Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower has, in the past decade, become the serious young novel that is almost (and sometimes actually) required reading for American teenagers. Serious young adult fiction tends to get drowned out by the Twilights, the Harry Potters and the Hunger Games, but Perks has managed to have staying power. It is on the list of recommended curriculum for the San Francisco Unified School District. It has also spawned a well-received movie adaptation with some talented young actors taking the main roles (Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller).
The book tracks the life of Charlie, a freshman who has recently lost his friend to suicide. He manages to make a group of good, if eccentric, friends and he slowly starts to not be the titular wallflower, even as some dark events unfold around him (drug abuse, date rape). Perks has been recently touted as the next Catcher in the Rye by many sources. Stephen Chbosky has even addressed these comments in interviews. It’s not difficult to see why someone would make this comparison. Both books have young teenage protagonists who are seeking meaningful interactions with people. Both are haunted by deaths of loved ones. Both are highly literate; Charlie even reads Catcher in the Rye within the book. The list goes on.
In some ways, it is not fair to make a comparison between these two books. Catcher in the Rye captured people’s imagination in 1951 because there had been nothing quite like it (in fact, no American young adult fiction, Catcher was the first). Perks, published in 1999, obviously has many more books like it to be compared to (including Catcher). Also, Catcher owes a lot of its popularity to J.D. Salinger himself and his infamous “reclusiveness”, whereas author Stephen Chbosky has not been subject to such scrutiny from the media. Having said all that, it is difficult to see Perks having quite the same impact as Catcher did, since it is not as significant a departure from other literature as Catcher was. However, it is still a powerful and gripping book and deserves to be seen on its own terms, rather than in the shadow of the cultural behemoth that Catcher in the Rye is.