The critically acclaimed debut novel from Stephen Chbosky, Perks follows observant “wallflower” Charlie as he charts a course through the strange world between adolescence and adulthood. First dates, family drama, and new friends. Sex, drugs, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Devastating loss, young love, and life on the fringes. Caught between trying to live his life and trying to run from it, Charlie must learn to navigate those wild and poignant roller-coaster days known as growing up.
A years-long #1 New York Times bestseller, an American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults and Best Book for Reluctant Readers, and with millions of copies in print, this novel for teen readers (or “wallflowers” of more-advanced age) will make you laugh, cry, and perhaps feel nostalgic for those moments when you, too, tiptoed onto the dance floor of life.
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Read an Excerpt
From Part One
August 25, 1991
I am writing to you because she said you listen and understand and didn't try to sleep with that person at that party even though you could have. Please don't try to figure out who she is because then you might figure out who I am, and I really don't want you to do that. I will call people by different names or generic names because I don't want you to find me. I didn't enclose a return address for the same reason. I mean nothing bad by this. Honest.
I just need to know that someone out there listens and understands and doesn't try to sleep with people even if they could have. I need to know that these people exist.
I think you of all people would understand that because I think you of all people are alive and appreciate what that means. At least I hope you do because other people look to you for strength and friendship and it's that simple. At least that's what I've heard.
So, this is my life. And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I'm still trying to figure out how that could be.
I try to think of my family as a reason for me being this way, especially after my friend Michael stopped going to school one day last spring and we heard Mr. Vaughn's voice on the loudspeaker.
"Boys and girls, I regret to inform you that one of our students has passed on. We will hold a memorial service for Michael Dobson during assembly this Friday."
I don't know how news travels around school and why it is very often right. Maybe it was in the lunchroom. It's hard to remember. But Dave with the awkward glasses told us that Michael killed himself. His mom played bridge with one of Michael's neighbors and they heard the gunshot.
I don't really remember much of what happened after that except that my older brother came to Mr. Vaughn's office in my middle school and told me to stop crying. Then, he put his arm on my shoulder and told me to get it out of my system before Dad came home. We then went to eat french fries at McDonald's and he taught me how to play pinball. He even made a joke that because of me he got to skip an afternoon of school and asked me if I wanted to help him work on his Camaro. I guess I was pretty messy because he never let me work on his Camaro before.
At the guidance counselor sessions, they asked the few of us who actually liked Michael to say a few words. I think they were afraid that some of us would try to kill ourselves or something because they looked very tense and one of them kept touching his beard.
Bridget who is crazy said that sometimes she thought about suicide when commercials come on during TV. She was sincere and this puzzled the guidance counselors. Carl who is nice to everyone said that he felt very sad, but could never kill himself because it is a sin.
This one guidance counselor went through the whole group and finally came to me.
"What do you think, Charlie?"
What was so strange about this was the fact that I had never met this man because he was a "specialist" and he knew my name even though I wasn't wearing a name tag like they do in open house.
"Well, I think that Michael was a nice guy and I don't understand why he did it. As much as I feel sad, I think that not knowing is what really bothers me."
I just reread that and it doesn't sound like how I talk. Especially in that office because I was crying still. I never did stop crying.
The counselor said that he suspected that Michael had "problems at home" and didn't feel like he had anyone to talk to. That's maybe why he felt all alone and killed himself.
Then, I started screaming at the guidance counselor that Michael could have talked to me. And I started crying even harder. He tried to calm me down by saying that he meant an adult like a teacher or a guidance counselor. But it didn't work and eventually my brother came by the middle school in his Camaro to pick me up.
For the rest of the school year, the teachers treated me different and gave me better grades even though I didn't get any smarter. To tell you the truth, I think I made them all nervous.
Michael's funeral was strange because his father didn't cry. And three months later he left Michael's mom. At least according to Dave at lunchtime. I think about it sometimes. I wonder what went on in Michael's house around dinner and TV shows. Michael never left a note or at least his parents didn't let anyone see it. Maybe it was "problems at home." I wish I knew. It might make me miss him more clearly. It might have made sad sense.
One thing I do know is that it makes me wonder if I have "problems at home" but it seems to me that a lot of other people have it a lot worse. Like when my sister's first boyfriend started going around with another girl and my sister cried for the whole weekend.
