Perks of Being a Wallflower

Chbosky, Stephen. The Perks of Being A Wallflower. New York, NY: Pocket Books, 1999.

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.

'He’s a wallflower.’
And Bob nodded his head. And the whole room nodded their head. And I started to feel nervous in the Bob way, but Patrick didn’t let me get too nervous. He sat down next to me.
‘You see things. You keep quiet about them. And you understand.'”

Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a controversial young adult novel that depicts the struggles of high school and growing up with shocking straightforwardness. Although up front it deals with the issues of drugs, alcohol, sexuality, bullying, and loneliness, its underlying message reveals the beauty of life, participation in that life, and the value of friendship. Its depth and refreshing honesty will no doubt leave readers pondering their own participation in life.

Perks successfully illustrates teenage angst, the difficulties of high school, the fickleness of friends, love, and life. Due to its controversial portrayal of topics it may be difficult to teach this book in a classroom. However, the book is well written and extremely insightful, certainly one to suggest to students for reading outside of class if nothing else.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower follows the life of Charlie, a sensitive and complex character who views the world with a curiosity and amazement uncommon to most high school portrayals. Challenged by his teacher Bill, Charlie sets out to “participate” in the quickly changing world around him. In his first challenge to himself, he attends a high school football game where he meets Patrick and Sam, the two people who ultimately change his entire life. They introduce him to a world of music, drugs, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and, most importantly, true friendship.

When I was done reading the poem, everyone was quiet. A very sad quiet. But the amazing thing was that it wasn’t a bad sad at all. It was just something that made everyone look around at each other and know that they were there. Sam and Patrick looked at me. And I looked at them. And I think they knew. Not anything specific really. They just knew. And I think that’s all you can ask from a friend.

His friendship hangs in the balance when at a party he admits that Sam is the prettiest girl in the room instead of his girlfriend, one of Sam's best friends. In the aftermath of anger, hurt feelings, and tangled relationships, he finds himself alone, left out of the things he used to be a part of. He's told to lay low and coincidentally feels as though he hits rock bottom. His only escapes are the labyrinth of his mind, the depths in which he ponders life, and drugs.

“Dear friend, I wish I could report that it’s getting better, but unfortunately it isn’t. It’s hard, too, because we’ve started school again, and I can’t go to the places where I used to go. And it can’t be like it was. I wasn’t ready to say good-bye just yet.”

Charlie finds a way to help himself by "helping" Patrick deal with his own rock bottom--the jarring ending of his relationship with his boyfriend Brad. By reconnecting with Patrick, Charlie eventually finds his way back into the circle and most importantly back into the good graces of Sam. His friends and family more important than ever, Charlie finishes his freshmen year while anxiously awaiting the time his senior friends must say goodbye. Prone to panic attacks, the loneliness he feels as his friends graduate and prepare to move to different parts of the country proves too much for Charlie to bare. Although his friends and family become increasingly concerned by his drastic meltdowns, he eventually discovers the cause of his lifelong struggles, the realization leaving him numb for weeks. Eventually, through the support of his friends, family, and Bill, Charlie finally begins to realize what is truly important in life and recognizes a place for himself in his world. He no longer feels the need to write the letters that have constituted the book because, for the first time in his life, he is too busy living.

“But mostly, I was crying because I was suddenly very aware of the fact that it was me standing up in that tunnel with the wind over my face. Not caring if I saw downtown. Not even thinking about it. Because I was standing in the tunnel. And I was really there. And that was enough to make me feel infinite.

Recommendations for Teachers
Although this book is highly regarded, it is also one of the most challenged (#3 according to the American Literary Association). Due to its controversy we may not have the opportunity to teach the work in its entirety to any classes. Despite this disappointment, it may still be useful to use--at the very least--excerpts as tools to address specific topics or to supplement other reading. While the book as a whole would undoubtedly leave a powerful impression on students the book is written well enough that smaller sections will still provide a teaching/learning opportunity as well as leave an impact. The wide breadth of Charlie's experiences and insights provides countless options for teachers to choose from, allowing--if necessary--our instruction to be adjusted and varied from year to year and class to class.

An example of how one might use specific episodes from the book is to single out the parts that address a certain topic you would like students to think about. For example, use excerpts from Charlie experiences at the loss of his friend Michael or Aunt Helen and then ask students to write about a time where they also lost someone. Of course, this doesn't have to be a writing about death; it could be about someone moving away, the student themselves moving, the breaking up of friendship, etc. or anything else the student may associate with feelings of loss. If you are able to use a substantial amount of the book, consider having students discuss what they think Charlie's remaining high school years might look like. Did he "participate"? In what ways? How does his life look different then than during the book? These are just a few questions we may ask students to spark discussion. Another way to approach the book may be through the importance of music. Because music is such a powerful presence in the experiences Charlie and his friends, this could be a very safe way to introduce the book to students in the classroom setting. To start, find the songs that are important to the characters in the book-a list can be found at the book's Wikipedia Page . Play some of the songs in class, paying attention to those that may be important in pop culture (Nirvana, Pink Floyd, U2, Alice Cooper) or those that are the most important to Charlie, Patrick, and Sam (The Smiths). Have students consider why these songs may have been so powerful to these characters and whether or not they can relate to them as well. Then consider having students create their own "mix tape" of songs. These can include songs they remember from different times in their lives, songs they currently really connect to or feel are important, or new songs they discover that stick out to them. After they have their list of songs, have them choose a favorite or most important song that they can then write about, taking into account why it is important to them. You could also have students compare several of their chosen songs, addressing topics such as theme, to see if there is pattern in what they chose. Finally, give students an opportunity to share and discuss their songs in the class. Proven by the potency of music in the books, there seems to be a great value in the sharing of music and relating it to life. Providing students with these kinds of opportunities will keep the reading relevant for students and will hopefully capture their interest, engage their minds, and inspire their imagination.

