50 Must-Read Coming-of-Age Books

Let’s face it, coming of age books are timeless and there are so many different ways you can make a connection. Sometimes the main character is just so real, you can see your younger self in their personality. Other times it’s the experience; you’ve gone through this before, or you know someone who has, and it strikes a chord. It can be similarities in the family dynamic where maybe you realize that your particular assigned grown-ups have no idea what they’re doing. Most times it’s just the struggle™; growing up can be weird and awesome and stressful and terrifying on its own. So, attention adults adulting, and kids and teens adulting—you are not alone.

I present to you this list of must-read coming of age books. So here goes, in no particular order.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt 

“1987. There’s only one person who has ever truly understood fourteen-year-old June Elbus, and that’s her uncle, the renowned painter Finn Weiss. Shy at school and distant from her older sister, June can only be herself in Finn’s company; he is her godfather, confidant, and best friend. So when he dies, far too young, of a mysterious illness her mother can barely speak about, June’s world is turned upside down. But Finn’s death brings a surprise acquaintance into June’s life—someone who will help her to heal, and to question what she thinks she knows about Finn, her family, and even her own heart.”

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas 

“Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.”

Girls in the Moon by Janet McNally 

“Everyone in Phoebe Ferris’s life tells a different version of the truth. Her mother, Meg, ex–rock star and professional question evader, shares only the end of the story—the post-fame calm that Phoebe’s always known. Her sister, Luna, indie-rock darling of Brooklyn, preaches a stormy truth of her own making, selectively ignoring the facts she doesn’t like. And her father, Kieran, the co-founder of Meg’s beloved band, hasn’t said anything at all since he stopped calling three years ago. But Phoebe, a budding poet in search of an identity to call her own, is tired of half-truths and vague explanations. When she visits Luna in New York, she’s determined to find out how she fits in to this family of storytellers, and to maybe even continue her own tale—the one with the musician boy she’s been secretly writing for months.”

the last illusionThe last Illusion by Porochista Khakpour

“In an Iranian village, Zal’s demented mother, horrified by the pallor of his skin and hair, is convinced she has given birth to a ‘white demon.’ She hides him in a birdcage for the next decade. Rescued by a behavioral analyst, Zal awakens in New York to the possibility of a future. A stunted and unfit adolescent, he strives to become human as he stumbles toward adulthood.”

The Residue Yearby Mitchell S. Jackson

“The Residue Years switches between the perspectives of a young man, Champ, and his mother, Grace. Grace is just out of a drug treatment program, trying to stay clean and get her kids back. Champ is trying to do right by his mom and younger brothers, and dreams of reclaiming the only home he and his family have ever shared. But selling crack is the only sure way he knows to achieve his dream. In this world of few options and little opportunity, where love is your strength and your weakness, this family fights for family and against what tears one apart.”

Every Other Weekend by Zulema Renee Summerfield 

“Set in the sun-scorched suburbs of late 1980s Southern California, Every Other Weekend follows an imaginative eight-year-old girl whose out-sized anxieties amplify when her family fractures and reforms, and whose creeping premonition that something terrible will happen comes true in the most tragic and unexpected way.”

Every Exquisite Thing by Matthew Quick 

“Nanette O’Hare has played the quintessential privileged star athlete and straight-A student for as long as she can remember. But when a beloved teacher gives her his worn copy of The Bubblegum Reaper—a mysterious, out-of-print cult classic—the rebel within Nanette awakens.”

Juliet Takes A Breath by Gabby Rivera

“Juliet Milagros Palante is leaving the Bronx and headed to Portland, Oregon. She just came out to her family and isn’t sure if her mom will ever speak to her again. But Juliet has a plan, sort of, one that’s going to help her figure out this whole ‘Puerto Rican lesbian’ thing. She’s interning with the author of her favorite book: Harlowe Brisbane, the ultimate authority on feminism, women’s bodies, and other gay-sounding stuff.”

The Housekeeper and the Professor  by Yōko Ogawa, translation Stephen Snyder 

“He is a brilliant math Professor with a peculiar problem—ever since a traumatic head injury, he has lived with only eighty minutes of short-term memory. She is an astute young Housekeeper, with a ten-year-old son, who is hired to care for him. And every morning, as the Professor and the Housekeeper are introduced to each other anew, a strange and beautiful relationship blossoms between them.”

