Young Adult EducationTo All the Books I've Loved Before: ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower' by Stephen ChboskyKerry Winfrey

Is there a book that you’re convinced was written just for you? One that speaks to you so clearly you swear you can hear the words out loud? One that you’re sure no one could ever possibly understand the way you do? One that you re-read obsessively until the sentences and paragraphs aren’t just words on a page but a part of you? When I was in high school, I had a lot of books like this. One of them, predictably, was The Catcher in the Rye. I knew it was one of the most famous books in the world and that high school kids everywhere loved it, but I still felt like it was mine, like beyond that nondescript cover was a secret message that J.D. Salinger left just for me. I didn’t know if I wanted to befriend Holden, date Holden, or be Holden. I just knew I loved that book like a person.

But J.D. Salinger wasn’t my only high school literary love affair. Back then, my method for finding new books didn’t involve Amazon searches or Goodreads recommendations. Instead, I wandered up and down the aisles of Barnes and Noble, looking for a cover that caught my eye. That’s how I found The Perks of Being a Wallflower. That spare lime-green cover stood out, and the jacket description was intriguingly vague. So I bought it, read it and fell in love. In Charlie’s letters, I found a story that didn’t feel like anything else I’d read before. As the title suggests, Charlie starts out as a wallflower, but over the course of the book he learns to be more open and honest with his friends, his family and himself. I felt everything along with him as he met exciting people, went to parties, discovered new music, dealt with his family and saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It was that same Catcher in the Rye feeling, like it was written just for me, like I’d found those letters from Charlie in my mailbox.

I hadn’t thought about The Perks of Being a Wallflower for awhile. I mean, I’m in my mid-20’s now. Things aren’t the same now as they were in high school. I can’t just sit around in my room listening to the Smiths anymore, because I have a job, and employers tend to frown on excuses like, “Sorry I can’t come in. I’m just really feeling Morrissey today, you know?” It wasn’t like Perks and I broke up; we just grew apart. Maybe, like so many high school friendships, Perks and I just weren’t meant to be.

But then I saw the trailer for the upcoming film adaptation, starring the lovely Emma Watson and featuring that Imagine Dragons song that sounds like a teenage summer night, and I started to feel it again. That old familiar heartstring tug I used to get when I read a book that really “got me.” It’s a feeling books still give me, but to be honest it doesn’t happen as often now that I’m no longer going through that open wound known as adolescence. So I found my old copy of Perks and pulled it off the shelf. Its wrinkled pages and tattered cover hadn’t been opened in awhile, but it was still there, waiting for me.

I don’t connect to it in the same way now, of course, but it doesn’t matter. Contrary to what I thought, this book wasn’t ever mine. It belongs to everyone in high school. To the kids who feel a little left out, to the kids who feel a little alone, to the kids who feel a little different. Being a teenager isn’t easy for most people (I mean, that’s basically what this column is about), but books can make you feel like someone else understands. Stephen Chbosky says he’s heard from kids who planned to commit suicide until they read Perks. How extraordinary is it that books have that sort of power?

It’s easy to laugh off or leave behind the things we used to love in high school. Sometimes it’s embarrassing to remember that you wore that band’s t-shirt every day or watched that movie until the DVD broke. But I don’t want to do that. We should be kind to the things we loved, even if they don’t mean as much to us as they used to. We shouldn’t bury those books, albums and movies that were there for us, like good friends, when we felt alone.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a book about participating. It’s about experiencing life, and the good, bad and messy things that come along with it. It’s about a period of time when it seems like you’re discovering new things about yourself every day, when your life is unfolding and opening up into something exciting and scary. It’s about a yearning for something you can’t even describe, wanting something you can’t put your finger on. It’s about knowing you’re not ever really alone. It’s about knowing you always have a friend to help you or tell you that things will get better. We all need to hear that sometimes, but we especially need to hear it in high school. Thanks, Stephen Chbosky, for being the one to tell us.

What about you? Have you read Perks? Do you/did you have a book in high school that makes/made you feel like everything would be okay? Are you going to see the movie? Did you notice Paul Rudd in that trailer (of course you did)? Let me know in the comments! As always, I love to hear your suggestions about what to cover next in Young Adult Education. E-mail me at youngadulteducation@gmail.com, find me on Twitter @KerryAnn or leave me a comment.

