Column: Banning 'The Perks of Being a Wallflower' will only attract more young readers

Published May 27, 2016

By demanding that Stephen Chbosky's young adult novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower be removed from middle-school reading lists, a panel of parents, teachers and school administrators in Pasco County have definitely accomplished one thing.

Far more Pasco kids will now read that book than ever would have read it if it had been assigned by their teachers.

When those adults made an effort to ban the book because it deals with such subjects as homosexuality, masturbation and rape, they no doubt made it irresistible to many of the young people they were trying to protect.

When I was in high school, my honors English class was presided over by Mrs. Blalock, a gifted teacher but somewhat on the starchy side. One semester our assigned reading included Herman Melville's magnificent novel Moby-Dick. Mrs. Blalock waited out the snickering over the title, then told us that we were to read the entire novel — except that under no circumstances were we to read Chapter 95, The Cassock.

We asked why not, and Mrs. Blalock, who never blushed, faintly did. It was none of our business, she said; what was in that chapter could not be discussed in the classroom, and we were not to read it.

Everyone in the class went straight home and read The Cassock. Students who did not read another word of Moby-Dick read The Cassock. Kids who weren't even in our class heard about it and borrowed our copies to read The Cassock. (In case you don't have a copy handy, the chapter describes a part of the processing of a slain whale in which the skin of its penis, "longer than a Kentuckian is tall," is cut away in one piece and put on, like a priest's cassock, by one of the Pequod's sailors. Apparently Chapter 94, the much more suggestive A Squeeze of the Hand, went right over Mrs. Blalock's head.) The Cassock certainly taught me an indelible lesson: Making a chapter, or an entire book, forbidden fruit is a much more effective way to get kids to read it than making it homework.

The Pasco County panel also succeeded, of course, in getting Chbosky's novel into the news. Not for the first time: Since it was published in 1999, The Perks of Being a Wallflower has sold more than 1.5 million copies, been published in 16 countries and was made into a movie in 2012. It's impossible to make a definitive connection, but on Thursday, after it had been in the news again thanks to the Pasco ban, the 17-year-old book was at No. 6 in Amazon's sales rankings for teen literature classics, beating such titles as A Wrinkle in Time, Lord of the Flies and The Outsiders.

Since its publication, Perks has appeared on the American Library Association's "Banned Books List" — an annual compilation of titles most frequently challenged in schools and libraries — seven times, for content that includes drug use, homosexuality and suicide.

There is no question that Perks has serious, challenging content. Its protagonist, a high school freshman named Charlie, loses a friend to suicide and witnesses his sister's abuse by a boyfriend and his friend's struggles with his homosexuality. Several characters are revealed to have been sexually abused in childhood.

Such themes are, however, very common in YA fiction (one of the growth segments of the publishing industry). Why young readers are so interested in them is a complex question, but there are a number of recent scientific studies that suggest reading fiction about people whose lives are different from our own helps to develop our sense of empathy. One 2013 study published in the journal Science found that "after reading literary fiction ... people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence."

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According to the Times' May 23 article about the ban on Perks, "Members (of the panel) suggested that the novel's message, while good for students with troubles like the protagonist's, exposed many children to disturbing images and information for the first time." But they might want to consider whether such exposure makes young readers better able to understand and empathize with other people — or better prepared to deal with events that might happen to them later in their own lives.

Certainly parents are right to stay aware of what their young children are reading, and, if they have serious concerns, to steer their kids away from certain books, even asking for substitute titles if the book is a school assignment.

But as a lifelong lover of books and a staunch opponent of censorship, here's what chilled me most about the reaction to Perks in Pasco County: A parent who filed a complaint was quoted as saying, "The material is disgusting. It needs to be pulled. No other kids should be getting this book."

Every parent has the right to guide his or her own child's reading. But no parent has the right to tell other parents what their child may or may not read. If I were a Pasco parent, that attitude would scare me a lot more than any novel.