Presenter of the National Book Awards

The Book That Changed My Life

Sara Zarr

Sara Zarr was a 2007 National Book Award Finalist in Young People's Literature for Story of a Girl.

It’s impossible to pick one book from my lifetime of reading thus far as the book that changed my life. I’m only 37 and, who knows, maybe I’ll read something at 82 that is the real bolt of lightning. There is one author, however, who spoke to my teenage soul and helped shape me as a writer: the late, great Robert Cormier.

The Chocolate War probably came to me as an assigned book in seventh or eighth grade, or maybe it was I Am the Cheese I read first. In any case, Cormier’s books were my introduction to realistic young adult fiction, and as I stepped into the dark shadows of Monument, Massachusetts, I had that flash of recognition every reader hopes for when she opens a book. There was a universe that I recognized. Cormier skipped over the usual problems of teen novels and went straight for the big game: good versus evil in a world where good doesn’t always triumph, the struggles within our own psyches between the longing to do what’s right and the tendency to do the opposite, oppression, anarchy, mental illness, institutional and personal corruption. Like Flannery O’Connor and Nathanael West and so many others, Cormier extracted his stories from the deepest ugliness and profanity of the human heart. What set him apart and made him a pioneer was that he recognized young people weren’t immune to the human condition---teens, as much as adults, were carriers.

As disturbing and haunting as Cormier’s books are, I took comfort in them as a teen reader. I’d been given or absorbed the message that it’s not that bad, that believing in yourself is the answer to everything, that good is rewarded. That didn’t jibe with my experience. Cormier came along and said, you know what, it is that bad. It’s that bad, and sometimes it’s worse. Even if kids at my high school weren’t building guillotines or committing federal crimes, the familiarity of his stories came from his ability to understand and write about what it felt like to be at war with the world, and, more profoundly, at war with yourself.

When I started to seriously pursue writing novels, I knew I wanted to be that kind of writer. I didn’t want to turn away from what’s ugly or painful just because some have the idea that childhood is a time of innocence that magically extends to age seventeen. I wanted to be unafraid of endings that others might see as unhappy, but that I knew were as close to hopeful as possible in the world my characters inhabit. I wanted to give my teen characters full lives, honoring their experience of life and of themselves as complicated and perplexing, sometimes frightening, sometimes beautiful and poignant.

Cormier’s books didn’t show me a world that was previously unknown to me. They opened the doors on that world that was known, but hidden, and asked questions about it, said, let’s get some light in here and look at what we’ve got, then draw your own conclusions.

Sara Zarr

Photo © Quinn Jacobson.