Lottery by Patricia Wood

“Perry’s IQ is only 76, but he’s not stupid. His grandmother taught him everything he needs to know to survive: She taught him to write things down so he won’t forget them. She taught him to play the lottery every week. And, most important, she taught him whom to trust. When Gram dies, Perry is left orphaned and bereft at the age of thirty-one. Then his weekly Washington State Lottery ticket wins him 12 million dollars, and he finds he has more family than he knows what to do with.”

Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa

“On a rainy, cold day in November, young Victor—a boyish, scrappy world traveler who’s run away from home—sets out to sell marijuana to the 50,000 anti-globalization protesters gathered in the streets. It quickly becomes clear that the throng determined to shut the city down—from environmentalists to teamsters to anarchists—are testing the patience of the police, and what started as a peaceful protest is threatening to erupt into violence.”

American Street by Ibi Zoboi

“On the corner of American Street and Joy Road, Fabiola Toussaint thought she would finally find une belle vie—a good life. But after they leave Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Fabiola’s mother is detained by U.S. immigration, leaving Fabiola to navigate her loud American cousins, Chantal, Donna, and Princess; the grittiness of Detroit’s west side; a new school; and a surprising romance, all on her own.”

Disgruntled by Asali Solomon

“Disgruntled…follows Kenya from West Philadelphia to the suburbs, from public school to private, from childhood through adolescence, as she grows increasingly disgruntled by her inability to find any place or thing or person that feels like home.”

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

“Eilis Lacey has come of age in small-town Ireland in the years following World War Two. Though skilled at bookkeeping, she cannot find a job in the miserable Irish economy. When an Irish priest from Brooklyn offers to sponsor Eilis in America—to live and work in a Brooklyn neighborhood ‘just like Ireland’—she decides she must go, leaving her fragile mother and her charismatic sister behind.”

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

“Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.”

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow

“Rachel [is] the daughter of a Danish mother and a black G.I. who becomes the sole survivor of a family tragedy. With her strict African American grandmother as her new guardian, Rachel moves to a mostly black community, where her light brown skin, blue eyes, and beauty bring mixed attention her way. Growing up in the 1980s, she learns to swallow her overwhelming grief and confronts her identity as a biracial young woman in a world that wants to see her as either black or white.”

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones 

“Set in a middle-class neighborhood in Atlanta in the 1980s, the novel revolves around James Witherspoon’s two families—the public one and the secret one. When the daughters from each family meet and form a friendship, only one of them knows they are sisters. It is a relationship destined to explode when secrets are revealed and illusions shattered.”

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

“Liesel scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist—books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement before he is marched to Dachau. This is an unforgettable story about the ability of books to feed the soul.”

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King 

“Long retired, Sherlock Holmes quietly pursues his study of honeybee behavior on the Sussex Downs. He never imagines he would encounter anyone whose intellect matched his own, much less an audacious teenage girl with a penchant for detection. Miss Mary Russell becomes Holmes’s pupil and quickly hones her talent for deduction, disguises and danger.”

Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya 

“Antonio Marez is six years old when Ultima enters his life. She is a curandera, one who heals with herbs and magic. ‘We cannot let her live her last days in loneliness,’ says Antonio’s mother. ‘It is not the way of our people,’ agrees his father. And so Ultima comes to live with Antonio’s family in New Mexico. Soon Tony will journey to the threshold of manhood. Always, Ultima watches over him. She graces him with the courage to face childhood bigotry, diabolical possession, the moral collapse of his brother, and too many violent deaths.”

A Quiet Kind of Thunder by Sara Barnard

“Steffi has been a selective mute for most of her life—she’s been silent for so long that she feels completely invisible. But Rhys, the new boy at school, sees her. He’s deaf, and her knowledge of basic sign language means that she’s assigned to look after him. To Rhys, it doesn’t matter that Steffi doesn’t talk, and as they find ways to communicate, Steffi finds that she does have a voice, and that she’s falling in love with the one person who makes her feel brave enough to use it. ”

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston 

“Told in the captivating voice of a woman who refuses to live in sorrow, bitterness, fear, or foolish romantic dreams, it is the story of fair-skinned, fiercely independent Janie Crawford, and her evolving selfhood through three marriages and a life marked by poverty, trials, and purpose.”

