Blog – Posted on Tuesday, Oct 20
70 Best Coming-of-Age Books of All Time
Trying to find your place in the world is hard. Add hormones, first loves, and family drama into the mix, and growing up can feel like an impossible task — it’s no wonder so many of us try to put it off! But like it or not, we all have to grow up at some point, and as the best coming-of-age books prove — despite the challenges of this transitional period — we all emerge in one piece.
In this post, we’ve hand-picked the very best of the genre to bring you seventy must-read coming-of-age books. From experiencing the pangs of first love in Civil War America, to undergoing a spiritual awakening in the Egyptian desert, to navigating 1990’s London as a womanizing, thirty-something man-child, our picks prove that there’s more than one way to grow up. So whether you’re looking for a life-changing inspirational memoir, an earth-shattering romance, or simply a refreshingly honest account of zits and unrequited love, we’ve got you covered.
1. Call Me by Your Name by André Aciman
Call Me By Your Name chronicles a summer of awakening in the life of seventeen-year-old Elio, who is forced to navigate his sexuality and the stirrings of love when his family welcomes a new lodger — the charismatic doctoral student Oliver. Their ensuing affair is one of back-and-forth rejections and confusion for both men. This gay coming-of-age tale is considered essential reading by its droves of devoted fans, and is a beautiful and powerful study of desire, longing, and the pain of first love — and first heartbreak.
2. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Recounting the adolescence of protagonist Cal, an intersex person living in mid-century America, Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex deals heavily with themes of sexuality, metamorphosis, and family identity — all major building blocks of a great coming-of-age book. As we follow Cal’s journey from a blissfully ignorant girlhood as Calliope, to an uncertain adulthood following the discovery of their intersex identity, Eugenides presents us with a heightened version of the confusion and pain of adolescent awakenings. A classic, and don’t just take our word for it — the Pulitzer jury agreed!
3. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
One for the sci-fi and dystopian fans among us, Never Let Me Go tells the story of a group of young people growing up at Hailsham Boarding School. Upon learning that they are merely organ donors being reared for spare parts, the group is stripped of their childhood innocence and forced to reckon with their own mortality (check out Joseph O’Neil’s Atlantic review for his insightful take on how surprisingly universal this theme is). It’s got death, it’s got love triangles, and it’s got clones. What’s not to love?
4. White Teeth by Zadie Smith
This modern classic follows the intertwined lives of Irie, Millat, Magid, and Joshua — four young people growing up in 1980s London. A complex exploration of race, religion, and the adolescent search for identity, you’ll be gripped as the unexpected and divergent paths taken by our characters unfold against a background of generational tension. The fact that Zadie Smith released this enormously influential novel at only 24 years old is surely just showing off.
5. My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel about a young woman’s desire to spend a year ‘hibernating’ is a very different kind of coming-of-age story. The nameless woman, a wealthy graduate living in pre-9/11 New York, decides to spend a year in a medically induced sleep, in order to cope with the loss of her parents and her deep dissatisfaction in life. Although we can’t all spend a year in a self-inflicted cocoon, I’m sure many of us can relate to the frustrations of Moshfegh’s protagonist — who among us hasn’t wished they could hit pause on entering into adult life?
6. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
You didn’t think we’d make a list of coming-of-age books and leave off The Catcher in the Rye, did you? It’s received a bit of a kickback in recent years, but JD Salinger’s classic, following a wealthy boy kicked out of his elite prep school, has long been considered the gold standard for the coming-of-age novel — so much so that calling a novel ‘the next Catcher in the Rye’ has become something of a review cliche. If you haven’t yet given the story of Holden Caulfield’s adventures a go, this quintessential portrayal of teen angst is still well worth a read — if only to say you’ve done so.
7. Emma by Jane Austen
It’s no wonder that 1995’s Clueless has ended up a teen cult classic, considering the rich source material it’s based on. Austen’s comedy of manners is as astutely observed as ever in Emma, the story of a wealthy young woman’s personal transformation as she comes up against challenges to her snobbish and elitist attitudes. Austen’s Emma may be a little older than the typical coming-of-age teen, but her realisation that life is not as black and white as she once assumed is nevertheless a relatable one.
8.The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
The Alchemist follows Santiago, a shepherd boy whose journey into the Egyptian desert, after dreaming of finding treasure there, parallels his spiritual journey towards his truest self. Brazilian author Coelho incorporates elements of fantasy and folklore into this life-changing story of a young man’s quest to (quite literally) realise his dreams and find his purpose in life. This book has received an international cult following, which just goes to show that, even if your personal destiny doesn’t involve buried treasure, there’s still a lot to be learned from Coelho’s allegorical novel - it's why we included it on our list of books to read before you die!
