Marilyn E. Marlow, Curtis Brown, Ltd.
Most of Robert Cormier's fans were first aware of his writing with the publication and subsequent reviews of The Chocolate War in 1974. I go back before that--three adult novels before that. Bob and I started together. Now and at the Hour was the first novel he published and the first novel that I as a beginning agent ever sold. From my viewpoint, it was a wonderful relationship--42 years of admiration on my part and a special friendship with a gentle, kind, generous, always complex man.
I sold two more adult novels of Bob's, A Little Raw on Monday Morning in 1962 and Take Me Where the Good Times Are in 1964. And while both were reviewed well, it was the arrival of the fourth which would mark Bob's true entry into the world of literary elite: The Chocolate War.
The title was there from the first and I loved it (and later had to fight to keep it when the editor wanted to change it because his marketing department thought it sounded too young). I thought the novel a tour de force. I wrote to Bob, "The Chocolate War is really one of the most overwhelming manuscripts I've read. I also think it's your best. Having said that, I really don't know how it's going to go in the publishing world. It is virtually unrelenting in its force." I went on to say that I didn't know if it would be accepted in the young people's market, but I felt it was closer to a young adult novel, a genre then in its infancy. It seemed to be in the tradition of A Separate Peace, Lord of the Flies, Catcher in the Rye, but they were published as adult novels, and whether it be adult or young adult, Bob was not interested in being labeled.
I tried five children's lists, starting with Ursula Nordstrom at Harper, but while the rejections were generous, particularly Ursula's, who thought it was wonderful but too violent, there were no sales. I also tried two adult editors, and again admiration but no offer. Then I thought of Fabio C n at Pantheon, and Fabio saw it as I did and history was born. Fabio in due course sent it to Ron Buehl at Dell who at the time was doing the few important novels around in paper. Once again, Ron saw it at once, and paid a handsome sum for that period.
From his first YA novel--forgive me, Bob, for the label--Bob never wrote differently for the younger reader, nothing was diluted, no condescension was permitted or even thought of.
Bob's view of youth, in the words of a British conferee, was unflinching and full of compassion, often brutal and always uncompromising in his depiction of the individual struggling in the face of power, corruption, victimization, betrayal and conspiracy. And, his readers responded to that total honesty and regarded him as a friend.
Craig Virden, Random House Children's Books
I met Bob in the spring of 1975, when I was working for Marilyn Marlow. The Chocolate War had been published the year before and while I'd read Catcher in the Rye, there certainly never had been anything quite like Bob's book in libraries and bookstores in 1965 when I was in the eighth grade. Somewhere, I remember a voice asking, "You can do that in a book for kids?"
Of course, as it turned out, he could do that, and more. Having been one of the founding fathers of realistic literature for teenagers, he became, de facto, one of the first and most enduring targets of challenges to his work. He was an indefatigable defender of First Amendment rights of kids, of all of us.
My last conversation with Bob was in mid-October. He clearly didn't feel well and what he told me about his condition didn't sound very promising. But, we had a jolly talk and he told me he was just about to start his last tinker with a new manuscript. I asked about Connie and the kids. They were fine, Bob said, and taking turns visiting him in the hospital in Boston, a place he definitely did not want to be. He asked about my wife and kids, and especially our son, our Peck's bad boy whose exploits Bob always found more amusing than his mother and I do. I reminded Bob that Sam had just begun his freshman year at an all boys' Roman Catholic prep school. He laughed and said, "Oh, God, Craig, you aren't going to make him sell the chocolates, are you?" I told him we hadn't had an order form and so I guess we were off the hook.
I'm sorry I didn't get to tell him that the order form finally came. We'd have had a good laugh over that.
Karen Wojtyla, Delacorte Press
Several years after we met, Bob and I began working together on a novel that was a tough one for both of us, Tenderness. The title, of course, is one of masterful irony--tenderness is not a word one associates with a Cormier novel. It was fascinating to work with a writer who could so unflinchingly examine the dark and brutal corners of the human psyche. Bob was intrigued by moral dilemmas, by the choices that shape the individual soul--and, as he once put it, he was "addicted to ambiguity." He refused to compromise the truth of his characters or sentimentalize anything.
I loved working with Bob. I never dreaded a phone call from him, even if I was pretty certain he wasn't going to be best pleased with something I had to say. We would discuss anything, from the novel's overall structure to the smallest detail. He loved the details. He was a wordsmith, a craftsman of language, using all his tools to shape the flow of every sentence, every paragraph, every chapter. I had to be on my t s when I suggested a change, because nothing, often down to the placement of a comma, was not thought out by him. He told me that Hemingway's novels had inspired him as a young man to think that he, too, could become a writer, because in Hemingway he discovered that you didn't need to use a lot of fancy three or four-syllable words to be a great writer. The language he knew, the language of Leominster, would do.
Susan P. Bloom, Simmons College
I knew the extraordinary Robert Cormier in my capacity as director of the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons College in Boston. Over the course of my tenure at Simmons, I was to invite Bob to become a presence at every summer institute we held, beginning biennially in the summer of 1985. Bob never said no to an invitation; we teased that I ceased to even ask him--I told him the date, and I knew he would be there. He will be there still. Bob had already committed himself to be a part of the summer institute of 2001, titled "Brave New Worlds."
Who could better represent a theme which carries with it the excitement and the promise of a future. "Oh Brave new world," says Shakespeare's Miranda, "that has such people in it." She was enamored of a world peopled with her newly beloved Ferdinand and his recently discovered shipmates. Bob will always be that beloved person who signals the best of the future just as he embodied that which was best, most decent and honorable in the past.
Michael Cadnum, Author
My wife and I first met Bob at Simmons College. He and I participated in a dialogue before the eager, dedicated students of the Simmons Institute, and afterward I was able to learn from Bob some aspects of novel writing that I doubt he was entirely aware of teaching me.
Like other rare people of character Bob clarified matters by his very presence. Bob's manner to a younger writer was one of matter-of-fact graciousness, of intellectual hospitality. He discussed the problems writers face in the down-to-earth, casually high-minded way that was pure nourishment.
I have heard the word grim to categorize such novels as Tenderness and Her s, but we all realize that this d s not begin to assess the integrity of the creative act that scratched these characters out of the blank page and gave them life. In Her s, a character returns from the battlefields of European war so disfigured he has no face. But, of course, such a troubled character d s have a countenance. It is the face of his author, lost within the apparition of his own creation, true to the psyche and heartbeat of the war-galled soldier he has brought to life.
Bob remarks several times in his letters to me that he has many correspondents, other letters to write, people out there in the world who read his work and responded vividly to it. It was plain to me that Bob felt he owed his readers continuing acts of kindness, and this is a stirring example, I believe, to every one of us.
George Nicholson, Sterling Lord Literistic
Robert Cormier's landscape of the mind was influenced by the symbols of his childhood, which filled his work with the literal, the porches and balconies of Leominster, Mass., and the parish church of St. Cecelia. His Catholicism, like Graham Greene's, became part of the fabric of his art. Redemption, joy and faith all reached a full flowering in Bob's life, replacing the guilts and uncertainties of a childhood's religion.
He was a man of great charity as exemplified in his deep love of his family and home and the town where he lived all his life. His support of those who worked with him was as constant as his support of new writers. He could always be found at meetings and conventions listening intently to writers who sought him out. His gradual and modest acceptance of his work as a writer grew from his increasing recognition that the life of an adolescent in its maelstrom of emotion was as fit a dramatic subject in literature as the Wars of Kings was to Shakespeare.
Bob did not slide into the world of the YA easily or entirely willingly, but he came to recognize that in those brief teen years came the pattern for adulthood. And he was determined that his readers have that swift shock of recognition even when adults missed his goal. I think he became deeply proud of his work. He loved the recognition his work brought him, but he turned that understanding of his aims into work that became deeper and more nuanced as the years went on. I only hope that his later work will be taught as lovingly as is his first novel.
People have often said to me "How can such a gentle, modest man write such dark novels?" For Bob perhaps his audience and his novels are one. Auden notes, in the conclusion to his p m Childhood, lines that seem to be the essence of Robert Cormier's work and the art of his life: "A storm of tears in a corner, are these the seeds of a new life?"
Michael Cart, Author and Booklist columnist
The recent death of Robert Cormier left the world of young adult literature both poorer and richer. Poorer because there will be no more books from this modern master (though he left a nearly finished manuscript that may be published posthumously). And richer because in his lifetime he created a body of work so incomparable that it is impossible to imagine young-adult literature without it.
Last year when I was still traveling the country, teaching seminars in young adult literature, I began each lecture by booktalking Cormier's novel in verse, Frenchtown Summer. I did this for many reasons: first, the book lends itself beautifully to such a presentation, but moreover, I thought it was one of the most important books of 1999. I loved it as a reader for its exquisitely elegiac language, for its hauntingly simple imagery, for its emotional honesty, and for the insights it offers into Cormier's own life and art. And, of course, because it gave me a chance to tell my audiences what I believe with all of my heart, that Robert Cormier is the single most important writer in the whole history of young adult literature.
What he desired to express in his work came as naturally as breathing to him: sincerity and absolute honesty in his expression of ideas and emotions. But, nevertheless, as a writer, he was also tough-minded and rigorous in his thematic development and his convictions about young adult literature.
It is ironic that Jerry Renault's final words in The Chocolate War are, "Don't disturb the universe." For his creator, Robert Cormier, did dare to disturb the universe, and for the world of young adult literature, that has made all the difference.