You don’t need to be in high school to appreciate these coming of age books celebrating young adults. From falling in love to finding yourself- these are the best books about growing up!
Do you love coming-of-age stories as much as me? When I was a kid, I loved the discoveries made by my favorite literary characters, especially as they transformed their viewpoints on the world.
In many ways, reading stories that look so different from mine felt escapist. Growing up in a conservative faith and small town, books expanded a worldview that didn’t always inhabit my own.
Now coming-of-age stories serve a different purpose.
They remind me of being a kid again. If you want to relive those coming-of-age moments and feel like a kid again this week’s podcast and booklist filled with 13 stories on growing up are for you.
Today on the podcast, we are sharing a few of our favorites along with some trivia on a few of these backlist books we all love. The show notes are in a separate post today.
Listen to the full episode below and subscribe to the Book Gang podcast for more episodes like this one.
As promised, I wanted to expand beyond our show and bring 13 more stories that I think you will love. I’ve also included a short list of classics to check out if you want to continue your journey through the decades.
13 Coming of Age Books That Any Adult Will Love
This short coming-of-age story is another imaginative tale from Kevin Wilson.
The book is set in the 90s and tells the story of two teenage misfits, Frankie and Zeke, who form an unlikely friendship and create a cryptic art piece that unleashes a wave of conspiracy theories in their community.
Through this friendship, they collaborate on experimental art and create a poster creation that becomes a viral sensation around town. The poster reads, "The edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers. We are fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us."
The consequences of this cryptic message stir feelings of Satanic panic within their town, yielding devastating results. And, years later, Frankie's past comes back to haunt her when a journalist starts investigating the events of that summer.
This audiobook, narrated magnificently by Gennifer Goodwin, explores young love, identity, the power of art, and the secrets we keep.
Reading Kevin Wilson's real-life friendship story will deepen your appreciation for this unique exploration of art and friendship that The Atlantic described as "A novel that will make you laugh and then punch you in the gut."
"Setting Free the Kites" is a coming-of-age story in the late 1970s that follows the friendship of two eighth-grade boys. The boys meet in their coastal Maine town, where Robert Carter's predictable life takes a turn after meeting Nathan Tilly on his first day of school.
Nathan is confident and fearless, and their friendship blooms after both families experience a tragedy. The two boys then spend their summer working at a local amusement park run by Robert's family, which proves to be a double-edged sword for both boys.
Equal parts heartwarming and heart-wrenching, be sure to have a box of tissues on hand for a few tears as you make the journey with these beautiful and fully fleshed characters.
Lacing in themes of bravery, love, and loss, as well as the realization that even our parents harbor flaws and secrets.
If you loved Ordinary Grace, this might be your next favorite book.
In 1965, Ana Cancion is just fifteen when Juan Ruiz proposed marriage. Juan is twice Ana's age but is making it big in New York City and is willing to take Ana to America with him. If Ana can get to America, she can also help her family immigrate there too.
When she arrives in New York City, she quickly realizes that Juan isn't anything like he seems. He lives in a dirty walk-up apartment in Washington Heights and is broke. He's also highly abusive and will not allow Ana any freedom, confining her to the apartment to wait for his return.
Ana is lonely and broken, but she still seems to find these beautiful, joy-filled glimmers that make her time in NYC bearable.
With the Dominican Republic in political turmoil, Juan is forced to leave and leaves Ana to try to protect his family's assets. Juan entrusts his brother, Cesar, to care for Ana in his absence. Suddenly, Ana can see New York and the possibility of a different type of life.
It is when she finds love in Cesar and must make a difficult decision. Should she follow her heart or continue her relationship to secure her parent's trip to America? Ana's discoveries and duties to her family were captivating experiences that yielded one of my favorite book club chats.
Cruz is an expert at writing beautifully broken characters and this story is exceptional.
Almost-eleven-year-old Kenyatta Bernice (KB) has undergone some challenging changes in her life. Not only has her father died, but her mother also has her left. She and Nia (her sister) are dropped off at her estranged grandfather's home indefinitely without explanation.
This is a summer of big transitions and discoveries for many reasons. Still, one of the most powerful is the transition between the two sisters as Nia begins to separate herself from her sister and move away from the things of her youth to embark on the big girlhood journey of self-discovery (and boys).
If you have a sister, I have never read this stage more beautifully captured. I may have hugged this book when I finished its final pages.
Harris writes vividly and beautifully with turns of phrases that are a delight to read. It also layers in more significant themes like mental illness, race, and identity that add depth to this sweet summer adventure story.
Described as an ode to "black girlhood and adolescence," this is a stunning coming-of-age story.
