Robert Edmund Cormier
Died: November 2, 2000
Robert Cormier was born on January 17, 1925, in Leominster, MA. Lucien Joseph and Irma Margaret (Collins) Cormier had eight children. Robert was their second. Lucien was a factory worker. They lived in French Hill, the French-Canadian section of Leominster, in a triple-decker. Like many families during the Depression, Cormier's family moved many times during his life but never out of French Hill. They moved frequently in order to afford rent during the Depression, and they also moved as the family grew. Even when he moved out on his own, he never lived farther than three miles from the house he was born in.
Robert attended a private catholic school, St. Cecilia's Parochial School. His experiences at the school shaped his life in a few different ways. He first wrote a poem in sixth grade; a nun encouraged him to write. That was the first time he considered being a writer. When he was in eighth grade, he could see that his family's triple-decker on Laurel St. was on fire from the classroom window. The sister would not allow him to leave and check on his family until he had recited on the rosary. Thankfully, no one was injured in the fire. This incident caused him to have some bitter feelings toward the church for many years.
Cormier attended Leominster High School and graduated as president of his senior class in 1942. In 1943-44, he attended Fitchburg State College, where he also served as president of his class.
His mother would always encourage him to write and she would read his works without criticizing unlike the teachers he shared his work with. She predicted he would be a writer. It seemed unlikely that a boy whose father was only a factory worker could become a writer, because he believed writers came only from wealthy families.
When Cormier was a freshman at Fitchburg State College, a teacher read one of his compositions and encouraged him to write another. He went home that night and wrote a short story which she read the next day. She kept it and sent it to a magazine without telling him. Six weeks later, she handed him a check for seventy-five dollars and told him that his story was going to be published.
Cormier's first job came about serendipitously; he was looking for a job with the Worcester Telegram and Gazette but instead went into the WTAG radio office which was in the same building. From 1946 to 1948 he worked at WTAG writing news briefs and advertisements.
Cormier met Constance Senay through a younger sibling who was in the same class as her. He and Constance were married in 1948. The couple had four children: Bobbie Sullivan, Peter J. Cormier, Chris Cormier Hayes, and Renee E. Wheeler. They had 10 grandchildren.
Cormier did work as a reporter for the Telegram and Gazette from 1948 to 1955; he was also a writing consultant from 1980 to 1983. He then became a reporter for the Fitchburg Sentinel (which became Fitchburg-Leominster Sentinel and Enterprise) from 1955 to 1959. From 1959 to 1966 he served as the wire editor for the paper. He became an associate editor of the paper in 1966 and held the position until 1978. In 1969, he was asked to write a human interest column. He agreed to write it under the condition that he could use a pseudonym so he would not embarrass anyone. In 1973 the column won the K. R. Thomson Newspaper Award for the best column among writers in the international group that owned the paper. So everyone found out who John Fitch IV (John Fitch was the founder of Fitchburg) was that year. The column continued to run until 1978. He continued freelance writing for the paper from 1978 until he died. He was awarded the best human interest story of the year award, chosen by the Associated Press in New England, in 1959 and 1973.
His first novel, Now and At the Hour, was published in 1960. Cormier's father had just passed away, and to deal with his father's death, Cormier began to write. He wrote about a man who has lung cancer and knows that he must be dying but tries to hide the pain that he's feeling from his family in order not to burden them. He wrote two more adult novels before he became well known as a young adult author.
Cormier became inspired to write The Chocolate War when his son Peter refused to sell chocolates for the Catholic school he attended. Cormier began to ponder the question "what if?" The book deals with peer pressure and even faculty pressure, and with the theme of the individual against society. It shows a dark side of the Catholic Church, which was probably inspired from his incident with the fire. The book was published in 1974.
The book caused a great controversy in schools because of the profanity and sexual content. While many teachers thought the book would teach valuable lessons, many parents objected to the content. Many cities banned the book. Cormier even visited a city in Massachusetts that was going to vote on banning the book.
His next novel I Am the Cheese stirred up the same controversy when it was published in 1977. I Am the Cheese was about a boy whose father testified against organized crime figures, but even new identities did not protect the family from harm. Cormier got the idea from reading about the U. S. Witness Relocation Program. Both I Am the Cheese and The Chocolate War were made into movies.
Cormier always held close ties to his town. Most of the books take place in a town called Monument, actually based on Leominster. He cared about his readers and even used his phone number in I Am the Cheese so that he could talk to the young readers. They would call and ask for Amy, the character in the book, and he would say that she was not available but that he was her father.
Cormier received many awards for his books, including the Carnegie Medal nomination, 1983, for The Bumblebee Flies Anyway; the Reader's Choice Award, 1983, for "President Cleveland, Where Are You?" which is a short story in Eight Plus One a book of nine short stories; the Margaret A. Edwards Award, from the American Library Association, 1991, for The Chocolate War, I Am the Cheese, and After First Death; and Massachusetts Author of the Year award from the Massachusetts Library Association, 1985.
On November 2, 2000, Cormier died of lung cancer at the age of 75. He left his legacy through his books. Cormier wrote powerful and disturbing novels for young adults, most of which caused controversy. His fiction analyzed the turmoil of adolescence for young people. The teen protagonist in his stories often faced difficult situations. He never compromised what he felt to be the truth in order to please the reader. He also did not like the fact that his books were intended for young adults because he did not want adults to think they were too old to read them.
- After the First Death. 1979.
- Beyond the Chocolate War. 1985.
- The Bumblebee Flies Anyway. 1983.
- The Chocolate War. 1974.
- Eight Plus One: Stories. 1980.
- Fade. 1988.
- Frenchtown Summer. 1999.
- Heroes. 1998.
- I Am the Cheese. 1977.
- I Have Words to Spend: Reflections of a Small Town Editor. 1991.
- In the Middle of the Night. 1995.
- A Little Raw on Monday Mornings. 1963.
- Now and At the Hour. 1960.
- Other Bells For Us to Ring. 1990.
- The Rag and Bone Shop. 2001.
- Take Me Where the Good Times Are. 1965.
- Tenderness. 1997.
- Tunes for Bears to Dance to. 1992.
- We All Fall Down. 1993.
- I never felt the need to go else-where for material... I love the feeling of going down-town and meeting someone I was in first-grade with...
- — Robert Cormier, in an interview, July 2000