Recently, the film adaptation of Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower was released. After a colorful montage of teens eating at diners, driving cars, and cheering at football games, the trailer ends with a breathy recitation of the quotation that has become synonymous with the novel itself: “And in that moment, I swear we were infinite.” This line encapsulates everything one would imagine an angst-ridden teen to be feeling; insignificance, grandeur, pure loneliness and inexplicable happiness. It’s perfect because it is exactly the type of phrase any teen could relate to.
When I read this novel at thirteen, this was exactly reason why I hated it.
Like all thirteen-year-olds, I was just discovering that life isn’t as simple and perfect as one believes as a child. But I was completely in love with my friends, and I took refuge in the sacred moments of simplicity, togetherness, and happiness we were able to achieve by spending hours at Starbucks or aimlessly wandering the neighborhood. In other words, I knew what it was like to feel infinite, so when I read this quotation in the novel, my own experiences seemed so much less meaningful. I didn’t hate this book because I felt like I couldn’t relate to it. I hated it because I could relate to it too well.
I started reading young adult fiction when I was about eleven, beginning with The Princess Diaries series by Meg Cabot. Despite the fact that Mia is a princess, these novels follow a similar format as Perks; they chronicle the day-to-day life of a teen misfit who eventually learns to be proud of whom she is despite the turmoil of high school. I had just started middle school, however, so I still didn’t know what it was actually like to be a teenager. Instead, I read the series with a sense of awe; imagining that my life would soon involve the stereotypical misadventures with fashion and boys promised by these books. I read these novels as one might read a sci-fi novel—imagining they took place in a strange, foreign place that one could only dream about.
In a similar sense, when I read in high school, I did so to escape my daily life, not to relive it. Most people hated their middle- and high-school years, so it seems silly that they would want to read books about that environment. I found young adult fiction condescending, as if the writer were telling me the same things I heard from my parents and teachers every day. “Be proud of who you are.” “It will all work out.” “We understand what you’re going through.” Finally, I completely rejected these books in favor of stories I could actually learn something from; eventually reading classics by John Steinbeck and Alice Walker in order to get myself through those stressful years.
Nevertheless, young adult literature holds an esteemed position in the contemporary literary community. These novels continue to be written, published, and praised, despite my theory that teenagers themselves can’t stand them. For this reason, the summer after I graduated from high school, I decided to give young adult fiction another shot. I bought a copy of Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, and read it in one weekend. I was shocked to find the novel creative, captivating, and well-written. Instead of feeling like a sales gimmick, the subject of teen suicide was handled with depth and maturity. I felt like I had been given a moving and accurate depiction of both this issue and the way teens think. But then I started to worry. Was this novel really an exception to typical young adult? Or did I simply read the genre differently because I was now older and separate from that environment?
It’s impossible to know how I would have read this book if I was still in high school, but my observations did lead me to a conclusion on young adult literature. Since these books are written, published, and reviewed by adults, it only comes to pass that this is the audience that is able to gain the most meaning and insight from these novels. There is still a place for these books in the literary world, but we should acknowledge what audience they are really intended for.
And as for The Perks of Being a Wallflower? Time will tell if I actually spend the $8 to see this film, but I will nonetheless try to respect that though I found the book insulting, hopeful preteens and nostalgic adults might have had a different reaction.
Originally published as a guest blog post for Paper Darts.