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon

“Although gifted with a superbly logical brain, for fifteen-year-old Christopher everyday interactions and admonishments have little meaning. He lives on patterns, rules, and a diagram kept in his pocket. Then one day, a neighbor’s dog, Wellington, is killed and his carefully constructive universe is threatened. Christopher sets out to solve the murder in the style of his favorite (logical) detective, Sherlock Holmes.”

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

“Things have never been easy for Oscar, a sweet but disastrously overweight, lovesick Dominican ghetto nerd. From his home in New Jersey, where he lives with his old-world mother and rebellious sister, Oscar dreams of becoming the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien and, most of all, of finding love. But he may never get what he wants, thanks to the Fukœ-the curse that has haunted the Oscar’s family for generations, dooming them to prison, torture, tragic accidents, and, above all, ill-starred love. Oscar, still waiting for his first kiss, is just its most recent victim.”

Dear Martin by Nic Stone 

“Justyce McAllister is top of his class and set for the Ivy League—but none of that matters to the police officer who just put him in handcuffs. And despite leaving his rough neighborhood behind, he can’t escape the scorn of his former peers or the ridicule of his new classmates. Justyce looks to the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for answers. But do they hold up anymore? He starts a journal to Dr. King to find out.”

unique formats

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

“A young girl in Harlem discovers slam poetry as a way to understand her mother’s religion and her own relationship to the world. Debut novel of renowned slam poet Elizabeth Acevedo.”

What I Leave Behind by Alison McGhee

“After his dad commits suicide, Will tries to overcome his own misery by secretly helping the people around him in this exquisitely crafted story made up of one hundred chapters of one hundred words each.”

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

“An ode to Put the Damn Guns Down, this is National Book Award finalist and New York Times bestseller Jason Reynolds’s fiercely stunning novel that takes place in sixty potent seconds—the time it takes a kid to decide whether or not he’s going to murder the guy who killed his brother.”

 

Sci-fi/fantasy/supernatural

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

“Her name is Binti, and she is the first of the Himba people ever to be offered a place at Oomza University, the finest institution of higher learning in the galaxy. But to accept the offer will mean giving up her place in her family to travel between the stars among strangers who do not share her ways or respect her customs.”

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison 

“The youngest, half-goblin son of the Emperor has lived his entire life in exile, distant from the Imperial Court and the deadly intrigue that suffuses it. But when his father and three sons in line for the throne are killed in an ‘accident,’ he has no choice but to take his place as the only surviving rightful heir.”

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly 

“High in his attic bedroom, twelve-year-old David mourns the death of his mother, with only the books on his shelf for company. But those books have begun to whisper to him in the darkness. Angry and alone, he takes refuge in his imagination and soon finds that reality and fantasy have begun to meld. While his family falls apart around him, David is violently propelled into a world that is a strange reflection of his own—populated by heroes and monsters and ruled by a faded king who keeps his secrets in a mysterious book, The Book of Lost Things.”

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman 

“Nobody Owens, known to his friends as Bod, is a normal boy. He would be completely normal if he didn’t live in a sprawling graveyard, being raised and educated by ghosts, with a solitary guardian who belongs to neither the world of the living nor of the dead. There are dangers and adventures in the graveyard for a boy. But if Bod leaves the graveyard, then he will come under attack from the man Jack—who has already killed Bod’s family…”

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward 

“Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. His mother, Leonie, is in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is black and her children’s father is white. Embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances, she wants to be a better mother, but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use. When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.”

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers 

“Lovelace was once merely a ship’s artificial intelligence. When she wakes up in an new body, following a total system shut-down and reboot, she has no memory of what came before. As Lovelace learns to negotiate the universe and discover who she is, she makes friends with Pepper, an excitable engineer, who’s determined to help her learn and grow.”

The Wrong Unit by Rob Dircks

“A case of mistaken identity, where an Autonomous Servile Unit finds himself tasked with delivering a ‘package’: a human infant that he ends up raising as they make their years-long journey towards home.”

Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence by Michael Marshall Smith

“Hannah, a young girl living a mundane existence in California, who discovers that her grandfather has been friends with the Devil for the past 150 years…and now, they need her help.”

The Chaos by Nalo Hopkinson

“Sixteen-year-old Scotch struggles to fit in—at home she’s the perfect daughter, at school she’s provocatively sassy, and thanks to her mixed heritage, she doesn’t feel she belongs with the Caribbeans, whites, or blacks. And even more troubling, lately her skin is becoming covered in a sticky black substance that can’t be removed.”