My dad said, "There are other people who have it a lot worse."
And my mom was quiet. And that was that. A month later, my sister met another boy and started playing happy records again. And my dad kept working. And my mom kept sweeping. And my brother kept fixing his Camaro. That is, until he left for college at the beginning of the summer. He's playing football for Penn State but he needed the summer to get his grades right to play football.
I don't think that there is a favorite kid in our family. There are three of us and I am the youngest. My brother is the oldest. He is a very good football player and likes his car. My sister is very pretty and mean to boys and she is in the middle. I get straight A's now like my sister and that is why they leave me alone.
My mom cries a lot during TV programs. My dad works a lot and is an honest man. My Aunt Helen used to say that my dad was going to be too proud to have a midlife crisis. It took me until around now to understand what she meant by that because he just turned forty and nothing has changed.
My Aunt Helen was my favorite person in the whole world. She was my mom's sister. She got straight A's when she was a teenager and she used to give me books to read. My father said that the books were a little too old for me, but I liked them so he just shrugged and let me read.
My Aunt Helen lived with the family for the last few years of her life because something very bad happened to her. Nobody would tell me what happened then even though I always wanted to know. When I was around seven, I stopped asking about it because I kept asking like kids always do and my Aunt Helen started crying very hard.
That's when my dad slapped me, saying, "You're hurting your aunt Helen's feelings!" I didn't want to do that, so I stopped. Aunt Helen told my father not to hit me in front of her ever again and my father said this was his house and he would do what he wanted and my mom was quiet and so were my brother and sister.
I don't remember much more than that because I started crying really hard and after a while my dad had my mom take me to my room. It wasn't until much later that my mom had a few glasses of white wine and told me what happened to her sister. Some people really do have it a lot worse than I do. They really do.
I should probably go to sleep now. It's very late. I don't know why I wrote a lot of this down for you to read. The reason I wrote this letter is because I start high school tomorrow and I am really afraid of going.
September 7, 1991
I do not like high school. The cafeteria is called the "Nutrition Center," which is strange. There is this one girl in my advanced english class named Susan. In middle school, Susan was very fun to be around. She liked movies, and her brother Frank made her tapes of this great music that she shared with us. But over the summer she had her braces taken off, and she got a little taller and prettier and grew breasts. Now, she acts a lot dumber in the hallways, especially when boys are around. And I think it's sad because Susan doesn't look as happy. To tell you the truth, she doesn't like to admit she's in the advanced english class, and she doesn't like to say "hi" to me in the hall anymore.
When Susan was at the guidance counselor meeting about Michael, she said that Michael once told her that she was the prettiest girl in the whole world, braces and all. Then, he asked her to "go with him," which was a big deal at any school. They call it "going out" in high school. And they kissed and talked about movies, and she missed him terribly because he was her best friend.
It's funny, too, because boys and girls normally weren't best friends around my school. But Michael and Susan were. Kind of like my Aunt Helen and me. I'm sorry. "My Aunt Helen and I." That's one thing I learned this week. That and more consistent punctuation.
I keep quiet most of the time, and only one kid named Sean really seemed to notice me. He waited for me after gym class and said really immature things like how he was going to give me a "swirlie," which is where someone sticks your head in the toilet and flushes to make your hair swirl around. He seemed pretty unhappy as well, and I told him so. Then, he got mad and started hitting me, and I just did the things my brother taught me to do. My brother is a very good fighter.
"Go for the knees, throat, and eyes."
And I did. And I really hurt Sean. And then I started crying. And my sister had to leave her senior honors class and drive me home. I got called to Mr. Small's office, but I didn't get suspended or anything because a kid told Mr. Small the truth about the fight.
"Sean started it. It was self-defense."
And it was. I just don't understand why Sean wanted to hurt me. I didn't do anything to him. I am very small. That's true. But I guess Sean didn't know I could fight. The truth is I could have hurt him a lot worse. And maybe I should have. I thought I might have to if he came after the kid who told Mr. Small the truth, but Sean never did go after him. So, everything was forgotten.
Some kids look at me strange in the hallways because I don't decorate my locker, and I'm the one who beat up Sean and couldn't stop crying after he did it. I guess I'm pretty emotional.
It has been very lonely because my sister is busy being the oldest one in our family. My brother is busy being a football player at Penn State. After the training camp, his coach said that he was second string and that when he starts learning the system, he will be first string.
