Discover yourself in the 11 best coming-of-age novels ever written

by Lynda O’Gorman

Nobody ever said adolescence was easy. The transition from childhood to adulthood can be fraught with feelings of alienation and loneliness. In fact, the whole process of becoming a grown-up can be so dramatic, people have been writing coming-of-age stories (sometimes called bildungsroman) for just about as long as novels have existed.

There’s something reassuring about these stories, a comforting familiarity to the doubts and worries expressed by the protagonists. These are books to remind you that you are not alone, that however misfit you might feel right now, you will figure out where you belong.

Evelina (The History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World) by Frances Burney
Fanny Burney’s debut novel was probably the first written by a woman to be taken seriously by contemporary critics. Jane Austen was a fan, and certainly borrowed a phrase or two, while Virginia Woolf hailed her as the ‘mother of English fiction.’

Evelina was first published in 1778, a time when there was still some doubt as to whether it was even appropriate for a young lady of quality to be seen reading something so frivolous as a novel. Burney stretched the girl-finds-husband romance genre to examine the steep learning curve of ‘a girl of obscure birth, whose only dowry is her beauty’ who is, with neither guardian nor guidance, launched into Society. ‘This young lady seems to be peculiarly situated; she is very young, very inexperienced, yet appears to be left totally to her own direction.’

Poor Evelina is met with a cast of philanderers, cads and ne’er do wells who use and abuse her. She endures a series of embarrassments, rather in the style of Bridget Jones, as she learns to trust her own judgement and discerns which rules of behaviour are better broken.

While the 18th Century English may seem a smidgeon archaic to us, Burney was remarkable in her day for her playful experimentation with words. Evelina was the first fictional character to ever go ‘a-shopping’ or ‘seeing sights’ and is even the first to ‘make myself up’ in the sense of painting her face with cosmetics. This might be a challenging read but the epistolary style (it’s written as a series of letters) is compelling and Burney’s wit is timeless. The Oxford World Classics edition provides helpful and interesting notes. Evelina is a rewarding read.

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
Margaret Ann Simon, is ‘going on twelve’. She likes long hair, tuna fish, the smell of rain and things that are pink. She hates pimples, baked potatoes, when her mother’s mad and religious holidays.

Religion is particularly problematic for Margaret. Her mother and father were brought up to be Christian and Jewish, respectively, but they gave up religion when they eloped together and have decided that Margaret should decide for herself which religion, if any, she should adopt.

‘My parents don’t know I actually talk to God. I mean, if I told them they’d think I was some kind of religious fanatic or something.’

The book, first published in 1970, was banned in many schools. Margaret’s independent relationship with God was deemed inappropriate and her discussions with God about boys, bras and periods were shocking to some. Judy Blume refused to ‘tone down’ her books to make them less controversial and became a strident activist against censorship.

Read her defence of Harry Potter here.

 

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen. It was true too.

Poor Mary is contrary, and cheeky and spoilt. In India she was accustomed to being waited on hand and foot and doesn’t even know how to tie her own buttons. No-one at Misselthwaite has time to mollycoddle her – they’re all too stressed about taking care of a mysterious invalid. But Mary is also lonely, and courageous and clever. With a combination of curiosity and grit, she discovers the secrets of both house and garden.

The Secret Garden sets forth the perfect template of a coming-of-age novel: Mary’s parents die, nobody seems to understand her, and she sets out on a quest to find a hidden key. In this book the key is literally a key.

The really clever thing is that the great adventure, the journey of discovery, is confined within the four high walls of an overgrown garden. For most of us there is no great journey through strange lands, at least not in the literal sense. Growing up or (that worn-out term) finding yourself is about seeing the familiar in a new way. There is magic in this book, but none that can’t be discovered by every one of us.

I wouldn’t want to make it look like a gardener’s garden, all clipped an’ spick an’span, would you?’ he said. ‘It’s nicer like this with things runnin’ wild, an’ swingin’ an’ catchin’ hold of each other.

Mary learns that she doesn’t need to be the one in charge of everything, and not everything needs to be controlled, and there is just about no place better you can be than in a garden with your friends. Beautifully written and very wise indeed, no one should grow up without reading this book.

 

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D Taylor
Cassie Logan is a nine-year-old black girl living in Mississippi, at the heart of America’s South. She’s bright and funny, a little bit mischievous and thoroughly relatable.

The book opens in 1931, a time of deep economic depression when poverty was rampant and racism found a space to grow. The Logan family is unusual in owning their own land, a source of income and huge pride for her father, but also a privilege that makes the Logan family a target for disgruntled white landowners.

Cassie and her brothers have an hour’s walk to school every day because black children are not provided with transport. Insult is added to injury when the school bus speeds past, deliberately splashing through muddy puddles and white children hang, jeering and cat-calling from the windows. Cassie’s temper is riled by the continual unfairness but there is real danger in responding.  She can’t afford to give the terrifying ‘night-riders’ an excuse to call on her home.

It is for Cassie to figure out how much injustice she ought to tolerate, what she might have the power to change and when the price of standing up for herself is worth paying.

There are things you can’t back down on, things you gotta take a stand on. But it’s up to you to decide what them things are. You have to demand respect in this world, ain’t nobody just gonna hand it to you. How you carry yourself, what you stand for – that’s how you gain respect. But, little one, ain’t nobody’s respect worth more than your own. You understand that?

This quotation is the very essence of the coming-of-age genre and, when you think about it, those few lines sum up what it means to become a grown-up.

 

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Jane Eyre is ‘a Governess, disconnected, poor and plain’ but determined that life has more to offer her than ‘to be made useful, to be kept humble.’

I re-immersed myself in this novel, after an interval of 25 years or more, with the sole purpose of affirming its suitability for this list. Reader, I was enthralled. So vividly does Brontëpaint her world that I could almost hear the rustle of my silk skirts and ‘filling up each pause, the beating of winter rain against the panes.’ So credible is Jane’s character, so intimate her narrative tone, that I was perfectly willing to suspend disbelief and imagine myself a personal correspondent, perhaps even a friend, of this resilient and resourceful young woman.

The plot, I’ll grant you, stretches credulity. Our heroine endures domestic neglect and institutional brutality before securing her position at Thornfield Hall as Governess to the illegitimate ward of Edouard Fairfax de Rochester. Her boss is neither handsome nor charming and yet the attraction between Jane and Rochester is immediate and incendiary. ‘He made me love him without looking at me.

But there is a mystery at Thornfield from which the Governess is purposely excluded – an ominous presence in the attics which threatens to stand between Jane Eyre and her happy ending. Doubtless, the classics can be daunting but whatever Charlotte Brontë demands of your attention, she amply repays in wit and wisdom.

By book’s end Jane is the very model of self-possession and maturity. However, what I re-discovered in Jane Eyreis more than a coming-of-age novel. I found a fundamental, and still relevant, lesson in feminism – that liberty is achieved through education and financial independence. Also ringing with truth and relevance were the lessons Brontëhoped to impart: ‘Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion.

If all that weren’t sufficient, I found a love story as passionate and enduring as my romantic heart could ever desire.

 

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
When Betty Smith presented her publisher with an honest memoir of growing up in the tenements of Brooklyn, New York in the early part of the twentieth century she was advised to reconfigure her story as a novel. Thus was born the utterly credible character of Francie Nolan, a whip-smart, book-loving and very determined young girl.

Francie is the daughter of immigrants. Her father is Irish, charming, alcoholic, and devoid of ambition. Her mother is German, resourceful, and hopeful of a better life for her children.

It is Francie’s mother and grandmother who build her new life. They build it out of words. They tell Francie stories about fairies and elves so that she will learn how to believe, and they read everyday a page each of the bible and of Shakespeare so that she learns the power of words. ‘Francie was a reader. She read everything she could find: trash, classics, timetables and the grocer’s pricelist.

The local library, a place where ‘everything is neat, tidy, as it should be,’ becomes a portal to new worlds. Francie takes the business of her education seriously; she has a plan: ‘She was reading a book a day in alphabetical order and not skipping the dry ones.’

Little by little, Francie grows and learns. She begins to see through her father’s feckless charm and her mother’s brisk exterior.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn details the gradual unravelling of innocence, the end of childhood and the awakening of an intelligent and ambitious young woman. Betty Smith tells the simple story of her own youth in a way that makes the reader feel like a trusted confidante. This isn’t a regular novel; this is truth.

 

Girls in the Moon by Janet McNally
The tale of a small-town kid spending time in the Big Smoke is a frequent theme among coming-of-age novels. Holden Caulfield exploring New York in The Catcher in the Rye is the definitive example. Girls in the Moon is a sort of up-dated, more feminine version of Salinger’s classic.

This was five years after Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love had Frances Bean, when it seemed like the new cool thing was for rock stars to have babies. It was three years after Kurt, the world’s most famous Dad, shot himself. I suppose my story isn’t so bad, compared to that. My parents just broke up: their marriage, their band. Other than that, everyone survived.

Luna and Phoebe Ferris, both named for the moon, are the teenage daughters of rock-star royalty. They are also the reason that their parents’ mega-group disbanded and the reason their mother became reclusive. Now Luna wants to leave college and seek fame with her own band while Phoebe, with no discernible musical talent, is not sure where she belongs.

The author, who says she ‘has always liked boys in bands’ (and even married one) has more than enough musical kudos to be convincing. In a time obsessed with celebrity, Girls in the Moon offers an interesting peek inside what it might really be like to grow up in a world where everybody knows your name.

 

Every Exquisite Thing by Matthew Quick
Every Exquisite Thing is a book for book-lovers. In fact, it is a book about a book. The title is taken from Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray and the story is peppered throughout with literary references and recommendations.

