Chbosky, Stephen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. MTV Books/Pocket Books, 1999. 213 pages. Tr. $18.81, ISBN: 978-0-7587-9600-4
Plot: Charlie is writing a letter to an anonymous person. A shy, unusual boy, Charlie is now left with the daunting task of finding a way for himself in high school after his best friend’s suicide last year. As the year moves forward, he meets several students and one important teacher. At the beginning of the school year, Charlie meets Sam, a pretty and free-spirited senior, and her stepbrother, Patrick. They bring him into their fold, and he connects with their iconoclastic friends. A sensitive teacher recommends books for Charlie to read, and he begins his own independent study, reading classic bohemian touchstones like On the Road by Jack Kerouac and The Stranger by Albert Camus alongside classics like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Throughout the course of the story, Charlie writes down his unusual thoughts about these books in a way that helps elucidate the action in the story. Sam and Patrick take Charlie to a party, where Charlie sees that Patrick is in a heated fight with the school’s football hero, Brad. Patrick is openly gay and Brad and Patrick had a secret romance that ended when Brad’s father discovered the two together. Charlie eventually gets in the middle of one of these fights and he defends Patrick. Sam, Patrick, and their friends introduce Charlie to drugs but also to a romantic way of thinking about life. As closed up as Charlie is, they are there to open him up. Though he is in love with Sam, he develops a relationship with another girl that eventually falls apart. He and Sam have a night together, but Charlie has a breakdown, which eventually ends up with him coming to grips with a terrible memory from his childhood.
Critical Evaluation: Because the story is told in the form of a letter, Chbosky is able to create a hypnotic, suspenseful tone that is hard to shake. Charlie’s voice is the central most important element; it’s innocent and wise, detached and somehow involved, at the same time. Although some have gotten upset over Sam and Patrick introducing Charlie to drugs, there is a realistic quality to the way Sam and Patrick try to pull Charlie out of his bubble and get him connected to people and a more typical teenage world. It is a common high school situation for a more innocent, younger teen to be exposed to alcohol or drugs. The fact that they could have a positive impact on Charlie makes the book seem more realistic. Charlie is tasting the world with literature, with his philosophizing, and in his grown-up imbibing. The other standout factor in the book is Patrick’s homosexuality, which is presented in a way that is fully believable. That Patrick is at ease with his sexuality means that he can deflect the bullying directed at him, but Brad’s response is equally realistic. He is angry at being exposed and blames Patrick for putting him that situation. Having Charlie, whose dual traits of detachment and intense sensitivity, describe their situation in his matter-of-fact way makes it refreshingly devoid of any emotion. It is what it is. Brad’s confusion and anger seems strange; Patrick’s acceptance of who he is seems like a more appropriate response in Charlie’s generally Zen-like take on things. This book is not for every teen, but, like The Catcher in the Rye, it can inspire obsession. Devotees will read the book again and again, and they will want to read every book and listen to every record mentioned in it. This is a piercing, unforgettable work.
Reader’s Annotation: Charlie has weathered a lot, including the suicide of his best friend last year. When an older group of fringe bohemian kids take Charlie in as he begins high school, his life will never be the same.
Author bio: Pennsylvania native Stephen Chbosky is a novelist, screenwriter and director now living in Los Angeles. He is a fan of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and many who read Perks see hints of that classic. He discovered “Charlie” when he was working on a different novel and the final result of that epiphany took many years of gestation before it was actually written.
Chbosky co-wrote the screenplay to the film version of Rent and he was the co-creator, writer and executive producer of the television show Jericho. Chbosky wrote and directed the film version of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which is slated for release in September 2012.
Genre: Realistic fiction.
Curriculum Ties: English
Focus on Charlie’s trauma and the mystery surrounding his story.
Focus on how Charlie gets swept up with the cool kids – why would they embrace such a strange, shy kid?
Reading Level: 4th grade
Interest Age: 14+
Challenge Issues: Homosexuality, sexual references, intense situations.
Challenge Response: This is a controversial book that has been challenged quite a lot. In defenses, it would probably be a good idea to pull quotes on its comparisons to the now-classic Catcher in the Rye, and to talk about how that book, was once challenged but is now a part of the high school cannon. I would keep files of the rave reviews that it has received, such as the School Library Journal starred review and its appearance on the New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age 2001 list. The neutral tone in which Charlie describes events may also temper shock over the content, so I would pull quotes from the book to show Charlie’s tone, which is so important to the book.
Why Included: I had heard that this book was being compared to The Catcher in the Rye and teachers were raving about it right after it was published.