In the mood to relive the angst, heartbreak, and excitement of your youth? Our list of the best coming-of-age books has you sorted.
Coming-of-age books (also known as bildungsromans, for any budding literary critics out there) aren’t always stereotypical YA novels. They’re generally rooted in the real experience of someone growing into themselves: the classic “firsts” (loves, heartbreaks, travels, etc.), the angst of youth and early adulthood, and the shifting dynamics of friendships and relationships.
Despite being a broad genre, with different settings, people, times, and values, coming-of-age books have endured in popularity for the past three centuries (!). We’ve collected some of the best ones of all time, below.
Little Women – Louisa May Alcott (1869)
One of the most commonly adapted novels for film, theatre, and television, Little Women follows the lives of four sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, as they move through the passage of adolescence to womanhood in the 19th century.
Investigating ideas such as domesticity, gender roles, feminine identity, true love, and familial duty, the novel is a staple of the coming-of-age genre.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – James Joyce (1916)
If Irish writer James Joyce sounds familiar, you’ve probably heard of his epic Ulysses. But before Ulysses, was his first novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man which traces the intellectual awakening of Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s fictional alter ego.
Exploring ideas surrounding early-twentieth-century Irish nationalism, Catholicism, and identity, Joyce’s first novel is often described as one of the greatest English-language novels of all time.
The Waves – Virginia Woolf (1931)
Structured as a set of soliloquies, The Waves follows the lives of six characters from childhood to adulthood and is considered to be one of Virginia Woolf’s most experimental works. It is frequently ranked as one of the greatest novels of all time.
The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger (1951)
The original master of literary teenage anxiety, J.D. Salinger is regularly featured on “best books of the twentieth-century lists” with his novel, The Catcher in the Rye. While it was written more than half a century ago, Salinger’s genius lies in his deeply human characterization of his depressed, teenage protagonist, Holden Caulfield.
It’s probably why it’s been beloved for more than a handful of decades, and has become emblematic of the coming-of-age genre.
The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath (1963)
The Bell Jar follows the life of college student Esther Greenwood, her eventual mental breakdown, and her experience of recovery. Largely inspired by Plath’s own mental health struggles, the novel is known for its ruthless frankness in critiquing the role of women in mid-twentieth-century society.
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou (1969)
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is an autobiographical account of Maya Angelou’s early childhood, adolescence, and coming-of-age in Arkansas, exploring the power of literature, the sprawling claws of trauma and racism, and a celebration of Black womanhood.
Song of Solomon – Toni Morrison (1977)
Song of Solomon follows the protagonist Milkman, from his rustbelt city to the place of his family’s origins, from the years of his early childhood to the tumultuous years of adulthood.
Endless Love – Scott Spencer (1979)
Endless Love details a passionate love story between two young characters, David and Jade, who embark on a tumultuous relationship and explore the fracturing highs and lows of first love.
The House on Mango Street – Sandra Cisneros (1983)
Written as a set of vignettes, The House on Mango Street details the life of Esperanza Cordero, a 12-year-old Chicana girl growing up in Chicago. Dealing with themes such as class differences, puberty, sexual harassment, domestic violence, sexism, and racism, the coming-of-age book is one of the most influential, and intersectional, examples of the genre.
The House on Mango Street was the first book I ever read where the characters were just like me. https://t.co/96Cj3bnWbl
— Elvia Limón (@elvialimon) November 11, 2021
How the García Girls Lost Their Accents – Julia Alvarez (1991)
Following the lives of Carla, Sandi, Yolanda, and Sofia, four Dominican girls who move to America, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents explores the group’s coming-of-age. As the book details the girls’ attempts to assimilate into American society, it masterfully delves into themes of rootlessness, tradition, family, and immigrant identity.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky (1999)
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a contemporary bildungsroman that details the life of Charlie, an introverted teenager, as he navigates the perils of adolescence to adulthood. Rich with ’90s teenage nostalgia, the coming-of-age book explores themes such as drug use, first loves, depression, sexuality, and friendship.