Sam Hill was born with a rare condition called ocular albinism, which makes him look different from his peers. His red pupils are ridiculed at his Catholic school, and his classmates refer to him as the "Devil Boy." Although his last name is Hill, the bullies at school refer to him as "Sam Hell" instead.
Despite his differences, his mother believes that this is God's will and that this difference makes Sam so extraordinary.
She will stop at nothing to help Sam pave his path in the world and is thrilled when Sam finds his first friend in Ernie, the only African American kid at his school. The two form a fast friendship, and both see the same magnificent company in a little girl named Mickie, who is willing to stand up for Sam more than anyone.
The book is told from Sam's adult perspective, now working as an ophthalmologist, and his boyhood journey toward acceptance.
Dugoni's inspiration came from his brother, who had Down Syndrome, and his mother's tireless fight for him.
He paired this inspiration with a newspaper story he read about a little boy who couldn't get into a Catholic school because of a condition called ocular albinism.
This story is everything a satisfying read should be and would be an excellent pick for any book club.
Adunni is a fourteen-year-old Nigerian girl who knows that she wants an education more than anything. But unfortunately, her father is broke and decides to sell her as a third wife to an older man.
That’s why it’s such a joy when a local woman decides to take Adunni under her wing, helping her apply for a scholarship that could be pivotal to her future. This persistent protagonist never loses sight of her goal of escaping the life of poverty she was born into so that she can build the future she chooses for herself and pay it forward to other girls in similar circumstances.
Adunni’s life is hard to read, knowing that so many girls are like Adunni STILL and that many find themselves in these marriages and working as house girls with no pay or adequate food or shelter. Despite the sadness, this story is filled with hope too.
Many readers recommended doing the audiobook since the narration was so gorgeous, but it is just as memorable in a paper copy.
I loved this novel so much that it made for one memorable book club discussion. We loved it so much that we included this in our Book Gang podcast discussion (linked above).
"Tell the Wolves I'm Home" is among my favorite coming-of-age stories, and I recommend it any reader that craves a memorable backlist book.
In this moving debut, 14-year-old June Elbus is an endearing character with an old soul. No one understands her better than her best friend, the renowned painter Finn Weiss. The two share a unique appreciation for many things, like a mutual fascination with the life and art of the Middle Ages and a love for classical music.
But when Finn unexpectedly dies, June is thrown into a world of grief and uncertainty. It is where she finds an unexpected connection to a man named Toby who knew Finn well.
As she learns more about Toby, she discovers more about her uncle and realizes her feelings for Toby might be more profound than just a substitution for his lost presence.
She also finds a rather grown-up transformative power in empathy and the healing that comes from opening up to new possibilities. If ever there was a backlist book you needed to acquaint yourself with, let it be this one.
Craving a summer adventure story? This MomAdvice Book Club Book was a summer selection that one reader described as "a beautiful, heartbreaking, important story about race and friendship."
Ethan is sent to a small Alabama town to spend his summer with his aunt and uncle. But, as a bi-racial kid, he lives in a bigger city where his differences are not as on display, and some racial progress has been made.
In this small town, though, racism is open and runs freely among all the townspeople. As a result, Ethan struggles to adapt to new situations like separate bathrooms, water fountains, separate seating at the movies, and the way people treat him with complete disregard.
Luckily, he forms a fast friendship with another girl in town, the oh-so-quirky Juniper Jones. These two outcasts form a dynamic duo that will shape the rest of Ethan's life in some beautiful and surprising ways.
Juniper's goal is to have the most invincible summer, and she begs Ethan to join her as she crosses adventures off her to-do list.
With Juniper's encouragement, Ethan navigates these challenges and finds beauty within the ugly reality of racism. With two bikes and root beer floats, Ethan and Juniper set out to create their invincible summer.
This book is beautifully moving and holds unique narration by telling a love story through the observations of a Fig Tree that inhabits their lives. I found the experience pairing the print copy with the audiobook on this literary fiction novel to be immersive.
Defne and Kostas have a Romeo & Juliet love story, but the opposition is their Greek and Turkish heritage. Their love blossoms, quite literally, beneath a fig tree that stretches through the rooftop of their favorite tavern, where they plan their secret meetings.
When a war breaks out, the tree is left, and the two teenagers have vanished. Decades later, Kostas has returned as a botanist looking for native species. The reader knows that he is there because he seeks answers to Defne's disappearance.
I recommend doing this on audiobook for many reasons, including hearing the tree's narration and hearing many unfamiliar words, regions, and local cuisines written on the pages. If you choose to read this one on paper or digital, there is a convenient glossary that I didn't know was there until I finished.
