24 of the Best Coming-of-Age Novels
Coming-of-age novels are some of my favorites; the genre feels relatable because it’s something that we all have lived through. Our experiences may vary, but everyone on Earth has lived their own version of a coming-of-age story. And that means that there are endless possibilities for narratives in this genre. Families, found families, chosen families, first loves, and friendships galore — these are the stories I love to read.
Coming-of-age novels typically follow the protagonist of a story from childhood to adulthood, touching on all of the defining events that helped form their values or future worldview. Specifically, a Bildungsroman is a common form of narrative, where the main character goes through a kind of character shift over time, often after being forced to change or “grow up” after a defining event in their lives.
Something I think people forget is that coming-of-age novels aren’t just limited to YA. Yes, these are formative years, but there are countless examples of excellent adult coming-of-age stories. This list has a mix of both YA and adult, as well as diverse perspectives. Find the best coming-of-age novels here.
Middle Grade and YA Coming-of-Age Novels
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Starr Carter is the sole witness of the death of her friend, Khalil, who is shot by police. The story soon becomes national news. Advised to keep her name out of the press for her own safety, Starr is forced to watch as the general public starts to make their own assumptions about Khalil and what really happened that night. And Starr is the only one with the real truth of what happened. This book is such an important one to read in light of #BlackLivesMatter and police brutality.
I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez
Younger sibling Julia has always felt inferior to her older sister, Olga. But after a tragic accident takes Olga’s life, Julia is forced to bring her family together in a time of overwhelming sadness. But instead of supporting Julia, she finds herself experiencing the same old routine — her mother pointing out every area where she has failed and where Olga shined. As Julia tries to heal, she finds out more about her sister, clouding the once sparkly perception she had of her. Maybe the sisters were more alike than she thought.
Darius The Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram
Darius has never felt like he fit in, and this includes the ability to relate to his parents. After learning about his grandfather’s health condition, the family decides to visit Iran to say goodbye. Unfortunately, Darius finds that nothing changes — he is still unable to relate to his athletic father or speak Farsi with his mother. But it’s during this period of loneliness that he meets Sohrab, his grandparents’ teenage neighbor. This book tackles sexual identity, mental illness, racism, body positivity, and more. Darius is someone you can’t help but root for.
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
After calling the police at a summer party, Melinda has become an outcast at her high school. What’s more, Melinda refuses to say why she called the cops (who ended up breaking up the party). She soon falls nearly silent, unable to properly verbalize what exactly happened to her. Melinda’s “voice” soon becomes the art she makes during her class at school. It’s there that she learns how to use her voice to both acknowledge what happened and move forward.
Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan
After the tragic death of her father, 13-year-old Esperanza and her family are forced to move from their home in Mexico to California. Now working on a farm, Esperanza finds it difficult to adjust to their new financial struggle and countless hours of working. A series of events befalls, leaving her mother incredibly sick and Esperanza forced to take on farm work despite being underage. But Esperanza can’t give up on her dream of reuniting with her grandmother and having a stable home life again.
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
Xiomara, a teen in Harlem, feels silenced by her mother and her church while also dealing with normal teen things like identity, sexual harassment, and relationships from familial to romantic and platonic. But when she is invited to join her school’s slam poetry club, Xiomara finds a release in letting out her frustrations and putting her thoughts to paper. However, she’s forced to keep it a secret from her mami and her church community. Told in verse, Acevedo does an incredible job at bringing Xioamara’s voice to life.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Told through a series of letters to an unknown friend, we meet Charlie, a high school student who is just trying to get by. And after he meets two friends who help to break him out of his shell, Charlie’s life starts to change. This story really makes you think about being active in your own life vs. a passenger, and Charlie is the perfect person to experience it through.
The Giver by Lois Lowry
Imagine a utopian society, where everything is perfect: no pain, no sadness, and everything is decided for you. During the ceremony where they learn their future professions, Jonas learns he’s been selected to become the next Receiver and be trained by the Giver. He learns that the reason why he and his friends and family are able to live such blissful lives is because the Giver is holding all of the painful memories himself. But he’s getting old, and it’s time to pass the memories on. By receiving all of these memories, Jonas is forced to grow up quickly and face some harsh truths about the world.
Yolk by Mary H.K. Choi
Another story about sisters, Yolk centers on Jayne and June Baek, both of whom have left their home in Texas for the glitz and glamour of New York. But their lives couldn’t be more different: Jayne is struggling through fashion school and an eating disorder, while June lives in luxury with a cushy finance job. Everything changes when June is diagnosed with uterine cancer and the sisters find themselves living together. There’s no better time to repair their relationship, right?
Adult Coming-of-Age Novels
Atonement by Ian McEwan
This book is the definition of “one choice can change everything.” When 13-year-old Briony misunderstands a situation between her sister and their friend, Robbie, she makes a misguided accusation that changes all of their lives. Spanning Briony’s life, this book outlines the repercussions of that one decision and the effects on her entire family. Atonement does a fantastic job at detailing Briony’s thought process at different points of her life, making you understand her decisions even if you don’t agree.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper lee
Taking place during the Great Depression in small-town Alabama, this classic coming-of-age story is told through the eyes of 6-year-old Scout. Atticus is Scout’s single father, raising two kids on his own with the help of their cook, Calpurnia. An attorney, the turning point of the novel happens when Atticus is appointed to represent Tom Robinson, a young Black man who has been accused of raping a white woman. There’s a reason this book has stood the test of time, and the messages still sadly ring true today.