For those wanting to check out the film adaptation (starring Emma Watson and Ezra Miller, no less), it’s just as beloved as the novel was, and is directed by Stephen Chbosky himself.
White Teeth – Zadie Smith (2000)
White Teeth is a multi-layered, hysterical-realist saga that follows the stories of two families from Bangladesh and Jamaica in modern Britain, following both old and young protagonists as they experience a tapestry of generational tensions.
Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides (2002)
Middlesex is an extraordinary novel that chronicles the life of Calliope/Cal Stephanopolis, exploring the main character’s hermaphroditism and its effects on their identity. Examining the passage to adulthood, the novel is a radically inventive take on the bildungsroman form — an aspect that was a key factor in the coming-of-age book’s 2003 Pulitzer Prize win.
Purple Hibiscus – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2003)
Set amidst the backdrop of a crumbling Nigerian military regime, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus details the life of fifteen-year-old Kambili. Stunning, provocative, and filled with heartfelt emotion, Purple Hibiscus explores coming-of-age against the brutal tapestry of a country’s civil unrest, the turbulence of adolescence, and the strength of family bonds.
The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini (2003)
The Kite Runner spans the shifting landscape of Kabul, Afghanistan over three decades, detailing the friendship of a wealthy boy, Amir, and the son of his father’s servant, Hassan, as they come of age amongst violence, displacement, and war.
The Book Thief – Markus Zusak (2005)
Taking place in 1939 Germany, The Book Thief tells the story of Liesel Meminger, the daughter of German communists, and her relationship with literacy as she grows up in a foster family as the Nazi regime reaches unimaginable heights. Detailing Liesel’s coming-of-age amongst the chaos of war, Markus Zusak’s book explores ideas of language, human emotion, and the turbulence of trying to figure out who you are.
Call Me By Your Name – André Aciman (2007)
Call Me By Your Name follows the story of Elio Perlman, a precocious young American, as he falls in love with an older man. Set in the mid-’80s, the coming-of-age book captures the youth, obsession, and consummation of first love, as it blossoms against the backdrop of Northern Italy.
One of the most beloved books in the coming-of-age canon, André Aciman’s masterpiece is an intimate observation of how the ones you love can shape who you become.
Submarine – Joe Dunthorne (2007)
Submarine follows the life of fourteen-year-old Oliver Tate, who lives in the seaside town of Swansea, Wales. Extremely funny and off-beat, the coming-of-age novel has been described by a particularly enthusiastic reader on Goodreads, as: “Ever wondered what it would be like if Wes Anderson got drunk on vodka and watched the entire box set of The Inbetweeners in one night? Reader meet Submarine.” Don’t think we could sum it up any better than that.
Director: Richard Ayoade (@RichardAyoade)
DOP: Erik Wilson
Screenplay: Richard Ayoade
Based on “Submarine” by Joe Dunthorne pic.twitter.com/oYRax2ztPC
— Film Shots 📽 (@shots_film) May 11, 2021
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Díaz (2007)
Written by Dominican-American writer Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao tells the story of Dominican teenager Oscar de León as he grows up in New Jersey. Infused with magical realism, the coming-of-age book is a masterpiece on the growing pains of adolescence.
Dazzling in its prose, the novel was universally acclaimed upon publication and won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante (2011)
Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend is a gorgeous exploration of coming of age, exploring themes of womanhood, friendship, and class against the backdrop of Southern Italy.
Silver Sparrow – Tayari Jones (2011)
Silver Sparrow tells the story of two teenage sisters, Dana and Chaurisse, whose lives intersect because of their shared, bigamist father. While Dana knows everything about Chaurisse’s life and family, the latter has no idea of her father’s secret family.
As the two daughters form a friendship, themes of womanhood, friendship, love, and fidelity are explored, and Tayari Jones’ coming-of-age book depicts the complex fragility of wanting to be loved and accepted.