After reading this book, I don't know how you wouldn't want to hug a tree. The way that the author writes this viewpoint honestly made the whole story. I found myself tearing up over many of these chapters and the gorgeous affair that blossomed between these two characters.
The best thing is that many side characters are just as compelling and add even more dimension to the story.
Reminders of nature's observations of us make this story a profound one. For example, "But if you are going to claim, as humans do, to be superior to all life forms, past and present, then you must gain an understanding of the oldest living organisms on earth who were here long before you arrived and will still be here after you have gone."
Generational viewpoint changes and climate change observations (told from nature herself) allow for a deeply layered book perfect for any book club.
Fans of Everything, Everywhere, All At Once will appreciate elements of this genre-bending book that explores themes of family sacrifice and the impact of class on a young adult girl.
This story follows Alice Sun, a Chinese American girl who has always felt invisible at her elite Beijing international boarding school. Despite being the only scholarship student among China's most affluent and influential teens, Alice works hard to excel academically and is a straight-A overachiever.
However, when her parents reveal they can no longer afford her tuition, Alice's stress causes her to develop an unexpected power - the ability to turn invisible. She decides to capitalize on it and partner with her high school rival to establish an app to complete tasks for her wealthy classmates and uncover their secrets. The only problem is that she doesn't know when she can tap into her invisibility powers or when it will turn off.
As the tasks escalate from petty scandals to actual crimes, Alice must decide whether it's worth losing her conscience or her life.
Younger readers who have ever felt out of place will find a relatable protagonist in Alice. It's also notable that the author, Ann Liang, is an undergraduate at the University of Melbourne and offers her reader a unique background from growing up in both Beijing and Australia.
This story chronicles the lives of two rookie cops who are neighbors. Their wives should be close friends, but they both battle their own demons at home. One is very lonely and could use a friend, but the other is emotionally unstable and not in a chapter of her life where she can sustain a friendship.
The two neighbor kids (Peter and Kate) are born just six months apart and have found a forever friendship with one another that trumps all of their parent's difficulties and struggles.
In a shocking twist of events, one moment changes everything for these two families in a way the reader would never expect. This event causes their loyalties to divide and their bonds to be tested. As a reader, your loyalties will also feel divided as you sympathize with these family stories.
Keane is an exquisite storyteller and crafts another family saga in her soon-to-be-released The Half Moon, which you can find a review on in our Patreon's FULLY BOOKED newsletter and podcast with thoughts on the latest buzzy books. Join the Book Gang to get the full review.
Jeff Zentner's, In the Wild Light, was named the best book of our MomAdvice Book Club year in 2022. If you loved this story, I encourage you to discover this captivating story of three friends and their journey through growing up in the rural South.
Dill, Travis, and Lydia all have their own demons to fight, but together they form an unbreakable bond. Dill's father, a Pentecostal preacher, has become the center of a town scandal, leaving his family struggling. Meanwhile, Travis finds solace in a book series called Bloodfall as he tries to escape his abusive father. And, Lydia, a talented blogger, dreams of starting a new life in New York but needs help to leave behind what's familiar.
Follow these three unlikely friends as they face an unexpected challenge together and experience a beautiful friendship filled with humor and heart.
This critically acclaimed novel, named on numerous "Best of the Year" lists, and winner of the William C. Morris Award, will leave you captivated until the very last page.
Zentner takes you on a powerful and emotional journey through the struggles of growing up and finding one's true self as he provides an unapologetic and humorous view of life in the Bible belt.
Be sure to read the Jeff Zentner interview after you finish this story- you'll discover Zentner's unusual writing process that successfully launched his books into the world.
William Kent Krueger is a gifted storyteller that tells coming-of-age stories so well. I was so honored to share space with him in our author interview for Ordinary Grace.
Fans of Huck Finn are sure to love this adventure story where four orphans run away from a Lincoln Indian Training School after one of the boys commits a terrible crime.
Odie and his brother Albert are orphans who find themselves at a school for Native American children who have been taken from their families. In an unusual twist, these orphans are of white descent, and Krueger creates a compelling reason why they must escape for survival.
The boys decide to steal away in a canoe and head out on the Mississippi to escape after this harrowing experience. Albert and Odie aren't alone though. They bring along their best friend, a mute Indian boy named Mose, and Emmy, the orphaned daughter of a beloved former teacher.
Through this finely crafted tale, the foursome narrowly escapes meeting their fate more than once and discovering love in unlikely places.
The novel is set during the Great Depression and offers a glimpse into the lives of those affected by this challenging chapter in history. The end of the book includes well-developed research on training schools, adding a historical aspect to the story.
Not enough? Try These Coming of Age Classics!
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
What coming of age stories do you recommend?
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