This month Celia Rees reflects on the influence of an uncompromising American writer for teens . . .

My choice would be American writer Robert Cormier.

He inspired me to write for teenagers (Young Adults as they are now known). I first encountered his work in the 1980s when I was teaching English in a comprehensive school in Coventry and, like all English teachers, then and now, I was concerned about my students reading (or not). In my Department, we had class libraries which we chose ourselves and I was looking for titles that my students would like, that they would actually want to read. My Head of Department was a big Cormier fan and he gave me a copy of The Chocolate War. I thought it was amazing. I went on to read Robert Cormier’s other titles, I Am the Cheese and After the First Death and found them just as good. These books were not easy on any level, but my students loved them as much as some adults hated them.

The books were uncompromising, even shocking. The Chocolate War is still one of the most frequently challenged books in American Libraries. Cormier deals with sex, loneliness, mental health issues, violence and brutality, not as ‘issues’, but as part of the everyday reality of adolescent life. These are uncomfortable reads: the language accurately reflects how teenagers speak, the characters’ internal dialogues can be disturbing. The narrative structure is equally uncompromising: complex, fragmented, even experimental. Cormier is a writer who draws readers in and then challenges them, again and again.

I like and admire his work just as much now as I did when I first read him, and his books still have relevance: The Chocolate War is told in the context of individual and institutional bullying; I Am the Cheese explores isolation and mental breakdown; After the First Death deals with terrorism.

Robert Cormier could have been a successful writer for adults, but he chose to write for young adults instead because he believed they should have their own literature: an accurate reflection of their world that was not filtered through the lens of what might or might be deemed ‘acceptable’, presented in complex narrative forms which challenge the teen reader, but also award him or her real respect. There’s ‘no talking down to’ here.

He taught me to be honest and not to compromise.

I knew that this was what I wanted to do. This was how I wanted to write. He taught me to be honest and not to compromise. From him, I learnt that you can make the narrative structure as complex as you like as long as you are telling a powerful, fast-paced story that won’t let the reader go.

If you’ve never read Robert Cormier, you should begin with The Chocolate War. 

* Header image: photograph of Robert Cormier Wikipedia CC


Celia Rees has written over twenty books for teenagers, and has become a leading writer for Young Adults with an international reputation. She has written in different genres, from gritty realism to historical fiction, ghost stories and horror. She says, ‘I like to write what teenagers like to read.’ Her books have been translated into 28 languages and she has been shortlisted for the Guardian, Whitbread and W.H. Smith Children’s Book Awards. Her books have won awards in the UK, USA, France and Italy. Her latest book, Glass Town Wars, is a compelling fantasy combining the fascinating world created by the young Brontës with 21st-century gaming to create a unique, enormous and dark contemporary thriller, has been nominated for several UK national awards.

Celia lives in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire and divides her time between writing, talking to readers in schools and libraries, reviewing and teaching creative writing. She has been a regular tutor on Arvon courses. She has been Chair of the Society of Authors Children’s Writers’ and Illustrators’ Group (CWIG) and is currently a member of the Society of Authors’ Management Committee.

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