Monday, November 12, 2012

Reading Banned Books: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
Source: Purchased
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
View on GoodReads

I first heard about this book years ago, but nothing really compelled me to pick it up until a combination of two things happened. First, I learned it was being released as a movie which reminded me just how popular this book is that I'd never read. Second, I saw it on the ALA's list of frequently challenged books. And as a general rule, I feel that if a book has ruffled a few feathers, it's probably worth reading.

I've come across more negative reviews than I really anticipated, but overall I know this book is still loved by many and considered to be somewhat of a modern classic. Having just finished it, I can now understand why. It deals with the very tumultuous period of adolescence and I imagine many young people can relate to Charlie, the main character. He encounters so many real and important issues, both big and small. From suicide to making friends, from  homophobia to figuring out how to act on a first date, and from rape to break-ups. There's a whole lot going on and these few topics really only begin to scratch the surface.

Given this subject matter, I can also see why it’s been challenged, even though I do not believe books such as this one should be censored. Personally, I think adults, particularly parents, should stop squirming away from books that deal with tough subjects and instead acknowledge that the themes in young adult fiction really do reflect the struggles and issues everyday kids face. We should be creating an open dialogue, not sticking our heads in the sand.

One particular subject I think the book explores very well is the often difficult reality of being a gay teenager. We learn early on that Charlie’s friend Patrick is gay and then we witness the secrecy, fear, bullying, and family rejection that all too often affect gay teenagers. The fact that the book discusses homosexuality at all is one of the main reasons it has been challenged, but this is a subject that needs to be discussed. I’d like to think that by getting to “know” a fictional character such as Patrick, more people might be influenced to be more compassionate and accepting of people who are different than themselves. And if that were the result of reading this book, I honestly don’t know what it is any “offended” adults have to fear.

On a bit of a lighter note, I love how the novel is written in the epistolary style, each letter simply addressed "Dear friend." It felt like Charlie was writing directly to me as the reader while at the same time reading almost like a diary. This reminded me of myself as a teenager since I was always scribbling daily observations in my journals (perhaps I too was a bit of a wallflower!). Charlie’s writing is not flawless. In fact, it is even a bit awkward at times, but for readers to believe these are really letters written by a 15-year-old, I think this was necessary. As a result, the writing feels authentic and I think it helped make the characters and the story more authentic as well.

Now, I’m going to end this with one minor quibble. I know Charlie is a sensitive soul and he has his fair share of issues and problems to deal with, but I did find the sheer number of times the poor boy cries in public to be a bit unrealistic. Don’t get me wrong, I have zero problem with boys or men crying. I don't think it makes them weak or any less masculine, but at the same time, I think most people (women and girls included) try very hard to rein in their emotions in public. If it said he "felt like crying" or "fought back tears" or I don't know SOMETHING else along those lines once in a while, it might have been a little more believable. But like I said, this is a very minor quibble.

This book might not be for everyone, but I wholeheartedly enjoyed it. In a relatively short space, this book covered a lot of ground. It tells a story and it does so extremely well. It's not the kind of book where you expect crazy twists and turns, but I was surprised when something quite unexpected did happen near the end. It was honestly kind of a punch in the gut, but the revelation really helped me understand Charlie’s character better. At first, I was thinking “What the hell?!,” but the more I thought about it, the more all the puzzle pieces seemed to fit into place. Are you curious now? Well, you’ll have to read it for yourself!

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