The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky
“So, this is my life. And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I’m still trying to figure out how that could be…” - Charlie
I associate two wonderful teen pop culture milestones with the year 1999 – the brilliant but brief 18 episode run of TV’s “Freaks and Geeks” and the release of Stephen Chobsky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Interestingly, both reflect back on earlier eras (Freaks revisits high school life in 1980 while Perks looks back to 1991), yet both address themes of teen friendship and alienation that are as universal today as they were then. If you’re a kid who feels left-of-center from everyone else on the planet, then you can easily see yourself in Freaks’ Lindsay Weir or Perks’ Charlie. Over the years, I’ve always had that awkward kid or two who I knew would relate to Charlie – the ones who tend to be a bit more introspective, prefer to express themselves through art/music/poetry, seemingly relate better to adults than kids their own age. A book like The Perks of Being a Wallflower tends to be a revelation to them as well, and I always look forward to the inevitable deep conversation I’m going to have with that student when he/she returns it. That’s the thing about Perks – as with any great book, you NEED to discuss it when you’re done.
Perks follows the freshman year of a boy who calls himself ‘Charlie.’ Charlie has been through a lot in his young life and needs to share it with someone who doesn’t really know him and won’t judge him, so he does that in a series of letters he writes to a ‘Dear Friend’ he doesn’t even know. In his first letter, the reader learns Charlie’s just lost one of his closest friends, a boy named Michael, to suicide the spring of their 8th grade year. He begins his freshman year sad and alone until he meets Sam and her stepbrother, Patrick, seniors who take Charlie under their wing. They hang out at school and on weekends, swap mixtapes, and participate in the weekly showings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Sam’s unlike any girl Charlie has ever known, and he falls hard for her, but Sam is involved with a twenty-one-year-old guy and, honestly, Charlie respects Sam too much to even consider making a move on her. Patrick, meanwhile, is hooking up with the quarterback of the football team. Patrick may be out and proud, but Brad is so deep in the closet he can see Narnia. As the school year goes on, things grow tense between the trio as one of Sam’s closest friends falls for Charlie, Patrick’s relationship with Brad intensifies, and some of Charlie’s family secrets come to light.
Since its release, Perks has continually been under threat of being banned, and it’s no wonder! The book pushes just about all the major censorship brouhaha buttons – suicide, homosexuality, drug use, sexual abuse, masturbation, abortion. You’d think real teens experienced these kinds of issues…or something. It’s unfortunate people can’t see the forest of human experience for these controversial trees. Yes, it sucks to live in a world where children suffer harm, but that’s why we need books like Perks to show these kids they’re not alone and there is hope. In fact, one of the most compassionate characters in the novel is Charlie’s teacher, Bill, who shares great works of literature with Charlie and pushes him to write essays about how those books affect his view of the world. Bill is an adult and teacher who makes clear to Charlie that he's cared for as both a student and human being.
Perks may not be for everyone, but I can guarantee you it will be just the perfect book for a few special someones - and with the release of the movie in a couple of weeks, expect that number of special someones to grow. It's already become one of the most circulated books in my library this school year and the 'hold' list is growing. Even better are the discussions the book is generating between me and my students as to how they relate to Charlie, Sam and Patrick. If you haven't yet read Perks, consider moving it to the top of your 'to read' pile.
Check out the official movie trailer above and the movie site at http://perks-of-being-a-wallflower.com/ .