Book Review by Heidi Simmons
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
By Stephen Chbosky
Last week I reviewed the book The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker, which I thought might have been better received if it had been published as Young Adult (YA) literature rather than adult fiction. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky (MTV Books, 213 pages) was published as Young Adult and contains themes that are intense and disturbing. Chbosky’s YA is far more disconcerting a tale than Walker’s, even with her setting of impending global doom.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is the story of Charlie’s coming of age. He writes about his life in letters, though never intended to be mailed, as a form of therapy to an anonymous “Dear Friend.” At first it appears Charlie suffered a psychotic break after he learned that his best friend in middle school committed suicide. After a hospital stay, Charlie writes Dear Friend to explain his feelings and experiences as he begins his freshman year of high school.
Charlie is a precocious boy but is a meek and mild outsider. His parents and siblings don’t understand him, or are afraid and unable to speak to him about his lonely and troubled condition. He maintains fond memories of a favorite aunt who died in a car accident. Seemingly, the aunt is the only one who ever understood him.
Soon he meets eccentric high school seniors, Sam and her stepbrother Patrick. The three quickly connect and become fast friends finding a mutual love for music and literature. They allow Charlie to be a part of their larger clique in and outside of school. Under their influence Charlie is exposed to drugs, sex, homosexuality but most importantly he feels accepted and loved for the first time.
There is significant childhood drama and teenage angst in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Charlie eventually relapses and the cause of his psychosis is eventually revealed. The vehicle of using letters to tell the story at times is contrived. Author Chbosky often forgets the character is writing a letter and lapses into long conversations and dialogue between characters.
Chbosky begins Charlie’s story in 1991. The book was published in 1999. If it is a reflective memoir, the setting feels more like the culture of the eighties. After years in Hollywood development, Chbosky wrote and directed the film version. (It’s still playing in theaters.) He did an excellent job adapting his book. Chbosky’s film adaptation conveys the theme and tone of the book accurately and effectively.
The American Library Association defines the YA reader age between 12 and 18. Though some studies show that 55 percent of YA readers are over 18. Young Adult novels are as diverse and broad as adult fiction. The majority of YA stories feature an adolescent protagonist that must deal with the problems of youth or the challenges of coming-of-age. A great example of crossover YA success is The Hunger Games Trilogy and the Harry Potter series.
In Walker’s The Age of Miracles, Julia, her young main character, must deal with childhood drama, a life changing experience and a family death — much like Charlie. Both stories are told over the course of a single year. If I were to compare Julia’s experience to that of Charlie’s in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Charlie’s is far more complicated and dramatic and adult even without a looming catastrophe.
Granted, Julia is 11 and Charlie is 15, which is a significant difference in emotional maturity. But Charlie learns about himself and reflects on his experience. Ultimately Chbosky delivers a lesson about growing up and dealing with the challenges of what it means to become a mature adult. This is something Walker’s character never discovers.
When you choose science fiction, thriller or a mystery book to read, you anticipate what the pages will likely deliver. So how is it that The Age of Miracles is considered adult fiction and The Perks of Being a Wallflower is YA? Likely it has everything to do with the marketing and sales rather than the reading experience. It is my opinion that YA as a genre should be about the age of the protagonist and not about the age of the reader. Young Adult fiction is a significant and important literary genre.