What the Fireflies Knew by Kai Harris
Eleven-year-old KB and her sister, Nia, are unexpectedly sent to live with their grandfather after an unfortunate series of events leave their mother alone and overwhelmed. Already feeling alone with her parents, KB soon finds herself being ditched by Nia, now a teenager, who wants nothing to do with her. KB begins to look at the advantages of reinventing herself and learning to love herself in the process. This book was published a little over a year ago and has already become a classic.
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver
Described as a “David Copperfield for a new generation,” Demon Copperhead is set in southern Appalachia and follows the life of Damon, aka Demon, and his experiences growing up. Born to a single mother in and out of rehab, Damon bounces around the foster care system, where he learns how to survive on his own. Soon falling into addiction, unhealthy relationships, and more, we truly watch Damon through all stages of life.
How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez
This book focuses on four sisters and their new lives in NYC. Originally from the Dominican Republic, they moved with their parents in the 60s. Throughout their lives, they move back and forth between their homeland and NYC, and the overall narrative is told in reverse chronological order through a collection of 15 stories throughout their lives. This book is a fictionalized version of Alvarez’s own immigration to the United States.
Real Life by Brandon Taylor
Taylor’s prose is searing, and the feeling of loneliness just seeps off the page. This book centers on Wallace, the only Black person enrolled in his university’s bioscience program. Taylor holds nothing back in his description of Wallace’s learned trauma, his struggles with his sexuality, and how he is constantly belittled because of his race. Still trying to outrun the demons of his past, Wallace finds himself wrestling between self-preservation and connecting with his colleagues.
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
This book follows Amir and his unexpected friendship with Hassan. Amir is the son of a wealthy Afghan family and Hassan is the son of Ali, the servant to Amir’s father. A series of unspeakable events drives a wedge in their friendship. The boys end up separated when Amir and his father flee Afghanistan after a Russian invasion. While in California, Amir learns what happened to Hassan after they left, and he feels compelled to right some wrongs. This book is highly regarded for a reason and the storytelling is pristine.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Love it or hate it, The Goldfinch has cemented itself as a new classic for coming-of-age fiction. After Theo survives a terrorist attack as a teen, he is taken in by a wealthy friend. Still determined to reconnect with memories of his mother, Theo becomes fixated on a painting that meant a lot to her. Doing so, he is drawn into the underground world of art dealing.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Homegoing follows two separate stories of half-sisters, Effia and Esi, who are born into different villages in 18th century Ghana. One storyline follows Effia and her life as a noble in Cape Coast Castle. Another follows Esi, who is imprisoned in the castle dungeons, unbeknownst to Effia. This book spans 300 years and many generations after Effia and Esi, showing how they shaped the future of their families. It’s brilliant in its heartbreak and narrative of what makes a family.
The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
When Leni’s father, Ernt, returns from war with severe PTSD, he decides that the best thing for the family is a fresh start. This is how the Allbright family ends up in rural Alaska and completely fending for themselves. The excitement of a new place quickly turns to panic and the strain has the potential to tear the Allbrights apart. When winter arrives, Leni and her mother come to the conclusion that they are completely isolated and stuck in a house with someone whose temper and moods they cannot control.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
Now a popular limited series, Normal People focuses on Connell and Marianne. Connell is popular and the school’s sport star, while Marianne is a quiet know-it-all. The two connect after Connell picks up his mother at Marianne’s house (where she works as a housekeeper), the two start talking and form an unexpected connection. The book follows them to college and their future adventures and how they continue to be drawn to each other.
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
Told through a series of vignettes, this book covers a year in the life of Esperanza, a young Mexican American girl growing up in Chicago. When the story starts, Esperanza’s family has moved into the house on Mango Street, and while it’s a step up from their previous residence, it’s still not where she wants to be. Over the course of a year, Esperanza forms friendships with two other girls on Mango Street, goes on adventures, and fights back against poverty and racism.
Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane
The Gleesons’ and the Stanhopes’ lives were destined to collide. The fathers, Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope, both work in the NYPD, and they live next to each other. As hoped, Peter Gleeson and Kate Stanhope, who grow up together as best friends, eventually fall in love and start planning their future together. But everything changes after Brian’s wife, Anne, shoots Francis in the face. The incident changes their relationship and forces them apart, but life goes on and life might bring them together again.
Maame by Jessica George
In London, Maddie spends her time working as a primary caretaker for her father, who is living with advanced Parkinson’s, and at her day job, where she is always the only Black person in the room. After her mom returns from Ghana, it gives Maddie a chance to make some changes. Maddie is excited to really start living her life and she begins putting herself out there — forming new friendships, advocating for herself, and even jumping into online dating. But then tragedy strikes, and Maddie’s whole world is thrown into upheaval.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
Vuong is known for his poetry, and he has brought his beautiful imagery and words into his debut novel. This entire book is written as a letter to the main character’s mother, who is illiterate and will never read it. The story is semi-autobiographical and follows a family of Vietnamese refugees living in the United States. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is very much a coming-of-age story of Little Dog and how his family relates to the new home they’ve found themselves in.
We’ve got more coming-of-age recs for you to dive into! Check these out: