The Chocolate War, first published in 1974, follows the students at a private all-male college-prep school called Trinity. Central character and freshman Jerry Renault is the book's main protagonist and someone I probably would have been good friends with in real life.
You see, throughout the book, Jerry pushes back against the school's twisted norms – a cruel and conniving teacher named Brother Leon and the (not-so) secret society known as The Vigils.
The Vigils, lead by an amoral student and natural con-man named Archie Costello, really run the school by inventing and enforcing "assignments" for other students to carry out. None of the tasks are violent in nature and originally seem like (what I would assume to be) normal teenage pranks at an all-boy school in the '70s, such as unscrewing all of the desks apart in one of the classrooms.
With the school's annual chocolate sale approaching and added pressure from Brother Leon to make the sale a success, Archie comes up with a new sinister assignment and gives it to Jerry.
Archie tells Jerry that his assignment is to not sell his required 50 boxes of chocolate – separating himself from the rest of the students and openly defying the jerk that is Brother Leon. Jerry originally carries out the assignment out of fear, because no one defies The Vigils. No one would dare openly defy Brother Leon either, which is why Archie sees this idea as one of his best.
After weeks of Jerry abstaining from the chocolate sale and infuriating Brother Leon per Archie's orders, Archie is forced into making Jerry drop the assignment and start selling his chocolate. But after seeing a change in his fellow students – and himself – by challenging authority, Jerry decides it's time to upset the universe and continue to boycott the sale on his own accord.
The reason I found this book so compelling is because it's filled with characters you love to hate. It can be hard to enjoy a book when you despise just about everyone in it, but Cormier's concise and mesmerizing writing keeps you turning the pages.
A quick and enjoyable read, The Chocolate War provides a look into what can happen when you push societal norms and boundaries. Jerry might crash and burn striving to make a difference in his mess of a world, but at least he can say he tried.
Awards for The Chocolate Year
1974 – School Library Journal Best Books of the Year
1974 – ALA Best Books for Young Adults
1974 – ALA the Best of the Best Books for Young Adults
1974 – New York Times Notable Books of the Year
I give this book:
I've officially finished reading the first assigned title for my class Library Materials for Young Adults, and let me tell you, it was a doozy! Why? Because I was completely engrossed the entire book and then the end was nothing at all how I imagined. In fact, it had almost the opposite ending I had hoped for, but I somehow still managed to thoroughly enjoy it – now there's the sign of a truly good book!
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Tessa Fox is the Early Literacy Librarian at the Kenosha Public Library. After working in the journalism and publishing fields, Tessa decided to dedicate her life to books and public librarianship, and went back to school to get her Master's in Library and Information Science from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she graduated in December 2016. Tessa has been working in public libraries since 2014. Disclaimer: The views expressed here are mine alone and do not reflect those of my employer.
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