Readers, it’s September and I’m declaring it Fall Reading Season in my corner of the world, even if the weather here isn’t quite on board yet. I’m ready to ditch my beach reads in favor of something more reflective, melancholy, and nostalgic as we usher in the cooler months.
There’s something about crisp fall weather, combined with back-to-school season that brings to mind my favorite coming-of-age novels. Coming-of-age stories feature young protagonists learning big life lessons and finding their place in the world as they journey to adulthood.
Some coming-of-age novels are comforting and sweet, while others tackle tough themes and traumatic events that shape the characters’ lives. Today I’m sharing some of my favorite coming-of-age novels with memorable characters and timeless themes. This list includes a mix of nostalgic comfort reading and hard-but-hopeful stories.
We’re also celebrating the coming-of-age theme this fall in Book Club with our main picks, our flight picks, and our Book School content. Members keep telling us that right now Book Club is their island of delight in a difficult time. Take a look at our calendar to see the incredible author events and literary discussions we have planned for this season. Plus, new members get access to all of our past Book Club content, including yesterday’s Fall Book Preview! Click here to get started.
If you're new to this novel, brace yourself: Francie Nolan is about to win you over. Her Irish Catholic family is struggling to stay afloat in the Brooklyn slums, in the midst of great change at the turn of the century, while her charismatic but doomed father is literally drinking himself to death. But Francie is young, sensitive, imaginative, and determined to make a life for herself, and Smith gently shows us how Francie is like those Brooklyn trees that somehow manage to grow in the city, even in cement, even with no light or water. A moving coming-of-age story of unlikely beauty and resilience. More info →
This is the first installment of Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, which revolves around the friendship between Elena and Lila; My Brilliant Friend begins when the girls are in first grade and carries them through adolescence. Their coming-of-age journey also tells the story of a changing nation. This isn't a quaint friendship story, though. The girls' relationship is complex. Thought-provoking, beautifully written, realistic enough to be quite difficult in places. But readers who love this LOVE IT. Reading tip: I adored this series on audio. More info →
Full of reflection and romance, this coming-of-age novel is perfect for reading any time of year. 17-year-old Cassandra is a remarkable narrator, who captures her eccentric family’s daily life—in their ramshackle old English castle—in her diary. The three volumes which comprise this book are full of her funny and poignant stories. Completely charming and replete with love, magic, writer's block, and bear costumes. More info →
Irving is a masterful storyteller, and has a knack for drawing compelling characters. This novel, which gently addresses heavy themes of fate and faith, is widely believed to be his finest. During a Little League game, 11-year-old Owen Meany hits a foul ball, resulting in a terrible accident. What follows is the coming-of-age story of an incredibly rich character. Read it for yourself to find out why this book tops so many readers' "desert island" lists. More info →
This YA novel is a little bit science fiction, a little bit coming-of-age. After years of watching the earth for signs of distress, the danger comes in a form no one expects: the rotation of the earth begins to slow, wreaking havoc. 11-year-old Julia is forced to deal with the Slowing plus typical adolescent drama in this haunting novel. I love this one so much, I included it in Volume III of One Great Book. More info →
Adolescence can be a fraught time even without any additional family stress. Of course, in literature, complex family situations make for compelling page-turners and memorable coming-of-age stories. With a jaw-dropping opening line: "my father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist," Jones writes about the link between two African-American half sisters, one legitimate and one secret, only one of whom knows the other exists. That is, until the secret of their father's second marriage starts to force its way into the open. More info →
A coming-of-age story about family, religion, and freedom. I love Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, and I loved this one. It follows fifteen-year-old Kambili as she navigate turmoil in her home life and in her country. Reminiscent of The Poisonwood Bible, for its portrayal of a well-intentioned but seriously misguided and doomed man, whose practices harm both his family and his community. Adichie expertly ratchets up the tension in quiet moments and makes her characters' inner strength shine with her command of dialogue and prose. More info →
An eerie take on the coming-of-age theme. Ishiguro expertly combines speculative fiction and literary fiction to great effect. I talked about my love for this one in Volume III of One Great Book . Haunting and atmospheric, with a sad truth that dawns on you gradually. Ishiguro slowly introduces the reader to three teens in a 1990s British boarding school. His prose says so much while revealing so little, as it slowly dawns on the reader what is not-quite-right about these children's lives. More info →
This modern classic is often compared to The Catcher in the Rye or To Kill a Mockingbird. It follows Ruth Anne Boatwright of Greenville County, South Carolina, a bastard child known as "Bone" who observes the world around her with searing honesty. Her stepfather's cruelty places her in danger and threatens the tight bonds of her family. This is a tough, grim coming-of-age story. Allison's prose is stunning, but readers should be aware that the story revolves around poverty and abuse. More info →
