 1960.
A Little Raw on Monday Mornings, Sheed (New York, NY), 1963.
Take Me Where the Good Times Are, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1965.
Fade, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1988.
I Have Words to Spend: Reflections of a Small-Town Editor, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1991.
Betsy Hearne and Marilyn Kay, editors, Celebrating Children's Books: Essays in Honor of Zena Sutherland, Lothrop (New York, NY), 1981.
Sixteen: Short Stories by Outstanding Writers for Young Adults, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1984.
Mark I. West, editor, Trust Your Children: Voices against Censorship in Children's Literature, Neal-Schuman (New York, NY), 1987.
Fitchburg Sentinel, author of book review column "The Sentinel Bookman," 1964–78, and of human interest column under pseudonym John Fitch IV, 1969–78; also author of monthly human interest column "1177 Main Street," for St. Anthony Messenger, 1972–82. Contributor of articles and short stories to periodicals, most under t he pseudonym John Fitch IV, including Catholic Library World, McCall's, Redbook, Saturday Evening Post, Sign, and Woman's Day.
Several of Cormier's novels have been translated into French, Spanish, Italian, Swedish, Japanese, Danish, Hungarian, German, and other languages.
ADAPTATIONS: I Am the Cheese, a motion picture adapted from Cormier's novel of the same name, was released in 1983 by the Almi Group, starring Robert Wagner, Hope Lange, Robert Macnaughton, and featuring Cormier in the role of Mr. Hertz; The Chocolate War was released as a movie of the same title by Management Company Entertainment Group in 1989, directed by Keith Gordon and starring John Glover, Ilan Mitchell-Smith, and Wally Ward. The Chocolate War, I Am the Cheese, and Tunes for Bears to Dance To were all adapted as audio books, 1993, Beyond the Chocolate Wa r, 1994; and The Rag and Bone Shop, 2002, all by Recorded Books, Inc.
SIDELIGHTS: Robert Cormier was widely acclaimed for his powerful and disturbing novels for young adult readers, though his realistic subject matter—including murder, sex, and terminal illness—at times made his work controversial. His novels, which include The Chocolate War and I Am the Cheese, often involve teenage protagonists faced with difficult, uncompromising situations. "A lot of people underestimate that intelligent teenager out there," Cormier noted in an interview for Authors and Artists for Young Adults. "These kids today, I'm talking about the sensitive, intelligent kid, are really far ahead of a lot of adults. They have been exposed to so much. Anybody who writes down to these people is making a mistake."
Cormier wrote and published three adult novels before writing The Chocolate War in 1974. Young adult readers received The Chocolate War with great enthusiasm, as they have all Cormier's young adult offerings. "Cormier seems to believe that teenagers are more idealistic today than in years past," Joe Stines observed in Dict ionary of Literary Biography, "and he affords them respect and responsibility in his writing while simultaneously awakening them to the harsh realities of life in contemporary America." Cormier did this only incidentally, though, his first and foremost intent was to tell a gripping story based on emotions, character, and plot. Cormier wro te The Chocolate War because of a true-life experience in which his son was the only person in his class to refuse to sell chocolates for a high school fund raiser, leading Cormier to ponder issues such as peer and faculty pressure and explore themes such as manipulation and what happens when an individual balks societal norms.
His other books have also been written to find answers to "what if?" questions. I Am the Cheese, for example, was written after Cormier read about the U.S. Witness Relocation Program. It tells the story of a boy whose father testified against organized crime figures, but even new identities do not protect the family from harm. News of terrorist hijackings drove Cormier to write After the First Death. So important was his need to be interested that if Cormier did not become emotionally engaged by the subject, he found himself unable to continue writing about it.
In We All Fall Down, Cormier tackles teenage violence firsthand with the story of a group of boys who vandalize a suburban home and attack a young girl. As is typical of a Cormier novel, he went on to further explore good and evil when one of the attackers falls in love with the girl's older sister. Clouding the arena further is the exis tence of a voyeur, known only as The Avenger. Nancy Vsilakis, writing for Horn Book, called the novel "a gripping page-turner," noting "The black hole down which the novelist draws the reader is both repellant and enthralling." "Most of us forget the aching awful-ness of adolescence when we become adults. It's Cormier's special b urden to remember," wrote Michael Cart in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. It was also Cormier's gift, Cart continued, "to be able to translate that memory into novels of intensity, immediacy and empathy." Citing Cormier's manipulation of the reader through "artificial" techniques, Mike Hayhoe of School Librarian admitt ed, "As an admirer of Cormier, I had an uneasy feeling that this [manipulation] sometimes moved towards the artifice of Stephen King; but I am confident that many readers will disagree strongly with me on that point!"
