Monday, October 11, 2010

The Chocolate War War

Saucy Wench has been reading this blog off and on since we met at Yale this past summer. She mentioned her own experience with book banning in a comment here during Banned Books Week. I asked her if she would write a guest post about her battle with censorship over Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War and am pleased to say she agreed.



I started my first year of teaching at a small school district eager to make a difference in the world. Armed with my degree and pure enthusiasm, I entered my literature classroom certain I would ignite a passion for reading in at least one student. One way in which I planned to accomplish this goal was by introducing students to several literary selections I encountered in my YA literature class in college, most of which I never knew about during my own high school career, an injustice served to me that I would not allow my students to suffer. Over the course of the school year we read selections from Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and both Maus I and II, to name a few. My favorite novel from the college course was The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier, and I planned for it to be the pinnacle selection of my first year.


Upon the approval of my department chair and the students’ parents, who received a rationale for the novel and an alternative read if they preferred their child not read The Chocolate War, I quickly set to work teaching students about the evils of hazing and bullying as demonstrated in Cormier’s classic. (I must note that only one student out of nearly 125 read the alternative selection, which was Oliver Twist.) Our stimulating analysis came to a screeching halt one afternoon when a colleague, a history teacher, raised objection to the novel’s mention of masturbation and use of vulgar language, and requested that the principal investigate the matter. What followed was a 3-month battle for which college training had not prepared me.

The social studies teacher took his crusade to the congregation of his church and the editorial section of the local paper. “Students are being tarnished,” he claimed when he mounted his case that the novel be banned from the school’s library and classroom use. Early in the fight, before my name had leaked to the community, the pastor of my own church prayed from the pulpit for my conscience. Weekly editorials chastised my methods, my values, my character. Colleagues looked at me skeptically during faculty meetings. Parents avoided me at sporting events. Needless to say, it was disheartening and alienating. However, while the community united against the words in a book, I gathered my resources and prepared my defense.

Armed with nearly 100 documents—samples of student work, rationales for teaching the novel, articles about banned books, and a letter of recommendation from my university professor—I entered the April meeting of the school board certain I would exit it triumphant. For several grueling hours the board members listened to petitions both in support and in condemnation of The Chocolate War (and me, for that matter). When the smoke cleared, the board decided not to ban The Chocolate War from the library or the classroom, but the scars of that experience could not be ignored. After some personal reflection, I decided to leave that district for other teaching pursuits several states away. While I felt accomplished in my instruction that year, I worried that for the rest of the time I spent in that district, I would be viewed as “the teacher of that book” instead of for my true teaching ability. I would not allow my identity as a teacher to be tainted by the narrow-minded ideology of those afraid of words on a page.

Several moths later I had the opportunity to meet Robert Cormier at a literature conference. One of my most prized possessions is a novel he signed for me.


Saucy Wench continues to fight the good fight as a high school  English teacher.  She blogs about teaching, literature and life at Saucy Wench's Words.

10 comments:

Kate said...

I went to high school in rural PA, and [Nerd Alert] I was on the Reading Team. Chocolate War was one of the books I read for our trivia competitions with other schools. I had no clue 15 years ago that the book was controversial. It's only been the past year that I've been blogging about books that I realized how many truly great books have been challenged and banned. It's good to know that there are teachers out there willing to try to reach kids, and not willing to shy away from the controversial books.

Trisha said...

Any type of book banning disgusts me, but when it's a teacher that initiates it, it is someone more horrifying to me. Teachers, regardless of subject, should know better.

Amanda said...

This is one of those books I've heard so much about but still just haven't gotten to. One day...

Jeane said...

Like Amanda, I've always heard about this book but never read it. The fact that it's controversial and yet teachers still want to present it in the classroom only makes me think it must be a great book.

Sandy Nawrot said...

Thanks for sharing your story Saucy. It angers me and saddens me that you had to experience such a horrible event, and that you were being judged by a group of people who were probably living in glass houses. Don't blame you for getting the hell out of there.

C.B. James said...

I'll admit, I have mixed feelings about The Chocolate War. I threw it across the room when I got to the ending; I was so angry. But that is just the response the author wants you to have AND it's a major reason why people should read it. It's supposed to make you mad. Mad enough to do something.

What really makes me mad about what happened to Saucy Wench is just what Jeane points out, that the censorhip came from a fellow teacher. That makes mad angry and it proves that Mr. Cormier's depiction of human nature is spot on.

Alyce said...

Thanks for sharing your experience Saucy Wench! I haven't read this book, but reading about your experience and C.B.'s reaction, makes me really want to track down a copy.

I'm curious if you related your experience to the author when you met him. And good for you to fight the battle. I can't even imagine how stressful that must have been.

Ash said...

This is a great story. I have yet to read this book but have heard so much about it lately that I'm really intrigued.

Nicole said...

I am currently in the same situation, but its a mock trial in my college class. I am suppose to be the teacher who taught this book in her classroom while "parents" are protesting the book. Do you have any recommended material I could use to bring to the case? I have some research, but thought it would be a great source from someone who actually went through this. Thank you so much in advance. Good Luck in your next community.

Lacey said...

I am no fan of banning books, and believe strongly in giving books a try before passing judgement, but when my son was assigned this book for summer reading, I requested an alternate. There is a difference between banning a book and requiring it be read. I do not want the book banned. I do not want it be required. I read much of the book myself. I had no problem with the theme. The language and the needless sexual content is what got to me. There are plenty of other books in world. Not every book is worth reding.