Reading lists

The best coming-of-age novels, as chosen by our readers

Haruki Murakami, Dodie Smith and J.D. Salinger explore the highs and lows of teenage life in these classic coming-of-age tales, selected by you.

Book covers of the best coming of age novels chosen by our readers
Image: Alicia Fernandes / Penguin

Coming-of-age novels aren’t necessarily about age. They’re about growth, that defining moment in a character’s arc when the simple optimism of youth gives way to something deeper, an emotional understanding both of the world and themselves. I think the enduring popularity of the genre – also known, in literary criticism, as bildungsroman – is rooted in its essential humanity. Our protagonists experience the highs of first love, move to new cities, suffer losses, get jobs, see the dynamics of a familial relationship change; feelings familiar to many of us. We can relate, no matter where or when they were written. They are extraordinary in their very ordinariness.

Recently, we asked our followers on social media to share their favourite coming-of-age novels. We were quickly inundated with recommendations, everything from nineteenth century epics to queer classics to sensational millennial love stories.

Having read a few of the novels on this list in lockdown, I do think there’s something endlessly comforting about this type of book. Afterall, what better way is there, while stuck indoors with the world on pause, to experience life in its most vivid, angst-ridden, all-encompassing form?

Purple Hibiscus (2017) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

We said: When Nigeria is shaken by a military coup, fifteen-year-old Kambili and her older brother Jaja are sent to live with their aunt. Outside of the city, in a loving, laughter-filled home, they begin to discover a life beyond the confines of their father's religious fanaticism. Purple Hibiscus is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's debut novel; an exquisite portrait of family, freedom, and the emotional turmoil of adolescence. A must-read.

You said: Such a well-written, compelling, clever and heart-warming book.

Noa B, Facebook

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999) by Stephen Chbosky

We said:
Stephen Chbosky's epistolary novel explores what it's like to grow up in a contemporary American high school. Told through the eyes of Charlie, a sweet, introverted, pop culture-obsessed teenager. In 2012, the cult novel was also adapted into a feature film, starring Emma Watson and Logan Lerman.

You said: It was heartachingly honest.

Trina S-C, Facebook

Forever (1974) by Judy Blume

We said: Judy Blume's Forever was many young people's first honest introduction to sex and relationships, made all the more enticing by the fact it was often banned. It follows Katherine and Michael, and the development of their relationship. Filled with nuanced discussions about sex as both a physical and emotional act, it's an emotionally intelligent, saucy page-turner.

You said: It went around our 2nd Year form like lightning. You were only allowed to keep it for one night and then had to pass it on!

Katharine D, Facebook

Normal People (2018) by Sally Rooney

We said: Sally Rooney’s millennial love story about Irish teenagers Marianne and Connell was the literary sensation of 2018. It was impossible to avoid, and with good reason. Rooney’s superpower is her ability to make wholly relatable observations about the dynamics of a relationship and human nature in the most delicate, sublime prose.

You said: I found it very honest and very moving. The simplicity of the structure and the prose and the intense focus on the two main characters felt so intimate. It was less like reading about their relationship and more like experiencing it

Karren O, Facebook

The Places I’ve Cried in Public (2019) by Holly Bourne

We said
: A powerful deconstruction of a toxic teenage relationship, The Places I've Cried in Public was shortlisted for the 2020 YA Book Prize. Like all of Bourne's novels, it's a fast paced, beautifully written book that sensitively and intelligently tackles big topics, gently encouraging readers to believe in themselves and their worth.

You said: Holly Bourne’s books are great, modern YA reads

Chrissy N, Facebook

Anne of Green Gables (1908) by L.M. Montgomery

We said
: Published in 1908 by Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables is a long-time favourite for many, thanks largely to its heroine; the feisty, unforgettable orphan Anne Shirley who quickly charms her way into the hearts of her new foster family.

You said: It was just so sweet and quirky and full of passion. I loved it and I adored Anne 'with an e'. I think the story and characters hold up today, as well.

Leslie_Goodreid, Twitter

Bonjour Tristesse (1954) by Francoise Sagan

We said
: Dubbed the French F. Scott Fitzgerald, Francoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse is set in the scorching French Riviera. It follows precocious teenager Cécile, unmoored by the news of her father’s impending marriage. When it was published, the novel scandalized 1950s France with its rejection of conventional notions of love, marriage and sexual freedom.

You said: I remember reading this in one sitting when I was a teenager. It will transport you straight to the French Riviera!

Natasha O, Facebook

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