My older daughter recently pulled a book from a literal suitcase-full that I gave her a year ago to read through at her leisure. Every once in a while I find these books strewn about the house in various states of being read, this particular book I found in the bathroom. A strange wave of nostalgia tickled my brain as I studied the cover illustration – it was the same one I would have seen when I was her age and it made me sort of snicker at how dated it now looked.
But it was lying back-cover-up with a collection of blurbs from reviews. Normally I treat blurbs just as any self-respecting teen does – by ignoring them completely – but this time the wording caught my eye funny.
The action is well crafted, well timed, suspenseful; complex ideas develop and unfold with clarity. ~ The New York Times.
First thing that snared me was the almost total condescension in suggesting that a book aimed at a teen audience was actually notable for its pacing, suspense, and complex themes, delivered with clarity. It suggests a sort of pristine marble palazzo being erected in the deserts of the Wild West, the book as paragon of something greater than its surroundings. The fact that this observation is delivered by the Paper of Record suggests that this is no namby-pamby hyperbole, this is the real deal, an anointment from the Intellectual East.
Mature young readers will respect the uncompromising ending. ~ Kirkus Review (starred)
It’s hard not to make a parallel with a classic Life cereal commercial here, the one with Mikey where the boys won’t eat the cereal because it’s supposed to be good for you. So they give it to Mikey noting “He won’t eat it. He hates everything. He likes it! Hey, Mikey!” Substitute Kirkus, the notoriously cranky journal, for Mikey. Okay, so that doesn’t read like the most ringing endorsement, but what it says is illuminating. Like a modern-day spoiler, the phrase “uncompromising ending” is the same as saying “no happy endings here, deal with it.”
This next one cracks me up.
Close enough to the reality of the tribal world of adolescence to make one squirm. ~ Best Sellers
I have no idea what Best Sellers is or was, but I love that they have an expert on staff reviewing YA literature so intimate with the world of adolescence to be both familiar with its tribal nature and to know it well enough to squirm with recognition. Does anyone know, did Rex Reed moonlight as a YA book reviewer?
A brilliant novel. ~ Children’s Book Review Service
These people don’t monkey around. They know what they’ve got and they aren’t afraid to tell the rest of the world what they should think about it. Of course, if the book were anything less than brilliant there’d be no point in saying so, certainly not on the book’s back cover. No, this blurb was placed in this spot for one reason alone: to underscore what the previous blurbs were trying to say, if they only could.
Unique in its uncompromising portrait of human cruelty and conformity. ~ School Library Journal (starred)
Sadly, the publishers went one review too far here. They could have gone out on an up note, like a huge Broadway finale, but instead chose one last moritat from some Brechtian cabaret to end the blurb parade. The word “uncompromising” returns, suggesting this should be taken as a warning. Literally without compromise, only this time not simply the ending of the book but more specifically its portrait of human cruelty and conformity.
I’m sure that if I read that when I was fifteen or sixteen I’d have gone “Huh? What the heck does that even mean?” And not in the way that would make me want to open the book and find out.
Here, then, we have perhaps the Urtext for all YA reviews and the blueprint for all that is wrong with blurbing books intended for younger audiences. I know I’ve said this countless times before, and will do so until one day the magnetic polarity of the planet shifts and people in publishing finally get it:
Kids. Don’t. Care. About. Blurbs.
Granted, a large number of books are purchased by adults who might be swayed by blurbs, but those who do are either librarians who would have gotten this information from the source, or are parents who couldn’t be bothered to actually read a book for young people and are thus easy prey to hand-picked blurbs. A kid picks up a book and they want to know what the story’s about and whether to dedicate their time to it. They aren’t going to find that out by reading what some faceless, nameless reviewers said about the book from some review in some journal they have never even heard of before.
That said, look again at how seriously these reviewers took this book. Among the bestsellers of YA today would the NYT note how well it is crafted, or the complexity of its ideas, or the clarity of its storytelling? Would a book be noted, positively I might add, for its portrait of human cruelty? Is there a title out there right now ringing with such tribal verisimilitude that it would make a reviewer squirm?
Or have we just chucked it all and decided that what matters is whether its entertaining enough to retain the adult market that has become the lifeline to YA sales lately?
As pompous and back-handed as these blurbs seem in retrospect, I admire the fact that the reviewers held this book up to the same rigorous standards of adult fiction and literature, that they took the book seriously and gave it a fair shake. Though the book was never turned into a blockbuster motion picture, or spawned a national trend, the book remains in print thirty-six years later, a testament to its author’s craft.
Masterfully structured and rich in theme
says the New York Times again, this time in a blurb above the book’s title. Then, between the blurb and the title, a bit of marketing to make up for the staid illustration on the cover that conveys nothing about the book itself:
A compelling combination of Lord of the Flies and A Separate Peace.
Finally comes the book’s title:
The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier.