After the success of S.E. Hinton and The Outsiders, more authors began writing from the point of view of teenagers, young characters facing real problems and dealing with them in realistic ways. Authors like Robert Lipsyte, Paul Zindel, Richard Peck, Norma Klein, M.E. Kerr and Norma and Harry Mazer, according to librarian and essayist Patty Campbell, “took up the challenge of writing novels about serious adolescent realities without succumbing to didacticism”. But the next book that revolutionized the genre was written by Robert Comier. The Chocolate War, published in 1974, was only about two hundred pages, but it had a lasting impact on the young adult genre and the young adults who read it. The Chocolate War revolutionized the genre through its stark realism and its message that not every story has a happy ending.
The Chocolate War is the story of a teenager named Jerry Renault. Jerry refuses to sell chocolates in his school’s annual fundraiser and deals with the ramifications of his decision. In his own way, he challenges the accepted order of things in his school, and his actions mirror the quotation he has taped in his locker from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which says, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” Jerry’s classmates, though at first they view him as a hero, eventually react to his decision in incredibly hostile ways and pressure him heavily to sell the chocolates. But Jerry refuses to give in. Cormier describes the profound alienation and isolation Jerry experiences from his classmates as he continues to refuse to sell the chocolates by saying, “Cities fell. Earth opened. Planets tilted. Stars plummeted. And the awful silence.”
Jerry’s story is an old one, the story of the underdog confronting the complacency and confines of society and refusing to stick to the status quo. However, unlike most underdog stories, The Chocolate War has a very different ending. During a boxing match, Jerry is brutally beaten, and the fight is described in graphic detail. At the end of the fight Jerry, drifting in and out of consciousness, tells his one friend, “They tell you to do your thing but they don’t mean it. They don’t want you to do your thing, not unless it happens to be their thing, too. It’s a laugh, Goober, a fake. Don’t disturb the universe, Goober, no matter what the posters say.” Jerry loses the fight, and loses the chocolate war. That is how the book ends.
Just as Jerry disturbs the traditions and regular practices at his school, the dark tone of Cormier’s novel and the shocking ending disturbed the young adult genre as a whole. Michael Cart writes that Robert Cormier “single-handedly turned the genre in a dramatic new direction by having the courage to write a novel of unprecedented thematic weight and substance for young adults, one that dared to disturb the comfortable universe of both adolescents and adults… by boldly acknowledging that not all endings of novels and real lives are happy ones.” While realism had been predominant in the genre up until this point, the ending of The Chocolate War pushed realism even further in young adult literature. Until 1974, protagonists for the most part were guaranteed at least some semblance of a happy ending, but Cormier’s novel made even this uncertain, as it is in real life. Patty Campbell writes regarding the lasting impact of The Chocolate War on the genre that it was “not a single anomaly, but the beginning of a body of work, and other writers were freed to follow their own vision, wherever it led.”