Cormier's 1995 novel, In the Middle of the Night, is based on a true event in which five hundred people died in a fire in an overcrowded nightclub. A busboy was initially blamed for lighting a match but was eventually exonerated. Cormier's story twists the nightclub into a cinema and the victims to children. He then picked up twenty-five years later with the usher receiving midnight phone calls from parents of the children while his sixteen-year-old son listens. "Unnerving and piercingly honest," noted Lois Metzger in the New York Times Book Review. While Elizabeth Hand in her review for Washington Post Book World called the plot "brazenly manipulative, the c haracterization unpleasant and dank," Patty Campbell, critic for Horn Book, called the tale "pure Cormier, a tight and spare construction of amazing complexity worthy of a place among his best works."
Cormier also wrote several books for a younger audience than the intended readers of The Chocolate War. Set during World War II, Other Bells for Us to Ring tells the story of eleven-year-old Darcy, who has just moved to Frenchtown, Massachusetts. In an article for Horn Book, Mary M. Burns, comparing the book to Cormier's pr evious books for older children, called it "no less thought-provoking, no less intense in its emotional impact, no less remarkable for carefully honed phrases and an unfailing sense of the right detail to convey an idea." Burns concluded her praise by calling Other Bells for Us to Ring "one of those rare and brilliant gems for all se asons and for all those who would be possessed by its honest poignancy and superb craftsmanship." Janice M. Del Negro, reviewer for School Library Journal, was less impressed. While Del Negro praised Cormier's "effective evoking" of a bygone time and place but called the characters "flat and two-dimensional."
Tunes for Bears to Dance To, published in 1992, was also aimed at younger children, although it retained Cormier's "enormous capacity for evoking the positive force of evil," as a reviewer for the Junior Bookshelf noted. Eleven-year-old Henry is the surviving child in a house where his older brother's death has traumatized his parents. After his family moves to a different home to banish these memories, Henry befriends a concentration camp survivor who spends his hours recreating the village he lived in before it was devastated by Nazis. In the Washington Post Book World, Anne Scott wrote that in the novel Cormier "stacks the deck of trouble and darkness more absolutely and less effectively than he has in his previous work." A Kirkus Reviews critic felt that the tale was "ultimately less grim" than Cormier's previous work and called it a "thought-provoking story."
Tenderness, the story of a cat-and-mouse game between a clean-cut, handsome eighteen-year-old serial killer and a veteran cop, involving a sexually precocious fifteen-year-old female runaway, is one of Cormier's darkest novels. According to a Booklist contributor "the sexual component here is far stronger than in Cormier's earli er books." Lori, a victim of sexual harassment and abuse, uses her sexuality to get what she wants; and, like Eric, the serial killer, she searches for genuine tenderness. "It is the idea of Eric's humanity that is the most disquieting aspect of the novel," maintained the critic for Booklist, adding that the killer's humanity was als o what "makes the book so seductive." A reviewer writing in Kirkus Reviews praised the "devastatingly ironic climax." A Horn Book contributor praised the style as "vintage Cormier: short pithy sentences and bends in the text that take the reader along startling paths." The reviewer also called Cormier a "master of ir ony" but lamented that "the basic premise—that there will be a serious exploration of tenderness—is unfulfilled."
Frenchtown Summer, published in 2000, is the story of a boy named Eugene, his observations on post World War II life, and his desire to connect with his father. A critic for Publishers Weekly wrote, "Eugene is a ghostly presence here, taking readers back in time and slowly mesmerizing them with his memories of coming of age." Written in verse through a series of vignettes, Cormier engaged his readers with a new writing style. Another reviewer for Publishers Weekly noted that the "novel-in-verse slowly mesmerizes." Patty Campbell for Horn Book wrote: "What an astonishment that the grandmaster of the YA novel has turned to poetry at this point in his career…. A treat for Cormier fans, and a revelation for others." "Cormier continues to demonstrate his unrivaled power to dazzle and delight his readers" commented Michael Cart for Booklist.
Cormier always maintained that he did not include explicit scenes or controversial subject matter for their market value. "All that controversial stuff, all that stuff that upsets people, is almost secondary in my mind as I write it," Cormier told to Roger Sutton in School Library Journal. "And yet there's always the qualifier the re, you know the readers are out there." Cornier went on to note that he often modified his scenes to make sure "[I] wasn't being titillating or exploitive, that I didn't make the acts sound attractive. I wanted to make them sound sordid, and I tried to make them brief. So there is that consciousness there as you're writing all the time. But again it's all bent on the altar of storytelling."
Whatever objections people have to Cormier's books, his works are commercially successful; avid fans in many countries have purchased millions of copies. "Cormier has acquired these fans," wrote Sylvia Patterson Iskander in Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, "because of his sensitive awareness about what actually o ccurs in the lives of teenagers today and his abundant talent for conveying that awareness through fiction. He has brought controversy and, simultaneously, a new dimension to the field of young-adult literature. He has earned the respect of his readers, regardless of their age, because of his refusal to compromise the truth as he sees it. His supe rb craftsmanship, his ability to create suspense and to shock the reader repeatedly, and his forcing the reader to think are all qualities which make Cormier's works entertaining, unique, and, indeed, unforgettable."
