‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ is at the center of a major book-banning debate

It’s comforting to think of banning books as something that only happens in small towns that aren’t ours, or in the distant past, or in scary dystopian novels. The reality is, banning books happens disturbingly often and it happens all around us. The most recent proof? The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky was removed from the curriculum at Sheehan High School in Wallingford, Connecticut, after a parent complained about its content. Now the book is at the center of controversy, parents are squabbling over whether or not the book should be reinstated into the curriculum, and a final decision is expected later this month.

I hope you’ve read Perks (a totally genius coming-of-age novel) and if you haven’t you might recognize it by its equally brilliant movie adaptation starring Emma Watson. The book is beautifully written in letter-format by Charlie, the protagonist, as he survives his first year of high school. It’s certainly not a cheerful read, but it is an extremely comforting read that touches on important issues like sexuality, abuse, and depression — issues many young people grapple with growing up, issues that are far too seldom dealt with in the classroom and absolutely should be.

As Chbosky said in an interview with My Record Journal, “The classroom legitimizes these issues and by taking it out of the classroom we demote these things to ‘dirty little secrets’ and they’re not dirty little secrets; these are things young people face every day.” He is so right.

This isn’t the first time the book has been banned — it actually appeared on the American Library Association’s list of the most frequently challenged books, and sparked controversy when it was banned by two school districts back in 2004, five years after it was first published. In this latest instance in Wallingford, a parent complained because of a two-page section of the book in which Charlie witnesses date rape. It’s the section most often contested.

As Chobsky told My Record Journal, “I always find it so strange that . . . people would say that passage is meant to titillate. My response has always been rape is violence, not sex, so how can it possibly titillate anybody? If it does then that warrants a much larger discussion than a book.”

He continues, “I wrote this book as a blueprint for healing. I wrote this book to end the silence . . . It’s for people who have been through terrible things and need hope and support. The idea of taking two pages out of context and creating an atmosphere as perverse is offensive to me — deeply offensive.”

While it is true that the material could potentially be triggering for some students, these are real life issues that need to be addressed, not hidden. It’s a horrifying incident, but one that, according to one teen student who proposed a petition for Wallingford to reinstate the book, needs to be understood in a classroom setting.

Connor Reed, the teenager in question, took to Change.org to challenge the Wallingford Board of Education and petition for Perks to stay in school curriculum. He writes, “As a teenager, I have to be frank — these issues are not new. As a parent, whether you’d like to admit it or not, your daughter or son has heard of date rape. They know people who are sexually active and drink and use drugs, and any high school student in the country is surrounded by the issues brought up in this book. It’s something that adults may not be able to relate to, and subsequently not be able to understand its importance. . . The negative impact of removing this book is obvious. To begin with, it’s a novel that teens can relate to easily, it’s a novel that teens want to read. It’s “arguably the most beloved coming-of-age novel published in the last two decades” (The Stranger) and “will engage teen readers for years” (Francisca Goldsmith of The School Library Journal). While some parents don’t see the use for the book for their children, it’s not a blanket application. Many students do not have the complete support that young students should have. Most importantly, Perks serves as an unparalleled aid for students dealing with depression, mental illness, or suicidal thoughts.”

In addition to Connor’s petition, now the National Coalition Against Censorship, the Association of American Publishers, the National Council of Teachers of English, the American Booksellers For Free Expression, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and the Pen American Center’s Children’s and Young Adult Book Committee have all signed a formal letter criticizing the school’s decision.

The school board is also speaking out in defense of their choice: “A misunderstanding exists concerning the school district’s recent review of the book The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” Wallingford Superintendent Salvatore Menzo wrote in a statement, according to NBC Connecticut. “The Wallingford Public School District did not remove students’ access to the book; but rather, made a decision concerning the manner in which the book would be used by the school district following a request for review by a parent.” It’s clear that even if that is the case, what many students want is access to the book in the classroom.

High school can be a tough time for anybody, but talking about it really can help. The classroom is the perfect setting to read Perks, because it allows a dialogue about the challenges that teenagers face now. Even thought the novel deals with difficult subject matter, the core message of the book is about participating, about trying new things, and learning that you’re not as alone as it may seem. That last message is crucial for so many young readers.

Chbosky knows just how important this book can be to people. He told My Record Journal that many, many young readers over the years have reached out to him about how the book or movie (which he also directed) saved their lives, “These were young people who were so isolated and misunderstood and they saw my movie or read the book and it gave them enough hope to keep going,” he said. “. . . Because I have that experience and because I know that’s true, I’m always wondering where’s the next kid because that kid is out there. It’s happened too many times over the last 15 years to be a coincidence.”

As for his opinion on keeping the book in the classroom, “I would think for parents, with the way that society is now, that they would prefer some of these issues to be discussed in a much more structured setting, as opposed to keeping them in the dark,” Chbosky told Word Riot in an interview a few years back. “The more you talk about it, the more you take away its power and its mystery, and people can make much more informed and mature decisions about these things.”

This is why we need books. Let’s not ban them merely out of fear of what they say.

For more information on Connor’s petition, here’s the link.

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