9. Submarine by Joe Dunthorne
Time Out describes Submarine as ‘a tale of mock GCSEs, sex and death’ — and never was a more apt description given. Our fifteen-year-old narrator Oliver leads us through the twists and turns of growing up in a mundane Welsh seaside town. For all his teenage pretension and tendency towards the dramatic, Oliver’s hilariously overblown account of the agonies and ecstasies of growing up and experiencing your first love is simply gorgeous. If this sounds like your thing, check out the charming 2010 film adaptation while you’re at it.
10. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
This mega-bestseller is an exploration of the impact of trauma on adolescence, as narrator Theo deals with the death of his mother, who was killed in a terror attack which he himself survived. Theo is, on the one hand, thrust into adulthood by his loss, and on the other still very much a child, as he comes of age in the wake of the attack and struggles with his arrested development. Packed full of unrequited love, drugs, and art theft, despite being almost 800 pages long, The Goldfinch somehow still manages to fly by (pun intended).
11. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Set in Nazi Germany during World War II, Zusack’s The Book Thief tells the story of Liesel, a young girl who is forced to grow up prematurely due to the death of her brother and the horrors of war. Oh, and it’s narrated by Death. Despite the heavy subject matter, moments of warmth and levity, alongside the beautiful prose, make this study of innocence in the face of adversity a delight to read. You’ll be holding your breath as Liesel sets out on her book-stealing spree.
12. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
This is the story of Christopher, a fifteen-year-old neurodivergent boy who decides to investigate the mysterious death of his neighbour’s dog. In the course of his investigation, Christopher uncovers a number of uncomfortable truths about his family’s past, and is forced to face his fears in ways he has never done before. This Whitbread Award-winner touches on the universal experience of growing up and realising your parents are flawed. This is an unforgettable coming-of-age story that is sure to have you crying, laughing, and crying laughing.
13. Atonement by Ian McEwan
McEwan’s presentation of coming-of-age in this World War II drama is not a straightforward, linear one. His characters are constantly moving back and forth in their journey of ‘becoming’: in the first chapter, thirteen-year-old protagonist Briony “inhabits an ill-defined transitional space between the nursery and adult world which she crossed and recrossed unpredictably”. It is this ambiguity that makes Atonement such a fascinating study of youth and growing up, as the book masterfully handles the timeless contradiction of childhood innocence and responsibility. As time passes, Briony is forced to reckon with the consequences of a childhood mistake — one which has landed an innocent man in prison. We witness a whole 64 years’ worth of growing up in the haunting pages of Atonement, a novel so astonishing it's one of our picks for the best books of all time.
14. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez
How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents follows the lives of four sisters in reverse chronological order. Forced to flee the Dominican Republic for America, and adjust to a lifestyle far less comfortable than the one they were once accustomed to, the family navigates issues of love, faith, and acculturation as first generation immigrants. This novel is a rich and sensitive exploration from one of our favorite Latinx authors of how where we come from can deeply impact who we are, even if we’ve been physically uprooted .
15. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
It’s often referred to as a romance, but Jane Eyre is absolutely a Bildungsroman (literary speak for coming-of-age story). We follow Jane from her unhappy childhood as an orphan, into employment in the household of the mysterious Mr Rochester. As she moves into adulthood, and eventually marriage, we watch spellbound as Jane finds her own agency and makes her own choices about love and life. This young woman’s constant struggle for freedom in an oppressive society (most famously put in her assertion “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will”) is as powerful today as it was in the 19th century.
16. Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters
Sarah Waters’ debut historical novel tells the story of Nan, a working-class teenage girl who escapes her mundane life in a Victorian seaside town by running away with an unexpected love interest: a male impersonator. The twists and turns that ensue have to be read to be believed. An absolutely essential (and very steamy) piece of LGBTQ+ fiction, Tipping the Velvet’s enduring popularity is testament to its powerful portrayal of queer relationships and the ever-blurry boundaries between love and friendship.
17. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
If sex, murder, and ancient Greece are your thing, then look no further than The Secret History. A group of pretentious Classics students, out to impress each other at an elite New England College, have somehow managed to get away with murder. We spend the entire novel watching them career through an endless array of questionable choices and bad decisions that eventually bring them to this fateful climax. Sounds like most people’s college years, right? Minus the serious crime, of course.
18. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
The deaths of the five Lisbon sisters send shockwaves through their sleepy suburban town — especially our narrators, a group of boys whose curiosity towards the girls verges on obsession. In many ways, this is a story about the desperation to not grow up, as the sisters one by one choose death over adulthood. Nevertheless, the novel covers a lot of coming-of-age ground: teenage sexuality, parental control, privacy, and the desire for freedom are all explored in unflinching detail. You’ll be desperate to uncover the sisters’ secrets in this challenging and thought-provoking modern classic.
19. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Another classic example of the coming-of-age novel, Huckleberry Finn takes us through the journey of the titular Huck, a goofy young boy whose travels down the Mississippi river expose him to a host of new experiences. The beating heart of the novel is Huck’s friendship with Jim, an enslaved boy-turned-runaway who joins Huck on his journey. Indeed, it is his loyalty to Jim that proves to be the ultimate test of Huck’s newfound maturity. Tackling big topics with both gravitas and humour is what Mark Twain does best (check out more of his best work here), and reading Huckleberry Finn shouldn’t just be the reserve of high school literature classes.
20. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
No matter who you are, chances are you’ll see yourself reflected in one of the March sisters. Whether you’re a fiery Jo, a nurturing Meg, a sweet Beth, or a headstrong Amy, watching these four very different sisters grow up and navigate the harsh conditions of Civil-War era Massachusetts is a pleasure. The pitfalls of young love, professional ambition, and skating on thin ice all receive delicate treatment from Alcott. An American classic, Little Women has something to offer everyone, which explains why it hasn’t been out of print for over 150 years. Just be prepared to cry. A lot.
21. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
The ultimate tortured love affair, Wuthering Heights tells the story of Heathcliff and Catherine, two star-crossed lovers who are tragically separated after spending their adolescence together. Heathcliff’s unexpected return to their childhood home, after a three year absence, has explosive consequences, which reverberate for generations. The characters’ transition from a carefree childhood where they are allowed to run wild, to an adulthood unhappily constrained by society’s expectations is at the heart of this gothic classic.
22. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
A rags-to-riches romp, Great Expectations chronicles the against-all-odds rise of Pip, a destitute orphan who is able to reinvent himself thanks to the generosity of a mysterious benefactor. Intoxicated with hope, Pip seizes upon the opportunity to change his life completely and, for the first time, have ‘great expectations’. However, his new life is not without its complications. A vibrant tale of Victorian England, Dickens masterfully poses questions about the flexibility of identity, and prompts us to consider whether it’s really possible to escape your past.
23. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
The phrase ‘game changing’ might be a little overused, but James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is certainly a game changer. One of the earliest uses of stream of consciousness (starting from the point of view of a baby, no less), Joyce’s semi-autobiographical novel tells the story of Stephen Dedalus, an aspiring young artist. Struggling for artistic freedom against the constraints of religion, family, and the educational system, Stephen’s quest for self discovery has struck a chord among generations of readers. Not what you might expect from a novel that opens “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road”.
24. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Dr Maya Angelou
It’s difficult to know where to start with this masterpiece of a memoir — it’s just that good. So good, we’ve already featured it on our list of must-read books by Black authors, as well as ranking it as one of our most inspirational reads. Maya Angelou’s essential autobiography covers her life from the age of three through to sixteen, and is powerfully evocative of the struggles of being a Black woman in the South of the 1930s. Readers are given insight into the realities of growing up facing unimaginable hardship, as a young Maya grapples with race, sex, and sexuality in an unflinchingly honest account. A very different coming-of-age story than the ones we are accustomed to hearing — and all the more important for it.
25. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
It’s pretty rare to come across a book so powerful that people attempted to get it banned. But The House on Mango Street is one of those books. Telling the story of twelve-year-old Esperanza, a Chicana girl growing up in a poor quarter of Chicago, Sandra Cisneros’ acclaimed novel explores the young girl’s life in the form of arresting vignettes. A brilliantly captured study of the complexities of class and identity, our young protagonist dreams of a white picket-fenced house and a big yard, and is desperate to escape the financial hardship and stifling patriarchy of her current neighbourhood. Dealing with heavy subject matter including assault, abuse, and racism, Esperanza’s story is at once heart-breaking and hopeful.
26. About a Boy by Nick Hornby
Meet Will: he’s unattached, carefree, and using the royalties from his dad’s Christmas hit to score single moms. He’s the kind of guy who knows which trainers to wear. At one of those awfully embarrassing junctures where kids and adults collide, Will meets Marcus. He’s twelve-going-on-eighty, loves Joni Mitchell, and has never worn a pair of trainers in his life. Hornby’s hugely funny and heartwarming novel About A Boy explores both growing up and staying young. If you haven’t seen the noughties film starring Hugh Grant (spiky hair changes his whole vibe) you should check that out too.
28. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
Don’t make plans for the week in which you read this book: The Kite Runner is utterly shattering, emotionally devastating, and refuses to be put down. Set during the turbulent years of Afghanistan’s recent history, Hosseini’s debut novel revolves around Amir, who spends his life running from a childhood act of cowardice and cruelty. Decades later, he leaves his new home in America and returns to the dangerous world of Afghanistan to find the thing he craves most: redemption. This gripping read imparts a lesson that will stay with you for years: “It may be unfair, but what happens in a few days, sometimes even a single day, can change the course of a whole lifetime."
