(Cross-posted at We Read to Seek a Great Perhaps)
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
by Stephen Chbosky
Published by MTV through Pocket Books (Simon & Schuster)
Ages: Young Adult
Awards: ALA Best Books for Young Adults
This book has been on the shelves for over a decade, but the title kept coming up whenever I investigated books with LGBTQ interest, and it was a favorite among part of my social circle, so I wanted to check it out. It’s a slim epistolary novel, narrated by a highly intelligent high school freshman who calls himself Charlie. He’s writing letters to an unnamed stranger, chosen as his one-way penpal after he overheard someone say that this person “listens and understands and doesn’t try to sleep with people even if they could have.”
Perks isn’t a book about most teenagers, but it is a book about and for many young adults who feel like the world has gone insane and left them alone and behind – or perhaps the other way around. It’s a mild-mannered, bemused Catcher in the Rye for the MTV (and post-MTV) generation. The letters are the breadcrumbs along Charlie’s journey through high school, meeting with seemingly every known adolescent crisis along the way: girl problems, friendships, drinking, cliques, depression, drug experimentation, death of loved ones, alienation, date rape, intellectual discovery, and above all else, confusion.
Adults who don’t work with teens would probably like to believe that young people like Charlie don’t exist – but they do. Charlie appears to suffer from clinical depression, and while his introspection and other wallflower tendencies give him a powerful perspective on adolescent life, they are also visible tips of an iceberg threatening to destroy him. We learn late in the book that he was sexually abused when younger, and the repercussions of those repressed memories echo painfully in his awkward attempts at romance.
Despite its inclusion in many booklists and discussions about LGBTQ books for young adults, this also isn’t a book about gay teens. One of Charlie’s male friends is gay, and as Charlie struggles to determine his role in the world, he and the friend kiss. Charlie’s unblinking acceptance of all of his friends is a powerful unwritten message and an example of an increasingly realistic teen social scene
Perks is light to carry but heavy to read. It has been challenged and banned in many schools and libraries due to depictions of sexuality and drug use. In all honesty, I can’t imagine teaching it as a classroom text; at least one teacher, in Wisconsin, has done so and faced heavy criticism and challenges from the community. On the other hand, I absolutely believe it belongs in school and classroom libraries. It deals with these difficult topics, not only with fearlessness and honesty, but with a calm lack of hysteria and intelligence that young readers ought to experience. Anecdotally, the book has been a lifeboat for teens considering suicide; I can certainly see it being a valuable resource for young readers who feel all alone in a world that seems much darker than the bubblegum lives that their peers outwardly present.
English teachery note: I should mention that this book has a positive adult figure in Charlie’s English teacher, who tries to address what he perceives as Charlie’s genius with a personalized reading list. Throughout the course of the book, Charlie is presented with To Kill a Mockingbird, This Side of Paradise, Peter Pan, The Great Gatsby, A Separate Peace, The Catcher in the Rye, On the Road, Naked Lunch, Walden, Hamlet, The Stranger, and The Fountainhead. Students who have read any of these may enjoy comparing their reactions and insights to Charlie’s.