Eighteen year old Nanette O’Hare seems to have it all going for her. Her privileged white family lives in a smart house in a good area. Nanette is smart and slim and pretty and the star player of her high school soccer team. But Nanette doesn’t feel as though she fits in her world. She prefers to eat lunch in the quiet company of her teacher than join the noisy throng in the school canteen and, if she’s honest, she really hates playing soccer.

Her teacher gives her a book which he says changed his life. This out-of-print cult classic leads Nanette through romance and tragedy to ultimately accepting herself just as she is.

There’s the type of person who says there are certain types of people and then tries to be one type or the other. And then there are others who say bananas to the whole concept of types and won’t allow themselves to be filed away under some sort of ridiculously limiting category.

Every Exquisite Thing is a strikingly American book. It is, in a way, about America and what people call the American dream – that anyone can succeed, can make it to Easy Street, if they work hard enough. Quick’s clever novel demonstrates that the trappings of that hard-won success don’t necessarily make people happy, that life is almost never easy, and that American culture demands a price from those who refuse to play along.

This is a book for anyone who’s not sure how much you should bend to belong to the crowd. On a practical note for students, Every Exquisite Thing makes an ideal contemporary companion to both The Bell Jar (see below) and The Great Gatsby (see here). A great read.

 

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
Esperanza Cordero doesn’t like her name. ‘In English my name means hope. In Spanish it means too many letters.’

Esperanza would like to rename herself with a name that felt more like her, Zeze the X would do nicely. She’d like to have prettier shoes and she’d like to live in a bigger house in a better neighbourhood. But that’s just not the way it is.

This extraordinary book is almost too short to be called a novel, almost too true to be called fiction, and almost too poetic to be called prose. The book is composed of 42 tiny chapters, what the author called ‘lazy poems’, some of them only half a page long. Each is a word picture, a vignette, describing a snippet of life on Mango Street.

We meet the girls who share ownership of a single bike, the handsome cousin who drives too fast, the fat lady who never leaves the house and the man who thinks hamandeggs is all one word. We watch as Esperanza transitions from skipping rope to swinging her hips and painting her eyes like Cleopatra.

The House on Mango Street is about growing up and growing apart from the people and places of your childhood.

You can’t forget what you know. You can’t forget who you are.

Cisneros writes with grace and power. The House of Mango Street is a book of relatively few words; this one is all heart.

 

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
To 13-year-old June Elbus, her uncle Finn was the only person in the world who seemed to really know her, to understand her, and genuinely like her just the way she was. When Finn dies of AIDS, it seems to June that he is simply irreplaceable.

Would I stay stupid for the rest of my life? Who would tell me the truth, the real story that was under what everybody else could see? How do you become someone who knows those things?

But Finn has left a legacy to June. He has left a painting that holds a hidden message, a book containing a last request, and a person who might just understand exactly how June feels.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home is set in New York, in 1987, at a time when people were finding it very difficult to see the human stories behind the AIDS crisis. This original and heart-warming story questions the boundaries of love, where the line is that turns love into jealousy, and whether love can ever be wrong.

The book comes with a playlist of appropriate musical accompaniment to help immerse yourself in the 1980s experience and lists of suggested books and films to enjoy when you’ve finished.

 

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
‘I wondered what terrible thing it was that I had done.’

Searing in its honesty, and almost unbearably sad, The Bell Jar is surely one of the most beautiful and powerful books you’re likely to find.

In 1953 Sylvia Plath won a writing competition for teenage girls. The prize was a month’s work experience at a New York based fashion magazine with ‘expenses paid, and piles and piles of free bonuses.’ Sylvia was expected to have the time of her life. The Bell Jar is the story of that summer narrated by the barely fictional, autobiographical protagonist, Esther Greenwood.

Look what can happen in this country, they’d say. A girl lives in some out-of-the-way town for nineteen years, so poor she can’t afford a magazine, and then she gets a scholarship to college and wins a prize here and a prize there and ends up steering New York like her own private car.

Esther doesn’t feel as though she’s steering anything, least of all her own life. She begins to feel deeply inadequate and hopeless.

She is frustrated by the limited opportunities for women. The only hope of employment for an English major is to learn shorthand and spend her days transcribing ‘letter after thrilling letter’ for ‘all the up-and-coming young men’. Esther has no intention of learning shorthand and wants to pen her own thrilling letters. Plath, it turns out, had about as much interest in being made useful and kept humble as did Charlotte Brontë.

Loaded on top of this frustration is her absolute fury at the double standard of behaviour for men and for women, the fact that men could boast of their conquests while women were expected to remain ‘pure.’

When Esther sinks into a profound depression her mother brings her to a psychiatrist who recommends electric shock therapy. The story descends abruptly from teenage angst to sheer barbarism.

The coming-of-age story Sylvia Plath tells is one where an intelligent young woman is stripped of control over her own life because of mental illness. Esther is treated like a child and deprived of the freedom to make adult choices. Through it all she holds the reader spellbound with a voice of cool reason and black humour. The Bell Jar is a great novel, by any standard.

For more book inspiration, see here and here.