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Chocolate War author battles effort to ban book

The Associated Press

06.14.00

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BOSTON — Robert Cormier has been defending his book The Chocolate War almost since the day it was published 26 years ago. But efforts to remove it from classroom shelves have never originated so close to home.

Parents in Lancaster, just next door to Cormier's native Leominster, want to strike the book from eighth-grade reading lists, saying it's inappropriate for that age group.

Now, Cormier finds himself speaking out again. "I do get tired of it," Cormier said in a telephone interview from his home 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."

The controversy began after parents learned students at Lancaster Middle School read the book in Maura O'Connor's English class in January. Some objected to profanity in the book — by one parent's count there are 171 swear words — as well as a scene about masturbation.

Tomorrow, a committee of parents, teachers and school officials will meet to discuss whether the book should be read next year.

"We're not censoring anything," said parent Myra Walker, who has a 14-year-old son in O'Connor's class. "We don't want it banned. It has merit. But not for eighth-graders."

The Chocolate War is a fictional account of what happens to a teen who refuses to sell chocolate bars for a fund-raiser at an all-boys Catholic school. He's intimidated by school administrators, harassed by fellow students and eventually brutally beaten.

Cormier, 75, was inspired to write the book after his son refused to sell candy at his private Catholic school in Fitchburg.

The novel got favorable reviews upon its 1974 release, but immediately came under fire. The book was No. 5 on a list of the 50 most frequently banned books in the nation's public libraries and schools in the 1990s, according to Herbert Foerstel's book Banned in the USA.

"I can sympathize," Cormier said of parent concerns about his novel. "I know there are sensitive kids and sensitive parents. My problem is when they want to prevent other people from reading it."

O'Connor, a six-year teaching veteran in her first year at Lancaster, said the book fit well into her curriculum, which used literature to examine what happens when people abuse power. It was also a tie-in to the school's recent efforts to address a bullying problem, she said.

The Chocolate War resonated with her students, O'Connor said, because it involved characters their age. The sexual content wasn't discussed, though students did talk about the language, O'Connor said. Most discussions centered on being willing to break from what's popular, and the consequences.

Cormier says the language and controversial scenes simply reflect how kids talk and what they think about. Without it, he said, his book would lack credibility with young readers.

"They're not looking for titillation, they're looking for validity," he said. "The language is just enough to suggest that this is the way kids talk. You don't dwell on it."

"It's not gratuitous," he added. "If it were, it wouldn't have been taught in hundreds of schools." But Walker says it's not necessary to expose kids to such language and sexual situations when they are 13 and 14 years old. She says the scenes involving sexual situations and violence have a residual effect on students.

"I think you're putting ideas in their minds," she said. Cormier said he wouldn't attend tomorrow's forum. In some ways, he added, the continuing controversy shows The Chocolate War hit its mark.

"I feel like I must have done something right," Cormier said. "There wouldn't be all these concerns about an ineffective book."

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