29. My Education by Susan Choi
Despite first impressions, My Education doesn't quite fit in the student-falls-for-professor box. 21-year-old postgrad Regina Gottlieb carefully avoids infamous womanizer Nicholas Brodeur when she joins the university where he works. But nobody told her to watch out for the professor’s wife. Tripping, stumbling, and falling, Regina’s missteps carry her on a journey that begins in the bedroom and spans thousands of miles and takes 15 long years. Choi bursts the sides of yet another box with her coming-of-age book, ditching teens-in-trouble for two women in their 20s and 30s — turns out you’re never too old to grow up.
30. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, this topical young adult novel burst into 2020 with a power and resonance that earned it numerous awards. At the heart of this gripping coming-of-age book is the story of sixteen-year-old Starr’s struggle for justice. The uneasy balance between her two worlds collapses when her unarmed best friend, Khalil, is fatally shot by police. His name makes headlines, protestors take to the streets, and there’s one question on everybody’s lips: what really happened that night? Starr has the answer. There’s just one problem: what she knows could get her killed.
31. Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild
First published in 1936, Ballet Shoes is a beloved children's book by Noel Streatfield, who once described the tale as ‘a fairy story with its feet half-way on the ground’. This magical coming-of-age book begins with Great Uncle Matthew (Gum), an eccentric explorer who sends his niece presents from his travels. Not jewels or rugs, but little baby girls — Pauline, Petrova, and Posy, to be precise. Years later, when money’s running out and Gum is nowhere to be found, a lodger at the house suggests the girls take to the stage. Though the journey to stardom has its ups and downs, these three determined young women are sure to warm the cockles of your heart.
32. Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald
Ebbing and flowing with the tides of the Thames, an eccentric community of houseboats cluster together, permanently moored, along the insalubrious riverbank at Battersea Reach. Among the temporarily lost and slightly disreputable community is Nenna, a diffident mother of two young girls who’s obsessed with the idea of her husband returning to their home aboard Grace. As Nenna’s domestic struggles deepen, the members of this scrubby society increasingly cling to one another, their lives crossing in patterns more complex than London’s backstreets. Reading Fitzgerald’s Offshore is like going for a drive in a beautifully made car, and throwing the map out the window.
34. Looking for Alaska by John Green
If anyone can write a coming-of-age novel it’s John Green. So, there were a few to choose from when it came to making this list. But we decided on Looking For Alaska: Green’s first novel, and the one that brought YA fiction into the 21st century. Miles ‘Pudge’ Halter, who is obsessed with last words (in a cool but slightly morbid way), leaves the ‘non-event’ that is his life and starts at Culver Creek Boarding School. He feels a force from down the hall pulling him towards a crazy new life, and it takes the form of Alaska Young. Clever, funny, self-destructive, and dead sexy, what will happen if Miles gives in to loving her?
35. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
The best way to introduce you to Oscar, the character who holds together Diaz’s ingenious novel, is with a story. A fan of British shows like Doctor Who and Blake’s 7, Oscar makes the mistake of attending a college Halloween party dressed as Tom Baker. Someone tells him he looks like Oscar Wilde, but in Oscar’s Dominican accent ‘Wilde’ sounds a lot like ‘Wao’. “And the tragedy? After a couple of weeks dude started answering to it.” Oscar defies the stereotypes surrounding ghetto boys of color by being a complete nerd (if you hadn’t guessed already). He’s an overweight, lovesick, hardcore fantasy man, who dreams of becoming the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkein. But with a family curse threatening his life, will he ever write his space fantasy epic? And, more importantly, will he ever get laid?
36. Kokoro by Natsume Sōseki
Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro — meaning “heart” — is a landmark work of Japanese literature. Greatly influenced by Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’, Soseki tells the story of a poignant friendship between two unnamed characters: a student and an elder he calls “sensei”. The older man, haunted by the guilt and tragedy of his past, seeks to plant his memory in his young friend’s heart. But the more the “sensei” confesses to his disciple, the more he struggles to understand. Through this unbridgeable chasm, Soseki explores the cultural shift that characterized Japan in the twentieth century, as well as the universally human experience of loneliness.
37. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
The first in Achebe’s landmark trilogy of works, Things Fall Apart chronicles the fate of an African community ruined by the arrival of missionaries and colonial governors. However, at its heart, it is the story of one proud, powerless man who can do nothing but watch as things fall apart. Okonko is a fearsome warrior, famed throughout West Africa; but when he accidentally kills a fellow clansman and is exiled from his community, Okonko doesn’t seem able to prevent his story from hurtling towards tragedy.
38. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
The Glass Castle is a tender, moving memoir of Jeannette Walls’ journey from living like a nomad in Southwestern desert towns, to finally achieving the “mundane middle-class existence” she had always craved. From her antique-filled apartment on Park Avenue, Walls recounts in startling vignettes police-car chases, accidents, missed meals, and her eventual escape, aged seventeen. Astonishingly, despite their flaws and betrayals, she affectionately and generously paints her parents as bright, brilliant people who taught their children how to fearlessly embrace life.
39. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Where, oh where, to start with this novel? Less a novel, more a 1,100 page sprawling epic: a magnum opus exploring the American psyche in all its psychedelic glory. In its most ‘basic’ form, Infinite Jest is about the bohemian residents of an addiction recovery clinic and the students at a militant tennis academy, who ensnare themselves in the hunt for a copy of a lost movie so powerful its viewers expire in a state of catatonic bliss. But this profound, hilarious, and unapologetically weird novel is so much more than even that (a coming-of-age book about tennis prodigy Hal, for starters). It is a staggering achievement from an author so uniquely brilliant he has a film about a St Bernard dog on loop while he proofreads.
40. The Giver by Lois Lowry
Jonas lives in a world without hunger, without war, and without pain. By converting to Sameness, the Community has preserved structure, order, and a true sense of equality — but at what price? When twelve-year-old Jonas has his profession chosen for him by the Committee of Elders, he becomes the Receiver of Memory; and what he sees of the time before the Sameness exposes the dark secrets of his fragile community. Jonas begins to see cracks in a world he had always thought was perfect. Lowry’s The Giver is not only an excellent coming-of-age book for teens and adults alike, but also a forerunner of dystopian novels.
41. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
Two years after their physicist father goes missing, thirteen-year-old Meg and her prodigy brother Charles are doing all they can to get him back — and that includes travelling through space and time. A young adult sci-fi with a feminist edge, A Wrinkle in Time champions the importance of self love, individuality, and refusing to conform just because you’re told to. Over the course of her space odyssey, Meg’s tween awkwardness is replaced by a newfound maturity. But will it be enough to rescue their father from the sinister forces holding him captive?
42. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Arthur Dent is having a difficult day. The council is trying to demolish his house, and an alien race is trying to demolish the planet. While Arthur’s a perfectly nice man, he’s not the guy you call if you’re looking for an adventure. Nevertheless, adventure comes looking for Arthur when his out-of-work actor friend reveals he’s an alien and whisks him off to travel the galaxy. This cult classic sci-fi romp is a delight from start to finish, and one of the funniest stories ever committed to page. So strap in, and prepare to join Arthur in his quest to find the meaning of life...sort of.
43. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
Like a lot of kids his age, ten-year-old Milo is bored. That is, until a magical tollbooth appears in his bedroom. Keen for adventure, Milo passes through the tollbooth into a whole new world, called the Kingdom of Wisdom. With the kingdom’s princesses Rhyme and Reason missing, the world he finds is one which has been plunged into chaos, and it’s Milo’s job to clean up the mess. A charming fantasy novel with a heart of gold, The Phantom Tollbooth has been beloved by generations of children. But this isn’t just one for the kids: it’s so packed full of wordplay that it’ll appeal to the adults among us who love a good pun. A beautiful story of learning and exploration, this is a novel the whole family can enjoy.
44. Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
What would happen if childhood games were harnessed for an altogether more sinister purpose? Ender and his peers find out when an intergalactic war leads the government to come up with inventive strategies for churning out highly-skilled super soldiers, and their favourite war games take on a whole new meaning. Ender is the best of the best, but will his gaming ability be enough to save the day? A sci-fi classic, Ender’s Game considers how kids are shaped by their early environments, and the dangerous consequences when this doesn’t go to plan.
45. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
If there’s one thing Jeanette wasn’t expecting, it was to fall in love with a woman. A sixteen-year-old Pentecostal girl with her heart set on being a missionary, realising her same sex attraction leads Jeanette into a crisis of faith that unsettles her whole world. A twentieth-century take on the ‘fallen woman’, Winterson’s portrayal of the confusion and pain involved in navigating adolescent sexuality is razor-sharp. This seminal novel is based in part on the author’s own experiences, and is as moving as it is deeply challenging. A story of both sexual and spiritual awakening, there’s a reason people are still recommending Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit 35 years on.
46. Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead
Whitehead’s novel takes place in a town called Sag Harbor — a summer playpen for African-American writers, actors, and assholes looking to satisfy their opulent urges. For brothers Benji and Reggie, left alone in their parents' cherished vacation house, Sag Harbor is the perfect backdrop for every anxiety of puberty. Day to day, Ben fumbles through the same trials and tribulations as any 15-year-old: slippery handshakes which spread like viruses (“and which my strong dork constitution produced countless antibodies against”), a misshapen haircut with a will of its own, and a secret love of Dungeons & Dragons, which he calls “a means of perpetuating virginity.” But beyond its playful tribute to youth, this remarkable novel chronicles a cataclysmic shift that makes the halcyon summer of ‘85 one for the ages.
47. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Published in 1943, Betty Smith’s debut novel is not only a beloved coming-of-age book, but a universally regarded modern classic. It tells the sprawling tale of the Nolan family, first-generation immigrants who arrive in Williamsburg, Brooklyn at the turn of the 20th century, when the streets were still overrun with poor, deprived slums rather than the chic boutiques and trendy cafes of today. At its heart, however, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the story of the family’s eldest daughter, Francie. Sensitive, imaginative, and idealistic, her journey through the bittersweet, formative years of her youth can teach us all to believe in the prospect of a brighter future.
48. Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
John Grimes is turning fourteen; but instead of celebrating, he’s on a quest to find himself. Over the course of his birthday, Johnny struggles with his “treacherous and bewildering body”, his sexuality, his relationship with the church, and his stepfather Gabriel — a preacher whose fanaticism inspires him to abuse his family.
I hope it’s not a spoiler to say that towards the end of this coming-of-age novel, Johnny has an awakening of sorts. There is a blazing spirituality to this moment, one that almost winds you with its intensity. But at the same time, like any novel that really stays with you, it seems to resolve very little. If Go Tell It on the Mountain leaves you hungry for more, you’ll have to check out Giovanni’s Room — a coming-of-age book of a different variety.
49. The Last Illusion by Porochista Khakpour
Compared to the other adolescents on this list, Zal has much further to go if he is to become a man. We can hardly blame him; after all, he’s spent the first decade of his life trapped in a birdcage by a mother who thought she had given birth to a “white demon” when she saw the pallor of Zal’s skin and hair. When Zal awakens to a new life in New York City — a blinking, stunted adolescent — he must first grapple with becoming human as he stumbles towards adulthood. Khakpour transforms the classic coming-of-age trajectory in her wonderful, fabulist novel, The Last Illusion.
50. Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
In her deeply affecting debut novel, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — the towering, contemporary author of Americanah and Half of a Yellow Sun — turns the world of her protagonist upside down. For fifteen-year-old Kambili, life is a strict schedule of prayer, sleep, study, prayer, and her world is defined by the high walls and frangipani trees of her family compound. But when Nigeria is shaken by a military coup, Kambili is brought out from under the influence of her repressive and fanatically religious father, and thrust into a world of noise, laughter, and love. While staying with their aunt, Kambili and her brother discover a life beyond the confines of their father’s authority — one which makes space for devotion and defiance to reveal themselves in unexpected ways.
51. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
This book is unique in our list — it’s not just the story of two main characters growing into maturity, but also the story of an entire nation’s coming-of-age. The first in Ferrante’s four-part Neapolitan series, My Brilliant Friend tells the story of Elena and Lila, two girls whose friendship is so intense it borders on obsession. Through their school years, the at-times fraught relationship between these two characters serves as a reflection and refraction of the developments happening in the world around them: things are changing, not just in their poor Naples neighborhood, but in the whole of Italy. You’ll be desperate to get your hands on the next instalment of Elena and Lila’s story the moment you put this one down.
52. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Leonie, a troubled, drug-addicted woman who dips in and out of the lives of her two children, is on a mission. She’s going to pick up Michael, her white husband, from the Mississippi State Penitentiary. Packing her two children and her friend Misty into the car, Leonie embarks upon a journey – one that is at times tedious, at times dangerous. This modern-day Odyssey is not, however, solely about Leonie. It is also a coming-of-age story for Jojo, her thirteen-year-old son who has found himself growing up in seemingly impossible circumstances. An unsparing account of what the Guardian calls ‘the slow apocalypse being experienced by Black America’, Jesmyn Ward refuses to allow us to look away from even the most disturbing facets of 21st century inequality.
53. Breaking the Tongue by Vyvyane Loh
It’s 1942, and the British Empire is crumbling. Former stronghold Singapore is taken with shocking ease by a small force of Japanese soldiers. The aftermath of the invasion, and its cultural and political repercussions, are captured through the stories of three very different but interconnected individuals. Our cast of characters includes Ling-Li, a nurse-turned-spy and devoted Chinese nationalist; Jack Winchester, a British man who uncomfortably navigates the colonial landscape of Singapore; and Claude Lim, the wealthy young man whose anglophile mother is having an affair with Jack. Although ethnically Chinese, Claude’s parents have worked feverishly to suppress any element of local culture from entering Claude’s world — to the extent that they refuse to let him learn the language. Harrowing and at times brutal, this historical coming-of-age novel probes the concept of colonial identity, and asks if we can ever successfully elide the parts of our background we have been encouraged to reject.
54. Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
Two girls, leading parallel lives in 1980s Atlanta, have one big thing in common: their ‘double-duty daddy’. Dana and Chaurisse are both the daughters of bigamist James Witherspoon, but only one of them knows it. When they meet at a science fair, however, the careful deception that James has been weaving for years is threatened. In a story where the happy endings of two different families’ can never coexist, readers are kept on a knife’s edge as we watch the walls James has built between his two lives start to crumble. The electrifying precursor to Jones’ 2019 bestseller An American Marriage, Silver Sparrow is a rich and tightly-wound tale of family secrets and the dangers of keeping them.
55. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Ari and Dante’s chance meeting at a swimming pool one summer day serves as an unlikely watershed in both of their lives. Ari, an introvert with a troubled family life, and Dante, an artistic free spirit struggling with his own identity, appear on the surface to have little in common. But their ensuing friendship is an intense and life-changing one. This tender and layered presentation of young love has made author Benjamin Alire Sáenz a critical darling, and with good reason. It may be set in the 1980s, but this story about two young men grappling with masculinity, sexuality, and ethnic identity is nevertheless a timely one for the 2020s.
56. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Not to be confused with H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man (though the name is meant to evoke it), Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel is a dark satire and commentary on the invisibility of Blackness and the Black experience in America. Facing indignity after betrayal after ostracization, the deluge of abuse against our narrator never ends. He stumbles his way through a fall from grace and a scuffle in a paint factory; from growing disillusionment to election to the committees of various movements. He begins and ends his story underground, having decided that he must remain true to himself and figure out his identity before re-emerging. If you’re looking for a more accessible point of entry to denser ideas from W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Frantz Fanon, and other notable Black theorists, Invisible Man is an easy recommendation.
57. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
A great book to read alongside Ellison’s Invisible Man, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God paints a challenging portrait of a Black woman’s journey to disillusionment, and her manipulation by men as she navigates her way through various relationships. Becoming first a dutiful housewife, then a trophy wife for a politician, and finally a partner to an unreliable but down-to-earth younger man, these relationships serve as microcosmic reflections of the wider experience of sexism and misogynoir. All along the way, Janie suffers through incessant gossip, voiceless and powerless, and unable to find support or empathy in the men she is with. A tragic, sobering portrait of a Black woman’s struggle to fully realize what it is she wants and find peace in her life, Their Eyes Were Watching God is an essential Harlem Renaissance work.
58. No-No Boy by John Okada
Ichiro Okada is a “No-No Boy” — a Japanese-American who refused to serve in the U.S. military during WWII and was subsequently given two years in an internment camp and two years in federal prison. When he re-emerges and returns to his parents’ small Asian grocery store in Seattle, he finds his Japanese nationalist mother still believing that Japan has won the war and refusing to accept the truth, his father unable to muster the energy to do much besides drink and put on a brave face, and very few friendly faces. Ichiro’s shame, self-doubt, and fear of what the future holds for him slowly eases (but never vanishes) as he encounters small glimmers of kindness, empathy, and warmth in unlikely places. Often written in a pseudo-stream-of-consciousness style, John Okada’s only novel is an important piece of historical fiction about the lives of the Japanese-American diaspora in the aftermath of WWII, and how one attempts to build a life in an America where they are seen as something ‘other’.
59. The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
The Poet X is prominent slam poet Elizabeth Acevedo’s first YA novel, and her turn to the form brings fiery adolescent Xiomara Batista onto the page. Lorded over by her exceedingly pious and strict mother, fed up with the catcalling and sexual harassment of the boys in her Harlem neighborhood, and wrestling with feelings for a boy in her biology class, Xiomara feels like there’s no way to have her voice heard. Until she’s invited to her school’s poetry slam club. At first reluctant, Xiomara slowly grows in confidence and finds a freedom that’s more than anything she could’ve hoped for. The Poet X is for anyone, poetry fan or not, but is a particular standout for girls running the gauntlet of being a teenager in the 21st century.
60. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
The premise of The Secret Garden is exceedingly dark. Mary, the daughter of a colonial official in India, whose parents are so disdainful of her that they leave her care entirely up to servants, is sent to Yorkshire to live with her uncle when her immediate family is struck dead by cholera. Upon her arrival, Mary’s unbridled curiosity about the manor, and the “secret garden” that her uncle has kept locked, leads her to some startling discoveries. A more grounded Alice in Wonderland-esque trip for younger readers about the wonders of imagination and curiosity, this rewarding read offers a different experience the second time round for those who are looking for a nostalgia romp.
61. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Knitting together philosophy and the everyday (with a heaping helping of dry wit), The Elegance of the Hedgehog observes the interactions of a middle-aged, ’plain Jane’ concierge, who secretly indulges in the arts, a cerebral 12-year-old girl who has decided that life is overrated, and an enigmatic Japanese businessman with whom the two form an unlikely friendship. Switching between novelistic writing and journal entries, Barbery’s experimentation with form allows us sharp insight into the inner worlds of this mismatched band of characters. If you have an appetite for digestible philosophy, droll humor, and French flair, let Barbary’s bemusing work make you question what you believe to be true about life.