My dad really hopes he will make it to the pros and play for the Steelers. My mom is just glad he gets to go to college for free because my sister doesn't play football, and there wouldn't be enough money to send both of them. That's why she wants me to keep working hard, so I'll get an academic scholarship.
So, that's what I'm doing until I meet a friend here. I was hoping that the kid who told the truth could become a friend of mine, but I think he was just being a good guy by telling.
Copyright © 1999 by Stephen Chbosky
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Perks of Being A Wallflower includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
First published in 1999, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a modern classic that captures the aching, confusing, and glorious experience of being a teenager—all through the eyes, ears, and letters of the book’s narrator, Charlie. We don’t know where Charlie lives and we don’t know to whom he is writing. But Charlie’s haunting letters, addressed only to “Dear Friend,” bring readers straight to the heart of his struggles to fit in, to find the will to “participate” in life, and to cope with the realities of the larger world as he learns how to grow up.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Discuss the epistolary format of the book. Why do you think Chbosky chose to use letters as his narrative structure? How did this structure affect the book, both in terms of the story and in terms of your reading experience? How would the book have been different if Chbosky had written it in first-person or third-person narrative?
2. Who do you think Charlie was writing to? Does it ultimately matter whom, or even if he is, writing to someone? Why or why not?
3. Who did you identify with the most? Did you see parts of yourself in any one specific character?
4. Discuss Charlie’s character. Is he sympathetic? Would you be friends with Charlie? Why or why not?
5. What do you think kept Charlie from “participating” when he entered high school? What held him back? Have you ever felt this way before?
6. Who is Charlie’s greatest ally? Who is his worst influence?
7. From Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs to Harold and Maude to The Beatles’ song “Dear Prudence,” Charlie references numerous pieces of literature, film, and music. How did these references shape your reading? Why are they so important to Charlie?
8. When Bill invites Charlie over for lunch Charlie observes, “He was talking for real. It was strange.” (p. 181) What do you think Charlie means by “real”? How does he discern between what is real and what is not real?
9. Sam confronts Charlie before she leaves for college, pleading: “You can’t just sit there and put everybody’s lives ahead of yours and think that counts as love.You just can’t.You have to do things.” (p. 200) Do you agree with Sam? How does this exchange relate to their relationship on a grander scale?
10. Discuss Aunt Helen’s character and presence in the novel. Were you surprised when the truth about her relationship with Charlie was revealed? In what other ways did seemingly positive aspects of Charlie’s life turn out to be negative?
11. After watching an art film with Mary Elizabeth Charlie says: “The movie itself was very interesting, but I didn’t think it was very good because I didn’t really feel different when it was over.” (p. 124) Do you agree with Charlie that in order to be “good,” creative works must make you feel differently? How did you feel after reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower?
12. Discuss the following passage: “Maybe it’s good to put things in perspective. Sometimes, I think that the only perspective is to really be there.” (p. 213) How has Charlie’s outlook shifted from the beginning of the story?
13. The Perks of Being a Wallflower grapples with a complex, universally difficult stage of life. What reflections did it inspire about your own life? What parts of the story resonated most deeply with you?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. The Perks of Being a Wallflower was released as a major motion picture starring Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, and Ezra Miller in September 2012. Host a movie night with your book club and watch the adaptation! How did the movie differ from the book? How did the casting of the movie match the characters you’d formed in your mind from reading the book? Which felt more authentic to you?
2. The Perks of Being a Wallflower has been included on the American Library Association’s annual “10 Most Frequently Challenged Books” list five times in the past ten years. Check out the other books listed on the ALA’s list at www.ala.org/advocacy/banned/frequentlychallenged/21stcenturychallenged . What are your thoughts on the issue of censorship? Consider choosing one of the other listed titles for your next book club meeting.
3. Take part in the time-honored tradition of writing letters with your book club. Write letters to your fellow book club members, family members, loved ones, or even to yourself. Or consider participating as a group with one of the following organizations to write letters to those in need. As you write together, share your notes. How do you feel after reaching out to someone with pen and paper?
www.MoreLoveLetters.com—An organization that coordinates a community of “love letter writers” with a mission to deliver love letters to those in need of a positive word or encouragement. www.AMillionThanks.org —A year-round campaign to show appreciation to U.S. military troops through letters, cards, and emails.