Image via YA Reads

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  1. I was given Perks when I was younger and I am grateful for the friend who knew I needed that book in my life. Also, did I mention that friend was none other than Kerry Winfrey, the lovely writer of this column? Kerry, your personal taste is books amazes me. Over the years I have received many books from you and each one I LOVE. Perks was exactly what I needed.

    • Ha! Jayne, I just saw this! I love you and I’m honored to be your personal book recommender. Apparently that’s not a word but I’m MAKING IT ONE.

      Kerry Winfrey | 7/08/2012 05:07 pm
  2. I found Perks in my pile of 16th birthday presents, with no card or indication of who gave it to me. I read it dozens of times, and passed it along to all my friends. My copy is now held together with industrial strength library tape (I worked at the library when I was in high school [of course]) and the back page is covered with a dozen or so signatures of people who have read it, their favorite passages underlined and highlighted. My copy was lost for awhile – I loaned it to someone who didn’t really get how special the copy was, and lost it. But then 2 years later, when he was moving apartments, he found it in the lining of his suitcase and gave it back to me. The boy and I had grown apart by that part, and he met me outside of a burlesque show I was in one July night, where we had a brief chat and I got my book back; it was the perfect book-reader reunion.

    • What a great story, Chelsea! I still miss all the books I’ve lost through lending. Maybe someday they’ll find their way back to me.

      Kerry Winfrey | 6/25/2012 08:06 am
  3. I didn’t find Perks of Being a Wallflower until years after it was published. It was my junior year of college and I had just celebrated my 20 and a half birthday(I love my birthday so much I celebrate twice a year). It resonated so much with me. I didn’t feel like I needed to have found it in high school or junior high. I read it at just the right time in my life. And then I read it again, and again. If there was even just one word on a page I liked I would dog ear that page and go back and read it. When I read it was a big year for me. I had up and left everything I knew and transferred to a different school in the spring semester. Being in a school that had a smaller program in my degree I was Charlie trying to find my place and fit in. I still keep a copy by my bed. I think we all have those days still where we feel like Charlie. One day we could be sad but most days we’re infinite.

  4. Yes, I noticed Paul Rudd and I was like, “yeah.”
    Yes, I noticed Emma Watson, and I almost died.
    It’s funny because I read Perks last semester for my English ISU. And I liked it. I thought it was good, not in the sense of “okay”, or “alright”, something that isn’t boring or tedious, notable or great, but purely good.

  5. i’m just bummed Sam has short hair in the movie, it definitely says she has long hair in the book

  6. I love this post so much! Perks was instantly special to me back when it came out and still is today. Being someone who wasn’t popular in high school, by any stretch, it spoke to me. I was a wallflower like Charlie. The movie looks great and I think Logan Lerman is a wonderful choice for the lead. Catcher in the Rye also holds a place in my heart and I felt the same way about Holden. Back when Perks came out I became a little obsessed with finding every book published by MTV since I loved it so much and their other offerings were good too, some even stayed with me. Great post!

  7. Also, knowing that the author also wrote and directed the movie version gives me hope that it won’t be a total mess.

  8. This book (along with Buffy the Vampire Slayer) saved my life when I was teenager. I”m 23 now and I still connect with Charlie, maybe not in the same way, but I still feel the need to re-read it at least once a year. OMG the movie. I cannot wait. Paul Rudd was just the icing on the cake.

  9. Also, John Green’s books are amazing for everybody. Especially Looking for Alaska, his first book. I was so obsessed with it that my copy has a detached cover and the binding is incredibly loose.

  10. The authors of books like Catcher in the Rye and Perks of Being a Wallflower have purposely written the books in such a manner to make you feel the connection to the character and setting. Its what makes a good author.

  11. Perks changed my life. I remember reading it when I was about 20 or 21, and in college, completely lost and so depressed. For some reason, my sister had recommended that book to me, and I immediately bought it and then devoured it. Charlie has stayed with me all these years (I’m 33 now) and I won’t ever forget it. I’ve read it a couple of times over the years, and granted, I’m not in that place anymore, but those feelings don’t change. I will always hold Charlie close to my heart. I think a lot of us feel that way. Also, seeing it in movie form frightens me. It’s such a personal book, and what if it gets ruined?