62. The Waves by Virginia Woolf
Like many of Virginia Woolf’s beautifully poetic works, The Waves offers a refreshing experimental take on the format of the novel. The story is told solely through soliloquies from the perspectives of six different people, who flesh out a seventh character, Percival, through their interactions and perceptions of him. Hearing the inner monologues of these six, as they grow from childhood to adulthood, may leave you with a sense that while we can change how we present ourselves to the world, the deeply nestled facets of ourselves that we develop as children may never fully leave us.
63. Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa
The basic plot alone is enough to get most curious about Sunil Yapa’s 2016 novel: Victor, a 16-year-old runaway, sells marijuana to the 50,000-odd WTO protesters in 1999 Seattle, who are fighting for more equal distribution of the profits of globalization. This coming-of age book takes the perspective of various characters: from Victor to protesters on the streets, to the Seattle police chief and a Sri Lankan finance minister who’s got somewhere to be. Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist offers a panoramic view of the protests, an examination of motives and ethics, and an exploration of where an individual’s empathy for “the enemy” really ends.
64. All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung
Nicole Chung’s memoir All You Can Ever Know accompanies her through childhood. Adopted by white Catholic parents from Oregon, she eventually grows weary of their affable refusal to engage with questions about racism or her biological parents, although the questions she seeks answers to may in fact be better left to lie. It’s an age-old adage, but is it sometimes true that ignorance is, indeed, bliss? Chung offers up a mixed bag of messy family relationships, her own perceptions and insights on growing up (and what comes after) as an adopted daughter, and the danger and rewards that can come with demanding answers.
65. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Deeply relevant still, even 60 years after its fiercely controversial publication, To Kill A Mockingbird has long been heralded as an American classic. Written when the American civil rights movement was gaining momentum, the story of a white lawyer defending a Black man accused of rape helped to bring explicit racism to the forefront of the minds of the public — a big ask at the time. Today, as the United States grapples racism and how to combat it, To Kill A Mockingbird still serves as a valuable teaching tool to provoke deeper, more nuanced discussions about where Harper Lee made in-roads, and how her foundation should be built upon and improved through the civil rights initiatives of our own time.
66. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
The only novel by poet Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar details the life of Esther, a young woman who seemingly “has it all”: a well-paid fashion gig in New York City, an attractive, caring boyfriend, and a home to go back to in the suburbs. Yet, all of these facades come crashing down around her as she grapples with existential dread, panic attacks, and severe depression. With the friends, family, and boyfriend evaporating into thin air, Esther is left to pick herself up and wrangle her demons alone. Full of macabre humor, and written in a remarkably unemotional yet biting style, The Bell Jar has no comforting messages for the suffering. But its refusal to sugar-coat or glamorize mental illness, and Esther’s glacial, painstaking progress toward her own idea of normalcy, is its own form of inspiration for readers in need of a way forward.
67. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
A surreal, twisting apparition of a tale, Arundhati Roy’s debut novel The God of Small Things could be described as the written equivalent of Salvador Dalí’s art. Roy traces a multi-generational narrative from the perspective of two twins, Rahel and Esthappen, and the eclectic personalities in their lives — from their Rhodes scholar, factory-owning Uncle Chacko to their harrowed mother Ammu. Full of metaphors, timeskips, and opaque language, you may at times need to re-read passages to get a better grasp on what is actually happening, but the lessons learned along the way will be well worth the effort.
68. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Despite what the title suggests, Stephen Chbosky entreats young people to engage proactively with their lives in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. As we watch Charlie navigate his high-school years as recorded in his quirky letters, the experiences he wades through may not be those of the current generation, but his sardonic style will resonate with many, no matter their age. With depictions of depression and anxiety that will be achingly familiar to some, and supporting characters that will endear themselves to you despite, or perhaps because of, their many flaws, The Perks of Being a Wallflower encapsulates a self-involved teen melancholy, where imperfection and irrationality is part of the charm.
69. Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir
Simone de Beauvoir’s recollection of rejecting her bourgeois French upbringing and blazing a trail in academia has a lot to impart to feminist history buffs and de Beauvoir fans alike. Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter also follows de Beauvoir’s complex relationship with fellow philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, as well as the political climate of France over her lifetime; so, every reader will find something to latch onto and draw them deeper.
70. On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
Part memoir and part poetry, Ocean Vuong’s novel alternately follows three generations — the author’s mother, a PTSD-ridden Vietnam War survivor; his aging grandmother as she weaves flights of fantasy; and his own trials as an immigrant in the United States, and the persecution he endures when he comes out as gay. An experimental take on the American Bildungsroman, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous challenges expectations at every turn, and will likely ring true for generations of young people growing up and becoming disillusioned with the American Dream.
Feeling inspired? Keep it going by checking out our list of inspirational books to change your life!