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness 

“At seven minutes past midnight, thirteen-year-old Conor wakes to find a monster outside his bedroom window. But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting—he’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the nightmare he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments. The monster in his backyard is different. It’s ancient. And wild. And it wants something from Conor. Something terrible and dangerous. It wants the truth.”

 

Non-Fiction

born-a-crime-coverBorn a Crime by Trevor Noah 

“Born a Crime is the story of a mischievous young boy who grows into a restless young man as he struggles to find himself in a world where he was never supposed to exist. It is also the story of that young man’s relationship with his fearless, rebellious, and fervently religious mother—his teammate, a woman determined to save her son from the cycle of poverty, violence, and abuse that would ultimately threaten her own life.”

The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

“A Chinese American woman tells of the Chinese myths, family stories and events of her California childhood that have shaped her identity. It is a sensitive account of growing up female and Chinese American in a California laundry.”

All Souls: A Family Story from Southie by Michael Patrick MacDonald

“In All Souls, MacDonald takes us deep into the secret heart of Southie. With radiant insight, he opens up a contradictory world, where residents are besieged by gangs and crime but refuse to admit any problems, remaining fiercely loyal to their community. MacDonald also introduces us to the unforgettable people who inhabit this proud neighborhood.”

Heart Berries: A Memoir by Terese Marie Mailhot

Heart Berries is a powerful, poetic memoir of a woman’s coming of age on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in the Pacific Northwest. Having survived a profoundly dysfunctional upbringing only to find herself hospitalized and facing a dual diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder and bipolar II disorder; Terese Marie Mailhot is given a notebook and begins to write her way out of trauma. The triumphant result is Heart Berries, a memorial for Mailhot’s mother, a social worker and activist who had a thing for prisoners; a story of reconciliation with her father―an abusive drunk and a brilliant artist―who was murdered under mysterious circumstances; and an elegy on how difficult it is to love someone while dragging the long shadows of shame.”

 

cLASSICS

Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks

“…the only novel published by esteemed poet Gwendolyn Brooks. Initially entitled “American Family Brown” the work would eventually come to symbolize some of Brooks’ most provocative writing. In a novel that captures the essence of Black life, Brooks recognizes the beauty and strength that lies within each of us.”

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith 

“The story of young, sensitive, and idealistic Francie Nolan and her bittersweet formative years in the slums of Williamsburg at the turn of the century.”

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle 

“Meg’s father had been experimenting with this fifth dimension of time travel when he mysteriously disappeared. Now the time has come for Meg, her friend Calvin, and Charles Wallace to rescue him. But can they outwit the forces of evil they will encounter on their heart-stopping journey through space?”

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

“Humble, orphaned Pip is apprenticed to the dirty work of the forge but dares to dream of becoming a gentleman—and one day, under sudden and enigmatic circumstances, he finds himself in possession of ‘great expectations.'”

A separate Peace by John Knowles

“Set at a boys boarding school in New England during the early years of World War II, A Separate Peace is a harrowing and luminous parable of the dark side of adolescence. Gene is a lonely, introverted intellectual. Phineas is a handsome, taunting, daredevil athlete. What happens between the two friends one summer, like the war itself, banishes the innocence of these boys and their world.”

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros 

“Told in a series of vignettes—sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes deeply joyous—it is the story of a young Latina girl growing up in Chicago, inventing for herself who and what she will become.”

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

“Charlotte Brontë tells the story of orphaned Jane Eyre, who grows up in the home of her heartless aunt, enduring loneliness and cruelty. This troubled childhood strengthens Jane’s natural independence and spirit – which prove necessary when she finds employment as a governess to the young ward of Byronic, brooding Mr Rochester.”

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

“When orphaned Mary Lennox comes to live at her uncle’s great house on the Yorkshire Moors, she finds it full of secrets. The mansion has nearly one hundred rooms, and her uncle keeps himself locked up. And at night, she hears the sound of crying down one of the long corridors.”

what’s your favorite coming-of-age novel?

Many of these coming of age books above are close to my heart, but there are just so many special coming of age books it’s impossible to list them all. Let’s give it a try anyway. Leave your favorite coming of age books in the comments and keep this list growing (up). And while you’re here, check out some of our other must-read lists.

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