Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Chocolate, Chocolate and More Chocolate

Titles Reviewed:

Chocolate Fever by Robert Kimmel Smith
     *  (1 star out of 3 possible, "C")  Recommended with Reservations
     1st-3rd Grades

The Chocolate Touch by Patrick Skene Catling
     *  (1 star out of 3 possible, "C")  Recommended with Reservations
     1st-3rd Grades

The Chocolate War and Beyond the Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
     *  (1 star out of 3 possible, "C")  Recommended with Reservations
     Junior and Senior Boys

The Candy Shop War by Brandon Mull
     *  (1 star out of 3 possible, "C")  Recommended with Reservations
     4th Grade and up

As you can see, i spent a lot of my summer sampling chocolate!  It was important to me to straighten these titles out, because one doesn't want to confuse harmless first grade morality tales (Chocolate Fever and Chocolate Touch) with warnings of bullies and psychological abuse along the lines of Lord of the Flies (Chocolate War and Beyond the Chocolate War).

Chocolate Fever (1972) and The Chocolate Touch (1952) both deal with boys who love chocolate and candy and the consequences of their greedy habits.  The plots are humorous and the lessons clear:

"Although life is grand, and pleasure is everywhere, we can't have everything we want every time we want it!"

"You've been eating so much sweet stuff that there isn't room for eggs and meat and milk and bread and spinach and apple and fish and bananas and all the other things you're supposed to have to make you grow big and strong."

"Don't you think there's such a thing as enough?"

These books are doubly useful if you have a picky eater or a sugar hound in your family!  My own children have benefitted from this type of outsourced nagging.  There's absolutely nothing wrong and everything right with families using literature to instruct!

Far different messages for a far different audience come from Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War (1974) and it's sequel Beyond the Chocolate War (1984).

Trinity High is an east coast, all-boys Catholic School dominated by Headmaster/priest Brother Leon and an internal gang of bullies known as The Vigils.

Gang leader Archie Costello wields control throughout the school with "assignments" (initiations) meant to intimidate classmates.  The gang is so powerful and untouchable they even succeed in demoralizing and removing the only gentle, humane teacher on staff.

Brother Leon sees in Archie Costello a kindred spirit and utilizes The Vigils to enforce the school's "voluntary" chocolate candy fundraiser.   When one student, Jerry Renault, refuses to participate, Costello orchestrates a particularly cruel punishment.  Brother Leon is complicit in this terrorizing act  with troubling results for the reader.

The sequel picks up the story the following year.  One of Archie's stooges, Obie, becomes fed-up with the terror the gang creates, and begins to devise a means of retribution.  Likewise, former student David Caroni is planning his own revenge against Brother Leon.  Finally, Jerry Renault is still recovering from injuries with the help of his one remaining friend, Roland.  Each character will have to confront their fears created by the manipulative, intimidating forces at Trinity High.

I have not yet read Lord of the Flies, but I've heard enough about it to understand mob rule and the debasement of human nature under "survival of the fittest" situations.  Cormier's books explore the same themes in an even more familiar setting:  the local high school.

While extreme, The Vigils and Trinity High are not all that different from experiences to which most of us can relate.  What creates a bully?  What does healthy friendship look like?  At what point will a person sacrificially stand against the status-quo?  What constitutes psychological abuse?  What is the recourse for physical abuse?  Would gangs exist if people simply refused to participate?  Finally, is revenge ever justifiable, or does it only serve to lower the vengeful to the level of the perpetrator?

Archie:  "You blame me for everything, but it's not me, Obie.  It's not me."

Obie:  "Than who?"

Archie:  "It's you, Obie. You and Carter and Bunting and Leo and everybody.  But especially you, Obie.  Nobody forced you to do anything, buddy.  Nobody made you join The Vigils."

Cormier forces us to confront our own bullies within.  This is difficult food for thought.  Combined with some violent scenes plus themes of loneliness, anger and even suicide, these books need to be read and discussed with caution and care.

The Candy Shop War (2009) by Brandon Mull also explores friendships, bullies and "fitting in," while mostly focusing on four friends led astray by a sweet little old lady offering magical candy.

What could be more imaginatively appealing to kids than combining their love of candy with, for instance, being able to fly?  And what if someone offered you candy that came with other magical powers?  What if she only offered it to you and your friends, and you could use the powers to trick all the bullies at school?!  How far would you go to obtain this candy?

Of course, the only person who could craft such clever candy would have to be a witch.  The reader realizes this well before the 4 friends in the story and that creates much of the climactic tension in the book.  As the kids agree to increasingly dangerous missions to "earn" their candy, they finally begin to doubt the honesty of the acts and the intentions of Mrs. White.

Families need to know the magic in this book kicks into high gear at the halfway point with opposing magicians, lairs and spells.  However, one of the takeaway points is that all magic is dangerous and no magician can be trusted.

The book offers a good message about bullies and the dangers of revenge.  Likewise, the old adage about not taking candy from a stranger is reinforced.  But my favorite theme of the book centers around the standards of right and wrong and acting against one's conscience.  Once you climb inside the mind of a child you feel how difficult it is to go against something an adult is compelling you to do.  It takes very strong character traits within a child to stand up to a misleading or dangerous adult.  This is exactly the kind of moral, independent character we want to instill in our children as they encounter an increasingly complex world.  We believe our children know right from wrong, but in the midst of a challenging situation, will they choose to act on what they know to be right?

The Candy Shop War is well-written and imaginative.  (So imaginative in fact, that it becomes a little unbelievable and confusing toward the end with time travel through mirrors.)  Best known for his Fablehaven and Spirit Animals series, author Brandon Mull is planning 2 sequels for The Candy Shop War.  Mull's background is LDS with a degree from BYU, and he lists Narnia, LOTR, and Harry Potter as sources for his fantasy imagination.  As is so often the case, it will take the discerning reader/family to decide how far they should delve into the magic.

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