Stephen Chbosky was born in 1970 in Pittsburgh. His best-selling novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower was published in 1999 and received a Best Books for Young Adults award in 2000. The challenges soon followed. The Fairfax County, Virginia organization Parents Against Bad Books for Schools challenged the book in 2002. The book was removed from an elective sociology course in New York’s Massapequa High School in 2003 for “offensive” content. The timeline of the details of that challenge are described in the Censorship Dateline in the Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom, January 2004. A 2005 challenge of Perks with 15 other YA titles with gay-positive content occurred in Montgomery County, TX. Concerted efforts by several organizations have challenged the book nearly every year since its publication. Typically the websites of these groups insist that they “do not advocate censorship,” but somehow they seem to know how to select appropriate titles for school shelves. Virginia’s Parents Against Bad Books for Schools includes a Powerpoint presentation explaining their mission of raising awareness, showing book content, and protecting parents’ rights. The organization insists that “there are a lot of bad books in school, and it is getting worse.”
The Perks of Being a Wallflower tells the story of Charlie who writes a series of letters to an anonymous “Dear Friend” detailing his sophomore year of high school. Charlie is attracted to senior Sam, who insists she’s too old for him. Other characters include Patrick, who is gay and is Sam’s older brother; classmate Mary Elizabeth; and cool English teacher Bill Anderson. Bill gives Charlie some special assignments in reading and writing essays on classics like Hamlet, Walden’s Pond, and The Fountainhead. Bill tells Charlie that he’s brilliant and assures Charlie that he will help him achieve his dreams – if only Charlie could imagine what his future is.
A dark side of the novel includes the character Aunt Helen. Charlie calls her his “favorite person in the whole world,” until a brief make-out session with Sam brings back the long-buried memories of sexual abuse perpetrated by Aunt Helen. Buzz about the 2012 movie, which Chbosky directed, prompted me to listen to the audio version of the book, and narrator Noah Galvin perceptibly exposes Charlie’s feelings of helplessness.
Author Stephen Chbosky thinks the book’s opponents miss its point. Perks, he says, is about teens who ultimately find their way in life. The author has received appreciative emails from young readers, and at least two of them said the book saved them from suicide. “If that doesn’t send a positive message, I don’t know what does,” he says. In Gale Literature’s Contemporary Authors’ database, Chbosky mourns the fact “that people can’t agree to disagree, and people can’t find common ground. The people who object for moral reasons cannot see the value of the book, and the people who see the value of the book don’t realize why it’s upsetting to more religious people.”
“I wrote this book as a blueprint for healing. I wrote this book to end the silence.” Chbosky says in a 2015 Associated Press interview. A perk of being a wallflower is that wallflowers are particularly observant about the people around them. This beautiful coming-of-age story encourages us to observe our lives, to be hopeful for our future, and to look for common ground. Its message continues to be timely.
A favorite, compelling quote from the book is “We accept the love we think we deserve.” As librarians, let’s continue to assure our young patrons that they deserve to be loved.. We can continue to offer mirrors and windows in the books they select. We know that books can serve as a blueprint for healing. We know that books can change lives.
Happy Birthday, Stephen Chbosky, and thank you for sharing Charlie’s remarkable journey with us.
Kellyanne Burbage lives in Charleston, SC, and recently retired after 27 years in education which included teaching science and serving as an elementary librarian. Kelly’s interests include connecting students to science through children’s literature and by promoting science careers. In her spare time, Kelly enjoys sharing current NASA events as a volunteer Solar System Ambassador. She is a NatGeo certified educator and frequently writes about science education and intellectual freedom in her local newspaper.