Young Adult Education

To All the Books I've Loved Before: ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower' by Stephen Chbosky

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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