My Stories, My Identities: Reflections on Experiences as a Reader of Robert Cormier’s Novels

courtesy of Random House: of Random House: of Random House:

Robert LeBlanc is a Ph.D. candidate in literature at the University of Rhode Island. His dissertation research focuses on notions of publicness and subjectivity in Christian leftist texts. He has taught writing and literature courses at the college level.

I suppose I became an active reader at a fairly young age, and I remember looking out for interesting books at school or at the local public library. During my first few years as a reader, my interests were normal ones for a young boy in the 1980s: dinosaurs, baseball, cars. I would read or leaf through a few children’s reference books about cars or the American Revolution or the Red Sox, and then after a few weeks it was onto another topic to read about.

At a certain point this habit of reading took a turn toward stories. I began to realize that I liked some stories for themselves, independently of what topics and settings were featured in their pages. If the story was told with a certain rawness or intensity, if the words really leapt off the page and begged me to read on toward the conclusion, then I could enjoy reading a story just for its own sake.

In the fifth grade, I began to devour a wide range of young adult novels and short stories. I was enjoying—in a secondhand, readerly way—the experiences that different narratives brought to life, and I also started to develop a real appreciation for writers with a daring style. Some writers avoided the typical plots and worn-out phrases and went right for those moments of odd insight that would bring me back to certain passages again and again.

Even after I had raced through certain books, I would turn back to my favorite descriptions and stylistic flourishes within their chapters to marvel at the way the words reached out across the gap of communication to strike me with an almost physical force.

Readers who grew up as part of my generation will remember that the young adult market was at a saturation point in the late 80s and early 90s. Many classic YA novels that had defined the genre in the 60s and 70s were still in print or at least sitting on the classroom bookshelves, and new writers were churning out novels at a rapid pace.

I began to drift toward the novels of a particularly daring writer, one whose works (according to my teachers) even challenged their labeling as young adult fiction in their increasing experimentation with postmodernist form and controversial content. This writer, Robert Cormier, also fascinated me because I learned that he was born in my hometown: Leominster, Massachusetts.

As I started to read voraciously through Cormier’s books, the puzzle pieces all began falling into place. But the mystery that I was unraveling seemed to exist beyond the world of the stories themselves, and I increasingly came to find that Cormier’s books had a role to play in the formation of my own identity.

I began reading to listen closely to what these books said to me, almost feeling that I had found an endlessly fascinating conversation partner as well as a favorite author. His novels challenged me to think critically about my roles in society, to face tough ethical questions head-on without flinching or retreating from the call to speak out on behalf of those who are forgotten and wronged.

I began to love his novels not only for the mysteries of their plots, but also for the opportunities to redefine my identity that each novel presented. Through all of this, I continued to marvel at Cormier’s postmodernist yearnings beyond the confinement of the printed page. These stylistic gestures screamed out to the reader with urgent social messages, but also with the provocative suggestion that good writing, though necessary in our times, was only a frustratingly partial act. For a text to be successful, good readers would need to find themselves in the pages of a text and actively take up the causes that it proposed.

My encounter with Cormier’s novels as an adolescent shaped my identity as an engaged citizen and also impacted my eventual professional identity as a writing instructor. I try to encourage my students to view the act of writing as a call toward ideal readers, toward those who will see a piece of themselves in a text and latch onto that text, offering it their open minds, their critical faculties, and sometimes their nods of understanding.

I still believe that the exchanges between readers and writers in the quiet space of the page can be moments of identity formation that linger in our memories with surprising power.


7 thoughts on “My Stories, My Identities: Reflections on Experiences as a Reader of Robert Cormier’s Novels

  1. “I still believe that the exchanges between readers and writers in the quiet space of the page can be moments of identity formation that linger in our memories with surprising power.” I agree, Robert. It is as if, as readers, we enter into a conversation with the writer and with the characters in the story. And, as you suggest, if we are fortunate, we locate ourselves in that environment. For a moment at least, we discover ourselves. We are home.

  2. Memories of reading as a young adult and reading/being read to as a child remain very vivid for me. The stories that I encountered then certainly helped to shape both who I am and my perception of who I am and want to be. And, as you say, reading is an interaction rather than information feeding one way off the page and into our minds.

  3. I find this a fascinating post — I only wish I knew Cormier’s work. I will look for it when I’m next in my library.

    For myself, I’m trying to think of a writer I felt this way about as a YA reader — an author who gave me opportunities to redefine my identity and who brought to my attention the lives of those who have been forgotten or wronged. But I’m afraid that as a young reader I wasn’t daring or exploratory. I wonder if I am, even now. Your post challenges me seek for more than the pleasurable novels I like to lose myself in.

    It’s a relief to find a post that focuses on one writer and is refreshingly specific.

    I’m on my way to the library now. Thank you.

  4. Thanks Bob, Beth, and Tam, for your responses. I’m always fascinated by the exchange between writer and reader. This exchange can be profoundly moving for us as readers while also spanning miles and generations that separate us from the texts we read. I’m reminded here of Cormier’s I Am the Cheese (pictured above), a book in which one of the character’s phone numbers is listed in full. Instead of using a fake number, Cormier chose to use his actual phone number in the text, and many of his readers called it up over the years out of curiosity and were startled to find out he was on the other end of the line. It’s fascinating to me how writers can really ask us questions and engage us through the printed word.

  5. Robert,
    Cormier’s books are an important gateway to the life of the adoescent mind. He’s not easy for my junior high students to grasp. Even harder for their parents, which of course helps students delve further into the books. There is a direct link between their own disenfranchised feelings and Adam’s in I Am the Cheese. And they can connect what they see in the Bourne tales after reading I Am the Cheese. Thanks for your words and your work.

  6. As the author of Robert Cormier: Daring to Disturb the Universe (Delacorte, 2007), I am thrilled by this essay. You have exactly caught what Cormier often expressed as his goal. But if you lived in Leominster, why did YOU never dial that number in I Am the Cheese and get to know this warm and wonderful man?

    Patty Campbell

  7. Dear Patty Campbell,

    It’s been some time since we last corresponded, but you might remember that I wrote my thesis on Cormier’s work and we talked about it via e-mail a few years back. Your work on Cormier has always inspired me to take a second (and third and fourth and fifth) look at his novels, and I would recommend it to any other readers of this blog or of Cormier.

    As for calling him through the number in I Am the Cheese, I have to admit I only learned that it was his actual number many years after reading the book. I did get to meet and talk with Mr. Cormier when I was in high school and attending a talk he gave in the Worcester area. It was wonderful to meet one of my heroes and to chat with him for a little while about writing and about how his childhood experiences in Leominster impacted his novels. He was, as you have noted in your books, very down-to-earth and encouraging. I am so glad that I had a chance to talk with him.

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