Do I dare disturb the universe?*
When Jerry lies broken at the end of The Chocolate War, I sobbed. I raged against a world that was so unfair – and I knew no one else understood those feelings but me. “It’s not fair, he tried to change things,” I choked out to the dismay of my father who thought Jerry was someone at my school. Being rather unique among parents, he borrowed the book; impressed that fiction could make me so emotional. His judgment – Cormier was writing about a broken world, post Vietnam – with authority at its nadir. OK, I had gotten bullies, and cowards and discovered TS Eliot. Thus was the impact of a book often heralded as the first and best of the YA (young adult) genre.
One of the most challenged books of the past several decades, Robert Cormier’s masterful little novel tells the story of a boy, a young man named Jerome Renault (Jerry), a freshman, newly motherless (she died off page/pre-book). Within the insular framework of a Catholic prep school, Jerry discovers he can neither trust his fellow classmates, nor the indifferent and/or malevolent administration. Asked by the popular “gang” to disrupt the annual fundraising, hence the chocolate of the title, he acquiesces. As he continues, his refusal stops being funny to either the administration he was tweaking or the gang who has lost their power over him. He feels the Eliot quote, “do I dare disturb the universe?” It fuels his dissatisfaction with the random cruelties all around him. Debased, mocked, and finally beaten – he concedes. The innocent will not better the world.
Horrifying, yes? Yet, that wasn’t the reason for its myriad of challenges. Those included the gang, the bullies, the beatings, the homophobic rumors and the fact he masturbates – heavens, no teen could relate to those issues ever! Hmmm. Who knew that books about alienated teens facing issues in a real world would become so vital to literature, to literacy and to discussions of formerly taboo topics. Indeed, The Chocolate War chairs an ever-growing list of teen novels, most issue driven, challenged for suitability. Ellen Hopkins’ searing exploration of crystal meth addiction (Crank), Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, about a teen’s rape and the aftermath are just a couple of examples of frank examinations of real teen traumas couched in fiction and subject to challenges based on sex, drugs, and rock & roll (sometimes). As a reader, I got Jerry – I understood how out of place he was, how much he wanted to belong. His defeat by indifferent reality made me cry and vow that would never happen. Ms. Callaghan, my beloved elementary school librarian (most amazing librarian ever, sorry Nancy Pearl), had referred The Chocolate War. “Why? Didn’t you know how it ended….”?
Of course, she did. She explained that in the experiences of Jerry, and the other books she suggested – kids, some more or less like me, lived life, faced questions and negotiated compromise with the world. Their successes, failures and attitudes could offer me more instruction that a million, “just say no,” or “abstinence makes the heart grow fonder” campaigns ever could. Isn’t that the most incredibly refreshing attitude? Needless to say, Ms. Callaghan and my Daddy made it rather difficult to fathom how anyone could say a book should never be read!
Of course, parenting tested that theory as it did so many other certainties. I never forbade books – though some, we had “mother-daughter” rules. Both of us would read whatever “controversial,” or inappropriate book and discuss anything that caused qualms. I was a little “judgey-pants” (daughter word) about books like the Twilight saga or the Clique series. There were lots and lots of conversations over those volumes about strong women and consumer-appearance driven society!!!
- Ugly (Roomie) — youTube artist who does a terrific treatment of “take me as who I am”
- Fight the Power (Isley Brothers) — a little wayback — but it gets the point across
- I Stand (Idina Menzel) — incredible voice — one of my favorites of her non Broadway career
- Seize the Day (Newsies soundtrack) — movie & hit Broadway musical about striking paperboys — how much more underdog
- Keep Mediocrity at Bay (Van Morrison) — I love that he identifies the “mediocre” as the villain
- Yes We Can Can (Harry Connick) — his concept love letter to NO, the song argues that equality works.
- Rehumanize Yourself (the Police) — remember not being able to play this track in certain circles
- Rise up with Fists! (Jenny Lewis the Watson twins) — love her passion
- Into the Great Wide Open (Tom Petty) — a YA novel in 6/8 time
- Just Like That (Kieran Kane) — neat little “Pogo-esque” take on history
- Authority Song (John Mellencamp) — sunroof open, no one for miles around — steam blown off
- You Can’t Always Get What you Want (Rolling Stones) — works for books, for teens, for moms… Army girl favorite
- The Obscenity Prayer (Rodney Crowell) — all the “gimmes” that talk about about the thoughtless life
- Standing outside the Fire (Garth Brooks) — older song, fantastically earnest
- Stand Up (Mike Tompkins) — another youTuber — famous for his well-done covers, singing about equality
- Keep Your Eyes Wide Open (AnnaSophia Robb) — from the soundtrack to another oft-banned book, Bridge to Terabithia — it speaks to dreaming, seeing and believing in everything!
*The quote is from TS Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”… I found the poem shortly after I read the book – though my call came a few lines before Jerry’s:
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions…