We can all relate to the transformations that unfold during adolescence and early adulthood. In literature, coming-of-age books capture these abstract yet essential processes best. These books delve into problematic and tender family dynamics, tap into self-discovery and belonging, and explore sexuality, romance, and heartbreak.
These are our picks for the best coming-of-age books.
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
As the debut novel of author Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner centers on two childhood friends from different castes and their inextricable bond through perilous times. Set during the fading Afghan monarchy, the novel follows two boys of different classes through increasing ethnic, political, and religious turbulence.
Once you've read the book, stream the movie on Amazon Prime.
Words of Wisdom: “It may be unfair, but what happens in a few days, sometimes even a single day, can change the course of a whole lifetime."
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
Author Jeanette Winterson draws on her strict religious upbringing to introduce readers to Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit's eponymous character, who leaves the church (which includes her home and family) at 16 to devote herself to a woman she's supposed to convert.
Words of Wisdom: “I have a theory that every time you make an important choice, the part of you left behind continues the other life you could have had.”
My Education by Susan Choi
Regina Gottlieb was already wary of Professor Nicholas Brodeur's womanizing ways before she began graduate studies at an elite university. However, she was completely blindsided by his wife. My Education follows Regina's missteps for 15 years, beginning in the bedroom.
Words of Wisdom: “I didn't grasp that desire and duty could rival each other, least of all that they most often did.”
Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
Fourteen-year-old John struggles with his identity when he learns revealing truths one day in Harlem during the Depression. Over one day, we join John, the stepson of an abusive preacher, on a quest to find himself.
Words of Wisdom: “There are people in the world for whom 'coming along' is a perpetual process, people who are destined never to arrive.”
Breaking the Tongue by Vyvyane Loh
On the brink of Japanese invasion during WWII Singapore, Claude, a Chinese boy raised on Western ideals, must learn to accept his heritage, including learning his native tongue. Author Vyvyane Loh weaves an equally personal and political narrative through Claude and his family that asks readers what role language plays in our perceptions.
Words of Wisdom: "A Chinese character is flexible – now a verb, now a noun, an adjective, an adverb – an actor comfortable in all parts. Its nature is architectural; meaning is designed by relative position, by auxiliary words, parallel beams, juxtaposed elements. Tone is critical, as is perspective."
Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld
Fourteen-year-old Lee from the Midwest romanticized what her boarding school in Massachusetts would be like. When she arrives, she discovers the underworld of jaded, wealthy teens. In Prep, Lee is not immune to universal adolescent experiences, including the growing distance between child and parent, extreme friendships, and confusing romance.
Words of Wisdom: “I always worried someone would notice me, and then when no one did, I felt lonely.”
White Teeth by Zadie Smith
Friendship, love, war, and cultures mingle through the lives of two friends—post-WWII veterans—and their families. While one grapples with his son's religious apathy, the other struggles with self-worth. White Teeth, a debut novel by Zadie Smith, takes readers into the immigrant lives of post-war London.
Words of Wisdom: “You are never stronger...than when you land on the other side of despair.”
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
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 their newly released (and previously absent) father. What follows is an intimate, personal portrait of three generations, and the implications of race and gender in America.
Words of Wisdom: "I swallow. I breathe. All delicious and damned."
The Waves by Virginia Woolf
For someone looking for a literary read on the evolution of friendship, pick up The Waves. Quintessentially modernist, Woolf captures individual consciousness alongside concepts of mortality, spirituality, national identity, and belonging. Readers learn inner thoughts and musings of childhood friends and watch them grow up from an internal perspective.
Words of Wisdom: "There was a star riding through clouds one night, and I said to the star, 'Consume me.'"
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
The House on Mango Street is 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. 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."
All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung
All You Can Ever Know is a reflective memoir by Nicole Chung about her experience as a Korean adoptee in America. With each chapter, Chung contemplates themes of acceptance, assimilation, and identity, as well as the meaning of family.
Words of Wisdom: “I finally understood what my birth parents did not: my adoption was hard and complicated, but it was not a tragedy. It was not my fault, and it wasn’t theirs, either. It was the easiest way to solve just one of too many problems.”
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
This American classic is a must-read. In To Kill a Mockingbird, readers witness and grapple with injustice through the eyes of a wise-beyond-her-years little girl, Scout. Author Harper Lee's narrative 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."
The Girls by Emma Cline
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. The Girls transports readers to the 1960's San Francisco area, pulling you into a world that's simultaneously alluring, grotesque, idyllic, and dystopian.
Words of Wisdom: "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 by Angie Thomas
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 and tries to balance two worlds after police fatally shoot her unarmed best friend. It's a resonant must-read that feels especially topical in the 2020 political climate.
Words of Wisdom: "Brave doesn't mean you're not scared. It means you go on even though you're scared."
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
If you haven't met Holden Caulfield yet, you're in for a treat. Centered around one of America's most beloved literary characters, this book is thoroughly entertaining. It opens with Caulfield dropping out of prep school, and we join him on his venture into New York City's wealthy society. If you're sick of the phoniness of a grown-up world, Caulfield is the protagonist 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 by John Knowles
A Separate Peace has been a coming-of-age staple for decades. Add it to your personal collection if you enjoy books that hone in on personal growth alongside major historical events and collective transformation. The novel follows the relationship between two boys at an English prep school as they experience many firsts while WWII changes 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."
Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa
This novel's title is moving and evocative enough on its own, though there is plenty more wisdom to devour within the pages. It follows a young grieving man a few years after the death of his mother. He 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."
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
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 still resonate today. It's narrated by men reflecting on a neighborhood tragedy they witnessed as adults, and this one-removed approach makes 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.'"
The Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown
Given that The Rubyfruit Jungle was originally published in 1973, it reads well beyond its years. This coming-of-age story is about a young woman who explores her sexuality unapologetically, 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."
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Authored by Sherman Alexie, this novel takes place on the Spokane Indian Reservation. The protagonist, Junior, transfers from his school on the reservation to an all-white high school in a farm town, where the only other familiar face is the school mascot.
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."