The Best Coming-of-Age Novels Will Make You Rethink the World
What does it really mean to grow up? Loss of innocence? Becoming self-sufficient? Turning 18? Running out of "firsts" to check off the bucket list? One could argue you never really stop growing up or that you never even start, but defining what it is exactly might be beyond the point if we can all relate to the transformations that unfold during adolescence and early adulthood. And coming-of-age books tend to capture these abstract yet essential processes best.
Indeed, they delve into problematic or tender family dynamics, tap into self-discovery and seeking a sense of belonging within larger communities, capture sexuality, young romance, and heartbreak, and represent the universal process of time and age, making them especially personal and moving. We curated a library of 14 coming-of-age novels, including both classics and new releases, that are basically a rite of passage. Read on below to get a taste of the best coming-of-age books featuring different kinds of upbringings, characters, and literary styles, and add the most enticing to your own shelves.
Though this contemporary novel follows a similar arc to The Odyssey, Jesmyn Ward ultimately delivers a fresh, innovative coming-of-age epic. It follows a family traveling from a rural town in Mississippi to the state prison to pick up the children's newly released (and previously absent) father. We get an intimate, personal portrait of three generations while also learning about the larger implications of race and gender in America.
Words of Wisdom: "I swallow. I breathe. All delicious and damned."
For someone looking for a literary read that touches on the themes of friendship and how they evolve throughout all the stages of life, pick up The Waves. Quintessentially modernist, Woolf captures individual consciousness alongside abstract and grand concepts of mortality, spirituality, national identity, and belonging. The reader gets to know the inner thoughts and musings of childhood friends and watches them grow up from an internal perspective. As with all her work, it's truly life-changing.
Words of Wisdom: "There was a star riding through clouds one night, and I said to the star, 'Consume me.'"
This is one of those books you'll read again and again and take something different away each time. It's confrontational and honest yet poetic and moving, touching on inequality and intersectionality. It's broken into vignettes narrated by Esperanza, a spirited and strong teenage girl who takes on a bit of an insider/outsider role. It's nothing short of an American classic. Read it in Spanish if you can!
Words of Wisdom: "I have decided not to grow up tame like the others who lay their necks on the threshold waiting for the ball and chain."
Based on his own experiences traveling across the country, On the Road is Jack Kerouac's most popular work and arguably the most popular of the entire Beat Generation. It traces Neal Cassady's drive across the country, wrestling with notions of freedom, convention, and what it means to be American.
Words of Wisdom: "A pain stabbed my heart, as it did every time I saw a girl I loved who was going the opposite direction in this too-big world."
This American classic is a must-read. But beyond being an important book, To Kill a Mockingbird is also gripping, touching, and eye-opening. You'll witness and grapple with injustice through the eyes of a wise-beyond-her-years little girl, Scout. This approach makes it even more valuable for kids, parents, and everyone in between.
Words of Wisdom: "The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience."
Emma Cline's debut novel paints a vivid image of teenage vulnerability and the power of manipulation, mirroring Charles Manson's cult, except this time the girls following the Manson-like leader are in the spotlight. It transports you to the San Francisco Bay Area in the '60s, pulling you into a world that's simultaneously alluring and grotesque, idyllic, and widely dystopian. Though a bit of a thriller at times, it's also something that most young girls can connect with, thanks to Cline's expert ability to capture girlhood.
'Words of Wisdom: "So much of desire, at that age, was a willful act. Trying so hard to slur the rough, disappointing edges of boys into the shape of someone we could love. We spoke of our desperate need for them with rote and familiar words, like we were reading lines from a play. Later I would see this: how impersonal and grasping our love was, pinging around the universe, hoping for a host to give form to our wishes."
The Hate U Give was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. At the center of the story is a teenage girl from a poor neighborhood who attends a fancy prep school as she tries to find a balance between the two worlds after police fatally shoot her unarmed best friend. It's a resonant must-read that feels especially topical in today's political climate.
Words of Wisdom: "Brave doesn't mean you're not scared. It means you go on even though you're scared."
If you haven't gotten to know Holden Caulfield yet, you're in for a treat. Centering around one of America's most beloved literary characters, this book is thoroughly entertaining. It opens as Caulfield drops out of prep school, and we end up joining him on his venture into New York City's rich underground. So if you're sick of the "phoniness" of our grown-up world, Caulfield will be the perfect person to commiserate with; he'll also help you rediscover the joy and beauty in everything.
Words of Wisdom: "Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It's a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry."
A Separate Peace has been a coming-of-age staple in libraries around the world for almost 30 years now. Add it to yours if you enjoy books that hone in on personal growth alongside major historical events and collective transformation. It's about the relationship between two boys at a prep school in England as they experience many firsts while WWII is unfolding and changing the world around them.
Words of Wisdom: "I began to know that each morning reasserted the problems of night before, that sleep suspended all but changed nothing, that you couldn't make yourself over between dawn and dusk."
This novel's title is moving and evocative enough on its own, though there is plenty more wisdom to devour within the pages. Following a young grieving man a few years after the death of his mother, he learns and grapples with issues of justice, family, belonging, identity, and loss.
Words of Wisdom: "What is the function of the heart, if not to convince the blood to stay moving with the limits where it belongs, to stay at home. Stay at home, stay at home, stay at home. But restless thing that it is, your blood, it leaps into the world."
Full of hypnotic visuals and a poignant exploration of complex themes, The Virgin Suicides is a rewarding and perplexing read for teens and adults alike. It's set in '70s American suburbia, but the topics of repression, gender, isolation, love, and community are resonant still today. It's narrated by men who are reflecting on a neighbourhood tragedy they witnessed as adults, and this one-removed approach takes the ideas of projection and fantasy that much more convincing.
Words of Wisdom: "And it was then Cecilia gave orally what was to be her only form of suicide note, and a useless one at that, because she was going to live: 'Obviously, Doctor,' she said, 'you've never been a thirteen-year-old girl.'"
Considering that Rubyfruit Jungle was originally published in 1973, it reads so beyond its years. This coming of age story is about a young woman who explores her sexuality unapologetically while discovering what she wants to do with her life and how to make it happen, regardless of what everyone around her advises and models.
Words of Wisdom: "Mothers and aunts tell us about infancy and early childhood, hoping we won't forget the past when they had total control over our lives and secretly praying that because of it, we'll include them in our future."
This coming-of-tale written by Sherman Alexie takes place on a Spokane reservation. The protagonist, Junior, transfers from the local school to, as the Amazon description writes, "an all-white farm town high school where the only other Indian is the school mascot." Like all of Alexie's work, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a refreshing, eye-opening read that also happens to be resonant and accessible for all readers, regardless of age.
Words of Wisdom: "If you care about something enough, it’s going to make you cry. But you have to use it. Use your tears. Use your pain. Use your fear. Get mad."
Call Me by Your Name has everything you could want in a book: a fantastically romantic seaside town on the Italian coast, coming-of-age lessons about self-discovery and sexuality, and a sweet and steamy romance. Both uplifting and heart-wrenching, this book will make you feel it all and yearn for young love and an Italian vacation (or both).
Words of Wisdom: "And on that evening when we grow older still we'll speak about these two young men as though they were two strangers we met on the train and whom we admire and want to help along. And we'll want to call it envy, because to call it regret would break our hearts."
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