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Coming of age fiction…what is it?What are the best books in the genre?

Coming of age fiction


Coming-of-age stories have been around as long as humans have told stories. The young hero is drawn into a journey or a spiritual quest, and must face obstacles and adversity, and by the end of the story, has become more mature, more self-aware, maybe sexier, certainly stronger both inside and out, and just changed in some major way.

It’s a transformational journey of a character from youth to maturity. It highlights the self-revelation, development, and change. The stories often include first loves, first friendships, and spiritual and existential inquiries.

The “Hero’s Journey” can be about fully grown humans or mythological figures, but when the main character is a child or adolescent, the journey becomes a “coming of age” tale.

Novels dealing with one person’s formative years or spiritual education are also called bildungsroman. The Harry Potter series, for example, is a gothic bildungsroman. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is an example of a fantasy bildungsroman.

My Top Ten Coming of age books:

Florida Hustle by Paul Wilborn:

Since it’s my list, let’s start with my own book, which I clearly saw as a ‘coming of age’ tale.

In 1980s Florida, a sheltered teenager, obsessed with a B-movie scream queen, flees his family’s Palm Beach mansion, teams up with an aging con man and his ambitious girlfriend and heads to a film set in the Everglades, only to find himself mired in a swamp of competing cons and hustles.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger:

The novel details two days in the life of 16-year-old Holden Caulfield after he has been expelled from prep school. Confused and disillusioned, Holden searches for truth and rails against the “phoniness” of the adult world.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee:

A perfect fusion of ethics, racism, and innocence crafts the journey of young Scout Finch. This prize-winning book by Harper Lee is a compelling literary contribution set against the backdrop of injustice and discrimination in the American South.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky:

Socially awkward teen Charlie is a wallflower, always watching life from the sidelines, until two charismatic students become his mentors. Free-spirited Sam and her stepbrother Patrick help Charlie discover the joys of friendship, first love, music and more, while a teacher sparks Charlie’s dreams of becoming a writer. However, as his new friends prepare to leave for college, Charlie’s inner sadness threatens to shatter his newfound confidence.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath:

The Bell Jar is a novel about a young poet who tried to end her own life, written by a poet who unfortunately succeeded. Witty, tragic, and full of dark humor, The Bell Jar brings insider insight and awareness to subjects often left undiscussed. It is regarded as a modern classic.

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton:

The book details the conflict between two rival gangs of White Americans divided by their socioeconomic status: the working-class “Greasers” and the upper-middle-class “Socs.’  The story is told in first-person perspective by teenage protagonist Ponyboy Curtis.

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros:

The novel’s protagonist, Esperanza Cordero, discovers a world with the complexities of identification, culture and womanhood. This story about Esperanza’s developmental growth is set in the Latino neighborhood of Chicago. She boldly faces the challenges of poverty, racism and societal expectations, spreading a strong message of courage.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell:

This heartbreaking tale of love and romance between a misfit couple of teenagers, Eleanor and Park,  takes place in Omaha in the 1980s. Rainbow Rowell expertly highlights the elements of love, romance, family opposition, and complication of the first love.  

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson:

The story of this exemplary novel revolves around the high school freshman Melinda Sordino, who discovers the essence of silence, trauma, resistance and struggle against unexpected circumstances. This is about a recovery journey after a trauma in which the protagonist finds strength and comfort in raising her voice.

Looking for Alaska by John Green:

The story of adolescence and curiosity with finding answers to unknown questions. This book is about the life of Miles “Pudge” Halter, who tried to deal with the complications of love, loss, and self-discovery at a boarding school in Alabama.


Everybody can relate to the coming of age story, because we all did it. Some with more drama than others, but growing up is dramatic and often traumatic. It tells the classic “hero’s journey” through the eyes of a young person, who must overcome obstacles, learn about themselves and the world, and finally, grow and change as they reach their goal, or reach some conclusion.

At its best, the genre gives readers the courage to face obstacles in love and life, the ability to accept harsh realities, and lessons on how to take a stand in the face of societal pressures.

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