In 2001, Cormier's final novel The Rag and Bone Shop was published posthumously. The story focuses on twelve-year-old Jason who is being questioned by a detective named Trent who suspects him of murdering a young girl. As the last person to see her alive, Jason is the prime suspect. However, Trent, an expert interrogator, is more intent on w ringing out a confession from the young boy than on finding the truth. With his vast experience, Trent is able to make Jason doubt his memory and even his sense of reality. Roger Sutton, writing in Horn Book, felt that "the story elides reality too consistently and thoroughly to give its conclusion the impact it very much wants to h ave." Lori Atkins Goodson gave the book a favorable review in Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, noting, "There are no winners in this book, except for the readers, who are treated to an intense voyage with the master of young adult novels at the helm." A Publishers Weekly contributor called the book "characteristi cally dark and though-provoking" and noted that the interrogation reflected "a taut, sinister mind game." The reviewer concluded, "The chilling results of the questioning will leave an indelible mark on readers and prompt heated discussions regarding the definition of guilt and the fine line between truth and deception."
In a World and I article reviewing Cormier's life and works, J.B. Cheaney noted that Cormier's YA novels are much more than novels "full of gratuitous violence, vulgar language and sex." Cheaney went on to note, "Cormier's concerns are much larger. Too many YA authors make innocent victims of their protagonists, or reduce their ch aracters' choices to whether or not to have sex or run away from home. Cormier alerts his readers that their problems may not be entirely 'out there'; some of the darkness is within."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 3, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1990, pp. 65-76, interview with author.
Campbell, Patricia J., Presenting Robert Cormier, Twayne (Boston, MA), 1985.
Children's Literature Review, Volume 12, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1987.
Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography: Broadening Views, 1968–1988, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1989, pp. 34-51.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 17, 1980; Volume 30, 1984.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 52: American Writers for Children since 1960, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1986, pp. 107-14.
Inglis, Fred, The Promise of Happiness: Value and Meaning in Children's Fiction, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1981.
Rees, David, The Marble in the Water: Essays on Contemporary Writers of Fiction for Children and Young Adults, Horn Books (Boston, MA), 1980.
Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, 3rd edition, St. James Press (Chicago, IL), 1989.
Booklist, September 15, 1999, Michael Cart, review of Frenchtown Summer, p. 259.
Christian Science Monitor, February 10, 2000, review of Frenchtown Summer, p. 21.
English Journal, November, 1989; January, 1990; April, 1992; November, 1992.
Horn Book, March-April, 1985; May-June, 1985, pp. 289-96; March-April, 1989; November-December, 1990; November-December, 1991, p. 742; May-June, 1995, Patty Campbell, review of In the Middle of the Night, p. 365; February, 1997; September, 1999, Patty Campbell, review of French-town Summer, p. 608; November-December, 2001, R oger Sutton, review of The Rag and Bone Shop, p. 742.
Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, September, 2002, Lori Atkins Goodson, review of The Rag and Bone Shop, p. 87.
Junior Bookshelf, August, 1992, review of Tunes for Bears to Dance To, p. 161.
Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 1992, p. 1252; January 1, 1997.
Lion and the Unicorn: A Critical Journal of Children's Literature, June 12, 1988, pp. 12-18.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 27, 1991, Michael Cart, review of We All Fall Down,, p. 7.
New Statesman, April 17, 1987.
New York Times Book Review, February 12, 1989; July 16, 1995, Lois Metzger, review of In the Middle of the Night, p. 27.
Publishers Weekly, July 29, 1988; November 16, 1990, p. 57; October 25, 1991, p. 69; September 7, 1992, p. 97; July 19, 1999, review of Frenchtown Summer, p. 195; November 1, 1999, review of Frenchtown Summer, p. 57; October 15, 2001, review of The Rag and Bone Shop, p. 72.
School Librarian, August, 1992, Mike Hayhoe, review of We All Fall Down, p. 112.
School Library Journal, November, 1990; June, 1991, pp. 28-33; September, 1991, p. 277; September, 1992, p. 97; September, 1999, Edward Sullivan, review of Frenchtown Summer, p. 22.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), January 12, 1992, p. 6.
Voice of Youth Advocates, August, 1988, pp. 122-24.
Washington Post Book World, December 6, 1992, Anne Scott, review of Tunes for Bears to Dance To, p. 20; May 7, 1995.
World and I, December, 2001, J.B. Cheaney, "Teen Wars: The Young Adult Fiction of Robert Cormier," p. 256.
Boston Globe, November 3, 2000.
New York Times, November 5, 2000.