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Letters About Literature National Winners 2017

National Winner, Level 3: Apoorva Chauhan

Dear Stephen Chbosky,

Books have always been more to me than simple stories to pass the time. Time and time again they have acted as a doorway to new worlds and adventures, easy to escape to when reality becomes considerably unappealing. I have been a voracious reader for as long as I can remember, and the one constant companion I can recall is a good book. Reading to me was like breathing to others; I could not imagine a version of myself that was unable to enjoy reading. Whenever I got upset, disconnecting from my own woes to share those of people I would never meet beyond the realm of pages and ink was the only therapy I needed. It was the be-all end-all cure.

Until it wasn’t. Until a single event changed the very course of my existence, and it had far reaching repercussions, farther than just reality.

When I was ten years old, my mom and dad died in a car accident.

I didn’t want the platitudes of distant relatives, or the pitying looks of my friends. I wanted to forget. So imagine my surprise when I opened my books and I couldn’t. I tried. I tried re-reading all my old favorites. When that didn’t work, I looked for something new, something different that would hopefully please this different me. I read every genre, from science fiction to romance, young adult to classics, and nothing could suck me into a different world.

I felt like I had lost a piece of myself.

I refused to let my love die there. My whole world had just been blown to smithereens. I needed to be able to escape to another one. So I kept trying; all through middle school, over every summer, every break, I’d check out seven books at a time from the public library, more from my school library, and I would read them. I would read them cover to cover, from the copyright information to the author’s biography, but I never lived in them, not like I used to.¬†Every book, every doorway away from my world had been locked, and I had lost the key.

By the ninth grade, I had learned to cope with the gaping hole in my soul that used to be the place for wonderful stories created by wonderful people. I had given up. Nothing could cure this terrible cancer that had taken away my books. But then a friend of mine, Mason, made a passing reference about a book (one that I had heard about but never actually read; I didn’t read much anymore). He was shocked that I, his literary companion in our honestly subpar English Honors class, had no clue as to what he was talking about. Immediately, he made plans to read it together, so that we could discuss it as we went along and truly appreciate all the nuances and subtleties that made a book great. I didn’t put in as much effort to find the book; I thought he’d forget soon and then I could go on. I couldn’t stand the thought of reading something that sounded so great, and not being able to feel it. When Mason found out I did not have a copy yet, he shoved the book in my hand the first free moment we had, and I obligingly opened it, hoping to amuse him long enough that he’d let go of his wish.

But then I opened that book, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. And it felt like coming home. Charlie’s experiences resonated with me in a way that seemed impossible—his inability to participate and understand social graces, while simultaneously being lovable and quirky. He was easily misunderstood, but never cheated another the opportunity to be understood. I loved him instantly.

I felt cheated that I had never realized that there was a book that contained characters like Patrick, someone who reflected my personality so completely; oddly, I felt I had been written into a novel as a queer, teenaged boy. I felt cheated that I had never realized that there was a book written about kids who got together to recreate one of the greatest films of all time (though, admittedly, I watched The Rocky Horror Picture Show after I had read the book). I felt cheated that I had never realized that there was a book written with children like me as the heroes. I felt saved.

I learned how to live vicariously through my favorite characters, and to hate and love and cry with them. I craved moments in which I would feel infinite, and have mixtapes created for me that had someone’s favorite song on it twice, and find friends that would give me a typewriter to write my own adventures.

Before reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower, books had always been my escape, be it when my mother and older sister were fighting, after a trying day in school, or when reality was just plain boring. After the accident, I was stuck in the grim actuality of my existence without the option of running to a fictional land with fictional problems. I was stuck in the mindset that books were only good for absconding from my world, rather than understanding it. After walking through Charlie’s adventure with him, I learned how to connect with my reality and accept myself for the new person I had become, rather than seeing my new life as a prison. My adventure is one unique to me, and one to be cherished through the good times and the bad because at least I’m still around to experience it.

Your book walked me through living in another world again, something I feared would be lost to me forever. It helped me learn how to participate and live and feel again. I can’t say that I am the same person I was four years prior to reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but I can say that I don’t want to be that same person anymore.

With much appreciation,

Apoorva Chauhan