Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Teen/YA Review: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

In celebration of Banned Books Week, I read a classic teen/YA novel that is always high on the list of banned books, The Perks of being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. I don’t know how I missed this wonderful novel for so long! I devoured it in just a few days and felt like I got to know the characters intimately and lived in their world.

The entire novel is written through a series of letters that the main character, Charlie, writes to an anonymous “friend.” This is someone Charlie doesn’t know personally but overhead a classmate talking about, and he starts writing to him to ease his anxiety over starting high school. Charlie has good reason to feel anxious. His only real friend from middle school committed suicide, leaving Charlie mourning, confused, and alone.

Charlie describes his days at high school in a way that is familiar to anyone who went to high school…the cliques, the social pressures, the desire to be liked, and the insecurities. He also talks about his family – his mom, dad, older brother who has just left for college, and his older sister who is a senior in high school. Charlie’s family seems very ordinary; he loves them and they love him, but they can drive him crazy at times. His descriptions of holiday dinners with extended family are especially amusing for anyone who has a dysfunctional family of their own!

One evening at a football game, Charlie recognizes a boy from his shop class, a boy known by his classmates as Nothing. Charlie sits down next to him and begins talking with him (finding out his real name is Patrick) and gets to know his stepsister, Sam, too. Although Charlie can be very quirky at times, Patrick and Sam have their own reasons for not quite fitting in, and they all become friends, eventually pulling Charlie into their own group of friends until he finally feels like he belongs.

Charlie himself admits that one of his problems is that he thinks too much, and that is part of what makes his narration so irresistible. He analyzes everything (who didn’t in high school?), wonders about everything, and questions everything. His English teacher, who gives him extra books to read all year long, tells him he needs to participate in life more, but Charlie feels there are some advantages to being a wallflower, always quietly observing the world around him.

This quintessential coming-of-age novel follows Charlie through his entire freshman year, as he experiences all those things familiar to many high schoolers: dances, first dates, the ups and downs of friendships, drugs and drinking, and the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Adding to the fun are ample references to music (mix tapes – it’s set in 1991!), movies, and literature. He writes to his anonymous friend with open candor about his hopes and fears, all that is happening around him, and all that confuses him. Along the way, he grows and learns more about himself and how to feel comfortable in the world. And the reader goes along for the ride, laughing, cringing, crying, and, ultimately, caring about Charlie on his wild ride through his first year of high school.

213 pages, Gallery Books (Simon & Schuster)

Why has it been banned? Ah, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a censor’s dream! It has a bit of everything – sex, drugs, yup – rock ‘n roll, too! There is also homosexuality, swearing, and sexual abuse. All of it is dealt with in a very frank, almost innocent, way, as Charlie tries to figure things out for himself.

P.S. Now that I’ve read the book, I want to see the movie, though I am a bit leery after loving the book so much. I can see from the movie photo on the cover that the characters don’t look as described in the book which drives me crazy in a book adaptation…but I have heard that the movie is excellent (including from my son!), so I look forward to giving it a try.


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