We’re starting a teen book club at my library. Initially, I thought my school year program would be a writer’s group, but we decided to scale it back and just do a month of NaNoWriMo programs for writers, and judging by the success of that, decide if we wanted to have more writing programs (We already do poetry slam that many teens attend and many of the middle and high schools already have writing clubs).
For the first meeting, I had to pick a book. We’re working out a system for the kids to pick the subsequent books we read, but since the copies of the first month’s selection would need to be distributed at our first organizational meeting, I’d need to have them on hand.
This is a lot of pressure. I felt like the success of the book club rested on the first title we discussed. Did I pick something new that everyone wanted to read? That would require hunting down a bunch of copies from other libraries, which might prove tricky if it was a hot new release. Our library has a collection of “book clubs in a bag,” a copy of a dozen novels and discussion materials, and we have several YA titles available. I’m sure we’ll use some of these at some point, but I hadn’t read any of them and so I wouldn’t be able to get kids excited about the novel by letting them know how much I loved it. I also wanted something that would generate a lot of discussion beyond “oh, the hero was soooo hot and haunted.” As much as I love gushing with regular patrons about love stories, I wanted something more than that. And the group of kids most excited about it are voracious readers (they had already met their goal of 100 books in a year by the middle of summer reading). Finding a book that the majority hadn’t already read was going to be tricky.
I also decided that book club would be most fun if we had an activity to go along with it–a craft or excursion. That’s what sparked the idea for Perks of Being a Wallflower. The movie is coming out the same month that we’d be reading, and I knew the local theater would probably let a group of us in to see it for free on a Saturday afternoon a few weeks after it was released. I suggested it to my supervisor, and the next day we ordered a book club in a bag set.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower was released in 1999, right in the middle of my high school career. I must have read it my junior year, which it came out in paperback. I remembered being powerfully affected by the novel at the time, but so many years later, the details were fuzzy. What I did remember was that it had a powerful, emotional effect on me, and made me think. So I pulled Mister BS’s copy off our bookshelves and set about re-reading it, more than ten years after the first time.
When I mentioned to Mister BS that it was my first selection for teen book club, he said, “really?” I explained what led to that decision and he wished me luck and said I was braver than he (Mister BS teaches HS English and is not unfamiliar with the controversy and difficulties of dicussing books with teenagers). I probed him more about his feelings on the book, because I could tell he had an emotional response to it, but he was very vague in his recollection of the time he read it (which would have been about the time I read it). Mister BS is normally not taciturn, but I let it go and set about reading.
I have never been a fan of epistolary novels. But perhaps because Charlie’s letters are addressed to the unidenfied friend and there is an air of mystery about them, they are slightly more interesting.
I have read other reviews where Charlie is characterized as stupid or dim-witted, and those readers found a disconnect between his writing and his supposed brillance. I disagree. While the writing in the letters isn’t stellar, it’s very much like a teenager’s: simple, rambling, with brief moments of beautiful insight.
Book reviewers I respect have also found the plot melodramatic and unbelievable. I’m glad they’re lucky to not know someone who has been abused, had a good friend commit suicide, witness a rape, and all the other tragedies that Charlie experiences. I have. It is a rather compact novel to contain so many “issues.” But that doesn’t lesson it’s power, in my opinion.
The book is full of difficult topics to discuss, but I think they are important ones to talk about with teens. While some of the highlights for me—mix tapes, Rocky Horror—might not connect with today’s teens the same way they did for me, but the bigger issues hopefully still do strike a chord with the members of teen book club. It’s no wonder the book is so quotable—in reading Mister BS’s copy, he had underlined, in pen, so many lines. I couldn’t stop instagramming those he had missed.
This isn’t a book that will touch every teen—but for someone who read all the same books that Charlie did in high school, who has a secret, who sometimes doesn’t understand how to navigate the social landscape of high school, it might ease the sting of loneliness.