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?

I Capture the Castle (1948) by Dodie Smith

We said: Seventeen-year-old aspiring author Cassandra navigates all the messy complexities of first love in I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith's charming, beautifully melancholic first novel. It features a lovely but dilapidated castle in the English countryside, handsome American bachelors, a summer Solstice, and a series of relatable romantic entanglements.

You said: It's very funny and so charming but never in the slightest bit sentimental. There's a real bittersweet feeling to it and I always feel so protective towards the heroine. There are more highbrow options I'm sure but I love this book SO much.

RedSkyAtNight, Twitter

David Copperfield (1849) by Charles Dickens

We said: Charles Dickens once admitted that, out of all of his work, David Copperfield was the one he liked best, even calling it his ‘favourite child’. The semi-autobiographical novel was originally published serially, between 1849 and 1850. It chronicles Copperfield's life from a childhood of poverty to middle age, where he becomes a successful author, and contains many of Dickens' most iconic, and truly villainous, characters. Uriah Heep still makes us shudder.

You said: Epic, complex and I've never read a book better at showing many years passing with such grace.

Milly C-R, Facebook 

The Catcher in the Rhy (1951) by J.D. Salinger

We said: The Independent once said that J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye ‘changed US culture forever’. The controversial book is, undoubtedly, one of the most iconic coming-of-age stories of all time, and a frequent target of censorship over the years. Published in 1951, it explores the angst, alienation, and increasingly disillusioned view of society of its protagonist, swaggering sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield.

 

You said: A real awakening to what the world is really like.

Sue P, Facebook

 

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

Rubyfruit Jungle (1973) by Rita Mae Brown

We said: Rubyfruit Jungle is the semi-autobiographical debut of writer and activist, Rita Mae Brown. It follows a bright, unapologetic, and very funny young woman as she navigates ambition and sexuality in post-war America. Published in 1973, it was initially considered shocking for its openly lesbian protagonist. In response, it swiftly became a word-of-mouth bestseller, and remains a landmark work of queer fiction to this day.

You said: A bold, sassy, shamelessly lesbian young woman grows up in 1950s USA.

MsGalathea, Twitter

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

The Outsiders (1967) by S.E. Hinton

We said: S.E. Hinton was only seventeen years old when she wrote The Outsiders, the bestselling tale of youthful rebellion. The gritty debut features a war between two rival gangs; the Greasers and the rich-kid Socs. It lays bare the hopes and terrors of teenage bravado, and was adapted into an award-winning film by Francis Ford Coppola.

You said: Read it in high school in 1973. Incredibly moving. Still re-read it every 5-6 years.


APrettyLeaf, Twitter

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

The Card (1911) by Arnold Bennett
We said: Set in the raw, Victorian world of the 'Five Towns', Arnold Bennett's comic masterpiece, The Card, tells the tangled story of Denry Machin's rise from mediocrity to fame, through a series of ludicrous and yet perversely successful schemes.

You said: I read this in my teens and it made me realise that attitude is just as important as aptitude.

Andy C, Facebook

Will Grayson, Will Grayson (2010) by John Green, David Levithan

We said: Two titans of YA fiction, John Green and David Levithan, collide in this New York Times bestseller. The premise is simple: one cold night in Chicago, Will Grayson crosses paths with... Will Grayson. It’s an original, energetic collaboration about two boys that don't have all that much in common, besides a name.

You said: A really funny, brilliantly written book.

Angela N, Facebook

Little Women (1868) by Louisa May Alcott

We said: Growing up, everyone had a different March sister they identified with. It will come as no surprise that we had a soft spot for Jo, the bookish, second eldest, wannabe writer. The timeless novel is infectious fun: following the sisters as they fall in love, fight, pursue their dreams, and experience catastrophe.

You said: Still a wonderful and romantic yet feminist message for budding teens.

Karen S on 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 Lost Estate (Le Grand Meaulnes) (1913) by Henri Alain-Fournier

We saidLe Grand Meaulnes was the only novel written by Henri Alain-Fournier, who was killed in the First World War aged 27. The Lost Estate is Robin Buss' excellent translation of the French classic; a poignant study of lost love, in which our protagonist restlessly searches for a woman and place he encountered by chance just once before.

You said: It's so evocative and for me, captured so perfectly that conflicted sense of longing for and fearing change that characterised my adolescence

Amy A, Facebook

A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989) by John Irving

We said
: Following a tragic accident, eleven-year-old Owen Meany arrives at an unusual conclusion: he is God's instrument and has been put on Earth for a higher purpose. As he comes into adulthood, alongside his best friend and the looming presence of the Vietnam War, a series of remarkable events suggest that perhaps Owen's divinity is not imagined after all. An extraordinarily original and fiendishly funny masterpiece, from the author of The World According to Garp.

You said: I thought it had a good plot. The ending was dramatic. I cried. I like lots of the coming-of-age John Irving novels.

Herendiowl, Twitter

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943) by Betty Smith

We said
: The sprawling tale of an immigrant family in early 20th-century Brooklyn, Betty Smith's debut novel is universally regarded as a modern classic. One of our favourite lines: 'The world was hers for the reading’.

You said: It was so well written and such a believable story.

Margaret H, 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

The Member of the Wedding (1946) by Carson McCullers

We said
: In The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers describes the three phases of a weekend crisis in the life of a motherless twelve-year-old girl. Written with delicacy, pathos and humour, it’s a brilliant portrayal of pre-teen awkwardness, innocence and self-delusion.

You said: The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers, because it captures all the confusion and awkwardness of being a teen and the desperation to be part of something bigger than one’s self.

EleanorCope5, Twitter

The Magicians Trilogy (2009) by Lev Grossman

We said
: George R.R. Martin once said ‘The Magicians is to Harry Potter as a shot of Irish whiskey is to a glass of weak tea... dark and dangerous and full of twists,’ and honestly, what more can you say? Set in a secret college of modern-day sorcerers, Lev Grossman's trilogy is a sophisticated fantasy masterpiece.

You said: It’s hopeful & traverses late teens to early 30s. It’s not as dark, goofy or inclusive as the TV show, however, so smooshing them together mentally is also good.

Momsomniac, Twitter

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

Norwegian Wood (1987) by Haruki Murakami

We said
Norwegian Wood is the novel that catapulted Japanese author Haruki Murakami to literary superstardom. It's a nostalgic, deeply moving story in which Toru Watanabe remembers a passionate but turbulent love affair he had while a student in Tokyo. Beautifully evokes the music, mood and ethos of the sixties. 

You said: Incredibly sad, but still hopeful. I loved the movie too.

Natalie S, Facebook

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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