A Newbery Honor Book and winner of the Coretta Scott King Author Award. This is the story of Jade, a 16-year-old African American girl struggling to navigate two worlds—that of her wealthy mostly-white high school, and the poorer neighborhood where she lives with her family. This is a nuanced but easy read about feeling out of place, coming into your own, and the perils of good intentions. Years after reading, I can't stop recommending this one. And psst—my tween girls LOVED it. More info →
Baldwin was the son of a preacher and the grandson of an enslaved person, and his life experiences heavily inform this semi-autobiographical 1953 novel, which tells the story of one day in the life of a 14-year-old boy in Harlem in the late 1930s. The boy, John Grimes, struggles with hypocrisy in the Pentecostal church while also finding comfort in the community. Baldwin powerfully writes about John's spiritual and sexual awakening as a young, gay Black man and a person of faith. More info →
This modern classic is a coming-of-age almost-memoir of a young Latina girl, Esperanza Cordero, who is inventing the woman she will grow up to be. The story unfolds as a series of vignettes—some joyful, some heartbreaking—that draw the reader deep into her Hispanic Chicago neighborhood. Esperanza's observations feel at once highly specific and incredibly universal, as she reflects on growing up on Mango Street, and how she eventually wants to leave. More info →
When she and her mother arrive in America, Fabiola's world is turned upside down when her mother is detained by immigration officials. Not only did she just leave her home in Haiti, now she must travel to Detroit—alone—to live with family she's never met. Fabiola strives to hang on to her heritage, and the hope of seeing her mother again, while going to school and experiencing her first romance. Zoboi is an excellent storyteller. Be sure to read the author's note. More info →
A riveting coming-of-age story featuring a fabulous setting, amazing female leads, and ultimate redemption. It’s 1974, and Leni Allbright’s father Ernt, a former Vietnam POW, suffers from terrifying PTSD. The family moves to Alaska in search of a fresh start, but they're utterly unprepared for the harsh reality that greets them. As winter draws near and darkness closes in, Ernt’s mental health deteriorates, with disastrous consequences for the family and community. Yet Leni will survive—and maybe even thrive. More info →
Part Grapes of Wrath, part Huckleberry Finn: this tough and tender coming-of-age story focuses on four Minnesota kids during the Great Depression, whose respective situations become ever more impossible due to human cruelty and circumstance. After a tornado demolishes the last of life as they know it, they realize no one is going to save them—and so they make a plan to save themselves that starts with escaping down the river. A great story, beautifully told. More info →
Acevedo's first novel-in-verse won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature. Xiomara finds her voice as she pours her soul into her notebook. Every frustration, every harassment, every triumph and every secret is turned into a poem. When she gets invited to share her work in slam poetry club, Xiomara isn't sure if she can keep her passion secret from her strict family. But she soon learns that speaking up and living her truth is the only way to be fully herself. More info →
Alvarez tells a fictionalized version of her biography in fifteen interconnected stories. The Garcia girls, four sisters, arrive in New York in 1960—a huge change from their cushioned, wealthy lives in the Dominican Republic. As they acclimate to their new home, mourn what's lost, and find themselves, the sisters share a close bond. The chapters alternate with each sister's perspective, giving the reader a vivid glimpse at four different coming-of-age stories. More info →
The book opens with a special coming-of-age ceremony. Melody enters the room in her grandparents' Brooklyn home wearing the same dress her mother wore sixteen years ago. From there, Woodson weaves Melody and her mother's stories together in a lyrical novel about legacy, parenthood, ambition and desire. For a completely immersive experience, listen to this one on audio. Bahni Turpin is among a full cast of narrators who bring the family to life. More info →
When an overprotected ten-year-old stumbles upon a boy her age drinking furtively from a spring near her home, she discovers what he's trying to keep secret: since his family began drinking the water, they haven't aged a day. Winnie soon learns to love the boy and his family. When they're threatened by an outsider, she takes action. Previously sheltered, she learns to live by her convictions—and about the precariousness of life and death. Rereading this one as an adult is especially illuminating, and the prose is really lovely (which is not a code word for boring). More info →
If you come to Montgomery’s later, darker series expecting to find a second Anne, you’re bound to be disappointed. Luckily, my grade school self had no such preconceived notions. These were the first books that I finished under the covers with a flashlight at 2:00 a.m. because I had to know where Emily’s hopes, dreams, and disappointments led her. The darker tone makes this coming-of-age novel perfect for fall reading, and the theme of a young girl finding her identity and learning about the world is vividly present in all of Montgomery's works. More info →
Have you read any great coming of age novels lately? Tell us about them—or what you’re currently reading—in the comments.