Because of the vast array of topics and experiences addressed in Perks, it should be fairly easy for students to relate to Charlie's story in way or another. Some topics include family issues, drugs, homosexuality, mental/emotional disorder, sex, and the anxiety caused by change and loneliness. As a teacher, you may desire to use this opportunity to share personal experiences with students to create a more personal relationship with them. This may provide a greater sense of security and comfort within the classroom, encouraging students to then relate to the book and one another through their own experiences. Although this may prove very helpful in setting classroom dynamics, it is important to keep in mind the necessity of professional boundaries; you may attempt to help students relate to you more as an individual but don't disclose anything that may raise questions of your character or qualifications to hold your position. Also, if students begin to share, be sure to define the safety and confidentiality of the classroom, but also be prepared to report any issues that are beyond your abilities or qualifications to handle to the proper authorities. Protect yourself, but most importantly, protect your students.

About Stephen Chbosky
Lauren E. Bohn/ MEDILL
Hailing from the upper-middle class suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Stephen Chbosky is a multi-faceted author, screenwriter, television writer,stage writer and editor.
Born January 25, 1970, he was raised by his father, a consultant to CFOs. His mother, Lea Chbosky, was a tax preparer. Chbosky graduated from Upper St. Clair High School in 1988, and took pleasure in "a good blend of the classics, horror, and fantasy" literature as a teenager.

Chbosky undoubtedly drew from his own experiences growing up in Pittsburgh in his first novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. "I do see life the way Charlie does. Actually, it was writing the book that made me understand I had so many of these thoughts and feelings about people and the world." According to an Interview with Ann Beisch, however, Chbosky reveals that the book isn't "necessarily autobiographical." His high school experiences didn't exactly mirror those of Charlie's, and he explains that he wrote the book for "various personal reasons." It should be seen as semi-autobiographical at most.

Trying his hand at editing, Chbosky contributed to the stage play Sexaholic and edited a collection of fictional short-stories called Piece: A Collection of New Voices.

Having obtained a Bachelor of the Fine Arts degree from the University of Southern California’s filmic writing program, Chbosky premiered his screen writing talents with his film The Four Corners of Nowhere in 1995. As screenwriter and director of the film, Chbosky achieved recognition for humorously portraying the nihilistic attitudes of a group of young adults living in Ann Arbor, MI. The film premiered at the famous Sundance Film Festival and ended up winning the Narrative Feature Honors at the Chicago Underground Film Festival. Chbosky went on to write the screenplay for Everything Divided, earning the Abraham Polonsky Screenwriting Award. Even more notable was his writing for the film adaptation of the popular musical, Rent. His next venture in screen writing will include adapting his very own The Perks of Being Wallflower starring Emma Watson and Logan Lerman. The filming scheduled to begin mid-2011, Chbosky will make his debut as director as well.

Stephen Chbosky currently resides in L.A., his main project the adaption of Perks into the highly anticipated film.

Multimedia (Video or Audio)
Provided below are four videos that may supplement the reading of The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Two are the music videos of songs that were specifically referenced by the book: "Asleep" by The Smiths and "Landslide" by Fleetwood Mac. These music videos may prove a useful tool while reading the book because they can provide readers with insight into the importance of the songs to Charlie and his friends. Another video is a short news clip about a school district that decided to ban the book from their 9th grade English Curriculum. The clip speaks shortly about some of the reasons that the ban has been enacted. The last video is a student created project that serves as trailer or brief summary of the book. This video may be useful because it gives students a chance to see what other kids are doing while or after they are reading the book, potentially helping to spark some ideas of their own.

Additional Resources:
Author Bio:Dig further into Stephen Chbosky's life. Purchase the book using amazon's services movie info: IMDb site where visitors can find information about the film adaptation of this book.
Barnes and Noble site for book: Site when book can be purchased and reviews can be read.
Perks Wikipedia page: Wikipedia entry with all pertinent information about the book.
Not Required Reading: Site containing reviews of the book created by high schoolers and geared towards other high school students. quote page: Site containing numerous quotes from throughout Charlies experiences.
Yalitgourley lesson plan: Wiki space where a lesson plan has been created for Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Marshall University Library's banned book week: Library site giving information on instances where book was banned and why.
Docstoc discussion questions: Site with possible discussion questions for use in the classroom.
SADD Drinking and Drug Use Statistics: SADD website that provides statistics on underage drinking and drug use.
Teen Depression from the Mayo Clinic: Article from the Mayo Clinic that provides an overview of teen depression,as well as symptoms and treatment.

--Anne Giocondini, Nikki Reed, Allen Meyer, Heather Thompson, Jessica Doner