The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt (2013)
The Goldfinch follows the life of Theo Decker, beginning aged 13, from the tragedy that haunts his adolescence, and expanding into the dangerous life that he grows into as he tries to reconcile with his trauma.
The Last Illusion – Porochista Khakpour (2014)
Following the life of Zal, an Iranian boy born with albinism, The Last Illusion details Zal’s journey from being abandoned by his family to being saved by a behavioural analyst and transported to New York.
Exploring the “firsts” of adolescence (crushes, sexual encounters, alcohol-fuelled embarrassment, and lowly part-time jobs), as well as identity, the desire to be loved, and themes of belonging, The Last Illusion‘s complex, magical realist world is equally filled with the ordinary, human experiences that make up our lives.
A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara (2015)
Following the lives of four friends in New York City, A Little Life details their lives as they come of age and explores themes of jealousy, love, mental health, fluid romantic and platonic relationships, and how one finds their way to adulthood after a history of unspeakable trauma.
Nominated for the 2015 Man Booker Prize, and winning the Kirkus Prize, Hanya Yanagihara’s epic was critically acclaimed upon release.
A Little Life is slowly becoming a new comfort book. pic.twitter.com/wMyHkoNlWs
— 𝑆𝑎𝑑𝑛𝑒𝑠𝑠 𝐸𝑣𝑒𝑟𝑑𝑒𝑒𝑛 ♡ (@Morenhoe) November 9, 2021
Swing Time – Zadie Smith (2016)
Swing Time details the lives of two girls, Tracey and the unnamed narrator, who meet at a tap dance class in 1982. The coming-of-age novel follows the pair’s lives as they diverge from each other, exploring themes of childhood friendship, race, class, and gender.
As summed up by The Guardian, the genius of the novel is described as: “Like all of Smith’s novels, Swing Time has brilliant things to say about race, class, and gender, but its most poignant comment is perhaps this. Given who we are, who we are told that we are not, and who we imagine we might become, how do we find our way home?”
American Street – Ibi Zoboi (2017)
Following the lives of Haitian immigrants in America, American Street focuses on the coming-of-age of Fabiola Toussain. With her mother being detained by U.S. immigration forces, Fabiola is forced to move to her cousin’s house in Detroit alone, and learn to navigate her strange, new world.
Exploring themes of dreams, hope, love, and desire, American Street paints a heartwarming portrait of what it means to grow up at the crossroads of two worlds.
Normal People – Sally Rooney (2017)
Exploring the frailties of human connection in the modern age, Sally Rooney’s celebrated book chronicles the coming-of-age of its protagonists, Connell and Marianne. First love, missed connections, heartbreak, and sex — Normal People explores the intimate details of the lasting impact that other people can have on our lives.
The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas (2017)
The Hate U Give is the story of Starr Carter, a 16-year-old Black girl who becomes part of a national news story after she witnesses a white police officer shoot and kill her childhood friend, Khalil.
As reviewed in The Guardian, the book was described as: “an outstanding debut novel and says more about the contemporary black experience in America than any book I have read for years, whether fiction or non-fiction.”
The Idiot – Elif Batuman (2017)
The Idiot follows Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, as she begins her freshman year at Harvard in the ’90s and experiences the breathless confusion of first love, friendship, and the growing consciousness of the vast world around her. It’s worth mentioning that Batuman’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel was also finalized for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous – Ocean Vuong (2019)
Written in epistolary form, Ocean Vuong’s heartbreaking book is written as a series of letters from the gay, young protagonist, Little Dog, to his illiterate mother. Filled with moments of angst, catharsis, love, and heartbreak, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous explores a coming-of-age fractured by war, immigration, and burgeoning sexuality.
Just started reading “On Earth we’re briefly gorgeous” and ive already had to pause and stare at the wall multiple times cause theres so many breathtaking lines pic.twitter.com/cOPFLXVe3t
— B☻N 🌼 🇵🇸 As Yet Unsent spoilers (@D4VEKAT) November 15, 2021