The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Stephen Chbosky. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1999.

"So this is my life. And I want you to know I am both happy and sad and I'm still trying to figure out how that can be."

The Perks of Being a Wallflower follows a ninth-grade boy named Charlie as he narrates many of his high school experiences to us through letters to a random person he addresses as "friend." The novel begins with Charlie's good friend Michael committing suicide, so Charlie enters high school feeling even more confused and alone than ever. Eventually he meets Sam and Patrick and they become friends, but Charlie is always somewhat of an outsider. Through his new found friends, Charlie is introduced to many new things, and he navigates us through the struggles life throws at us, the difficulties of discovering one's identity, and more of his thoughts and experiences with the letters to his unknown friend.

Because there are so many real-life situations and themes in this novel, and so much that teens can relate to, The Perks of Being a Wallflower can be widely disputed amongst administration and parents. However, by reading through one character's experiences of high school, it opens up a beautiful dialogue with the students, and instead of fumbling through these difficulties of adolescence on their own, they can navigate them together.

Recommendations for Teachers
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a valuable resource for teachers of young-adult literature, but it is a book that must be approached with delicacy. First off, dealing with the parents of your students will be an obstacle teachers have to overcome. Charlie is only 15, a freshman in high school, and writing about his experiences with such topics as suicide, domestic violence, sexual abuse, drug abuse, underage drinking, and homosexuality. Parents may have some concerns about their children reading the graphic, honest depiction of these topics. If teachers wish to use this book as part of their curriculum, a note should be sent home to the parents to inform them of the content therein. However, considering the potential difficulties that could arise with this, I would suggest putting this book on a list of options for lit circles, or using it in an after-school book club, if the school offers extracurricular opportunities such as that.

Regardless of how the book is made available to the students, they will need to be prepared for the topics it contains. In preparing to write this section of the review, I decided to look through the book to draw up a chronological timeline of the issues the book presents so I could then tell teachers when they had to discuss the issues as they progressed through. What I found, however, was that, within the first 30 pages, all of the aforementioned subversive topics are at least touched upon. This means that teachers will have to discuss all of the topics before starting into the book. Suicide is brought up within the first handful of sentences, so the students should definitely be warned about that. Domestic violence follows shortly thereafter, so that should also be brought up before students even open the book.

Even though the topics in The Perks of Being a Wallflower are controversial and can be difficult or awkward, they do lend themselves to be great jumping off points for activities. Here are a few activities that I think would be helpful in getting students engaged:
  • Have the students write a “Dear, Friend…” letter like Charlie’s. This would be best done as an in-class journal activity that the students did not have to turn in so they could write honestly about themselves. If the teacher desired to have it be an assignment, have the students write a letter from the perspective of another character in the book that IS NOT Charlie (A member of Charlie’s family, Sam, Patrick, Brad etc.).
  • Encourage the students to discuss what they know about the topics the book contains, such as underage drinking and drug abuse. Do they think the book portrays these things accurately or do they think it is exaggerated? Do the students see these issues prevalent in our society?
  • Make sure to arm the students with knowledge about how to appropriately handle situations of sexual abuse and domestic violence. What should Charlie’s sister have done when her boyfriend hit her? What should have happened after Charlie saw that girl being raped? What options were available for Aunt Helen? Discuss with the students the actions that should have been taken and the resources that are available to help victims of these crimes. Also be aware that some students likely are victims of these crimes or know/suspect someone they know is. They should be aware of where they can go to find help and support for dealing with these issues.
  • Discuss some of the memorable quotes from the book, such as: "We accept the love we think we deserve" (page 24), "Not everyone has a sob story, Charlie, and even if they do, it's no excuse" (page 28), "And in that moment, I swear we were infinite" (page 39), and whatever else jumps out to the teacher or the students that they would like to explore. Encourage the students to think about what these quotes mean and dig into the core concepts beneath them. For instance, "We accept the love we think we deserve" touches upon the larger concept of self-worth. Why do people so easily self-depricate? What constitutes a "sob story" and why are they no excuse? What does this suggest about what defines a person: events that happen in our lives or our choices? What does it mean to be "infinite" to you? Have you ever felt "infinite"? Perhaps the teacher could have the students draw a picture, make a collage, or some medium of artistic expression to show what feeling "infinite" means to them.
  • Play some of the songs listed in the book in class. This could open up class discussion for what these songs say to them, why they think the songs were important to the people in the novel, and what the songs say about the novel as a whole. Teachers could also take it further and have the students compile their own soundtrack for the novel, which would be a great activity to both get students engaged and to help them in relating the novel to their own lives.
  • Discuss the poem that is contained in the novel (page 70). Analyze this the same way you would any other poem (look at rhyme scheme, poetic technique, syntax, etc.), and then look at it in the context of the novel. How does the poem relate to Charlie and why do you think it is so important to him? Why do you think the author included this poem in the novel -what does it add?
  • Discuss how the different characters in the book "participate" and how they are "wallflowers", after first discussing with the class what they would consider the meaning of those two terms. This activity doesn't have to just be about Charlie, but any instance within the novel that the students see people acting in these ways. If the teacher was feeling bold, they could even extend this activity out into society and have the students write about ways they see these two extremes played out in the real world.

Stephen Chbosky

external image stephenchbosky.jpg

Stephen Chbosky was born in Pittsburgh, PA. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger was a huge influence on him. The Perks of Being a Wallflower was Chbosky's first novel and it is semi-autobiographical. Charlie's character was a lot like Chbosky, but the life experiences the went threough were very different. Chbosky's list of accomplishments include work on The Four Corners of Nowhere, Sexaholix, Pieces, Rent, and Jericho. The Perks of Being a Wallflower was an instant hit and has over one million copies in print. Chbosky began writing the screenplay for the film version of the book and the movie is anticipated to come out in 2012.


The writing process with Maniac Magee and Milkweed

A video of news on the actors and
actresses cast in the upcoming
production of the film version of
The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Stephen Chbosky reading a letter he
received from a fan of his book. He
described the benefits of reading a book,
especially one that was banned.
This was filmed at ALA's banned book
read-out in Chicago September 22, 2008.


Additional Resources:

--Katherine Dobson, Colleen Atkinson, Cathie Jean, Ashlie Spisak, Danielle Ballantyne