Teen Characters on the Fringe

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The Three Rivers Library TEEN BOOK CLUB recently read and discussed Stephen Chboksy’s cult coming-of-age classic, The Perks of Being a Wallflower during our weekly Wednesday gatherings. As a Pittsburgh native, this book especially resonates with my own teenage emergence in the early 2000’s, composed of similar stories of working class families, evening drives through the city’s bridges and tunnels that deliver scenic hilltops and valleys, late night hang-outs at our local 24-hour smoke-filled Eat n’ Park, and music listening parties in attics and basements of the freaks and geeks of my friend group. However, Chbosky’s 1990’s pop-culture allusions and lack of digital media references made me wonder if this book was really still applicable today, twenty years later, and in rural southwest Michigan and if the coming-of-age passage has really changed all that much.

Well, it so happens that this journal-style page-turner continues to latch onto the angst, confusion, and cathartic “infinite-ness” that accompanies the tricky codes and cool-factors of the American high school experience. Oh, and perhaps all the hype around the recent film adaptation of the book starring Emma Watson and Ezra Miller helps rekindle it’s appeal. Sure, there were many references that required some explanation, including the character group’s fascination with the Rocky Horror Picture Show and many musical choices for Charlie’s mix-tapes (let alone the notion of a cassette tape), but the group of teens found many ways to draw comparisons and mark shifts in the ways that we continue to navigate cliques, clothing, parties, parents, and friendship today.

Our gatherings took place on the floor of our Library meeting room and was supplemented by the ever-appealing oreos and pizza. This allowed for a certain level of  intimacy while discussing Charlie’s sensitive account of his freshmen year, including making friends, drug and alcohol use, parties, bullying and violence, homosexuality, family tension, and dating relationships. I was amazed at the maturity and thoughtfulness that these teens offered, and felt much relief that we could discuss these topics in a safe and open manner and space. We listened to some of the influential songs featured in the book, such as “Asleep” by The Smiths and “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mack, and story-boarded what this story would be like in the present tense. And, of course, I asked, what are the perks of being a wallflower, anyway? Many teens actually proudly self-identified with this label and recounted life in school hallways with their own unique perspectives.

Our last Teen Book Club meeting surrounding this book was themed ‘The Power of a Mix Tape.’ Launching from my memories of the music-listening gatherings my friends and I hosted in college, I asked each teen to bring 1-2 songs to contribute towards a collaborate mix tape. The only requirement was that each song had to represent what it personally feels like to be “infinite,” referencing a central line in the novel. We listened to each song in darkness, allowing listeners to focus on the experience and perhaps removing some potential for awkwardness or vulnerability. After turning on the lights, we then read through the lyrics and each person explained the personal significance of their choice song. Many teens had thoughts and affirmations relating to power of each piece of music, and shared references to life and pop-culture as well as other reactions to the lyrics and musical qualities. At the end of the gathering, each participant received a copy of the mix, with access to a video playlist a YouTube.  The conclusion of the afternoon was met with a general consensus–“Let’s do this again!” I marvel at the ways music and art can connect us to lived experience and ignite creativity, critical thinking, and imagination.

Overall, it was so great to share such a familiar coming-of-age story with TBC-ers here and now in Three Rivers. When given a space of dialogue to process and respond to the literature and music that we so frequently consume, there is infinite positive potential to contribute, feel accepted, and know that perhaps high school isn’t so bad after all.

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