TAMPA - Coming-of-age themes tend to be thorny, and teaching such subjects in a high school literature class can be like stumbling through a moralistic minefield.
"The Perks of Being a Wallflower" is a book that tries to bridge the gap between childhood and adulthood and has been mostly lauded by critics. But some parts of the book are disgusting, said the mom of one 14-year-old incoming freshman at Wharton High School, where the book was listed on the school's website as required summer reading for first-year students.
Lori Derrico, an emergency room nurse whose daughter will attend Wharton next month, strongly objects to the choice. In a letter to school officials Monday, she said the book is not appropriate for freshmen and cited paragraphs that depicted sexual scenes, drug use and even one passage that mentioned sex with a dog.
"My daughter did not know most of the things referenced ... and now, thanks to the mandatory reading, she knows all of these things,'' Derrico said. "She lost a big chunk of innocence and I am heartbroken over it."
The mom asked who chooses the mandatory summer reading selections for incoming freshmen and questioned whether there were better choices.
"What happened to 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' 'The Secret Life of Bees,' 'Life of Pi,' 'The Great Gatsby,' 'The Giver' or 'Three Cups of Tea' or any of the other thousands of award-winning books that don't mention sex positions for teens and homosexuals or doing drugs with school faculty.''
School district officials admit "Perks" may not be for everyone but says there was another option for parents who didn't want their children to read that book. The school, though, never listed the alternative book, "A Separate Peace" by John Knowles, on its website.
"Definitely, the school should have made it clear on its website" that there was an alternative, said Tanya Arja, school district spokeswoman. "The school did not make it clear there was another option."
Summer reading lists typically are decided by a team of English teachers in each individual school. As long as the choices are not on the list of inappropriate books, they are approved.
There are 600 incoming freshmen at Wharton, Arja said, and most likely have begun or finished "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," unaware they had a choice. She said one or two calls have come in questioning the content.
"Anyone who called in was told what the other option was," she said.
The story, set in the early 1990s in a Pittsburgh suburb, is narrated by an introverted teenager through his freshman year of high school.
The book, which was made into a PG-13 movie last year starring Emma Watson and directed by the book's author, Stephen Chbosky, does have its supporters.
It has been compared by some to J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye" and has been taught in high schools across the nation, but not without some controversy. In Wisconsin, a move by parents to ban "Perks" in 2004 fell short after Chbosky wrote a letter to the school board defending his work. In a May interview, the author said he was aware of two school districts, one in Massachusetts and one in New York, that have pulled "Perks" from reading lists.
Chbosky, in an interview withWord Riot, an online literary magazine, said objections mainly are from parents who cite passages out of context.
"I don't want to disrespect those folks," he told the magazine. "I would find the thing a lot less upsetting if I understood where the parents were coming from, but when they present their case, they take certain things out of context and put them in the worst possible light."
He mentioned a part where the main character witnesses a disturbing date rape.
"Part of the reason why 'Perks' connects with so many kids is because it's real," he said. "It's comforting, because the situations described in the book are so universal and happen to so many teenagers, but it seems like the people who challenge the book don't want to admit these things happen."
A recent book review published by The Guardian in England called the book a "deeply affecting novel."
"'The Perks of Being a Wallflower' is an acquired taste and, at times, it is very hard to digest," the unnamed reviewer wrote. "There are many themes which will be very difficult and inappropriate for younger audiences. However, it is one of those coming-of-age novels that you must read at least once in your life. It is a true masterpiece."
A random check of other Hillsborough high schools' summer reading programs did not find "The Perks of Being a Wallflower." Books on other schools' websites included "The Importance of Being Earnest," "Moby Dick" and "Great Expectations" plus a variety of other books.
On the Wharton High website is a worksheet for "Perks" readers, asking them to identify memorable and significant quotes, to list main characters, settings and to identify the plot summary and themes in the book. The exercise is a way for teachers to rate students' writing and comprehension skills.
"The ninth-grade year of English is an intense study of the concept of coming of age," the website said. "Coming of age can best be described as the transformation of a youth from adolescence to adulthood. It is usually sparked by a crucial incident that changes one's life, way of thinking, feeling, or even one's views of a subject or the world. It is basically the development of self-awareness."
Derrico said if she had been aware of the choice, she would have opted out of "Perks" for her daughter. She said the book should not even be among the options.
"I hope that in the future the school will choose books that are thought-provoking and encouraging to grow students' minds," she wrote in her letter district officials. "Books with multiculturalism and lessons of tolerance. Inspiring stories that enlighten and inspire students. ... I think these children deserve better."