On this day in 1999, Stephen Chbosky‘s groundbreaking The Perks of Being a Wallflower hit bookstores across the United States. A decade before the rise of YA, this novel was among the first YA publications to tackle issues of death, sexuality, drug use, and mental illness. Though many schools have banned the novel for its candid and earnest depiction of adolescence, audiences have spent two decades loving it for the same reason. Even twenty years after its publication, The Perks of Being a Wallflower remains a relevant and progressive depiction of growing up and the intense desire for understanding and connection those teenage years can bring.
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Even in a decade of increasing LGBT+ representation, many YA novels, films, and shows still struggle to include a queer character whose sexuality is not central to the narrative—essentially, a character whose sexuality doesn’t condemn them to plot hell as their partners leave and their parents punish. In 2018 (NINE years after Perks), Love, Simon became the first teen romantic comedy film to feature a gay protagonist and then make him happy. While queer stories aren’t entirely absent from the mainstream, they have one major thing in common: creators love to wring gay tears. (The Perks of Being a Wallflower may turn on the waterworks, but this isn’t the reason why.)
Characters participate in The Rocky Horror Picture Show* in Perks’ film adaptation
*The Rocky Horror Picture Show is gay culture
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Today (when we ought to be more aware than ever before), many feel that YA novels struggle to responsibly depict mental illness. In 2017, Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why ignited a controversy around its possible glorification of suicide. The novel tells the story of mentally ill teen Hannah, who, before her tragic suicide, records thirteen tapes meant for thirteen separate people—each of whom, she claims, is a direct cause of her untimely death. Critics lambasted Asher (who now stands accused of sexual assault) for framing the story in a manner suggesting that suicide is the only thing that can give Hannah a voice. Critics also feel that the show (and by extension, the book) fixates on the dramatic act of suicide rather than the constant reality of mental illnesses—a reality which is as much dramatic acting out as it is acting like nothing at all.
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In contrast, The Perks of Being a Wallflower presents a raw depiction of mental illness from a more clinical—and simultaneously more hopeful—perspective. Charlie’s derealization episodes and flashbacks make sense from both a narrative and psychological standpoint, and his PTSD is a feature of the story rather than its emotional core.
Though the epilogue contains references to sexual abuse, this isn’t how the book (or Charlie’s story) ends. Instead, the book’s most iconic line comes after readers come to understand all that Charlie has been through. He’s not alone but with his friends, a mentally ill person who reads as more person than illness. The novel concludes hopefully: “and in that moment, I swear we were infinite.”