Growing up is one of the most difficult things to do. After all, everyone around you expects you to become who you’re “meant to be.” It seems that when you reach a certain age, you’re supposed to have life figured out, and know exactly what you want to do, where you want to be, and who you’re to become. And it can feel to a young person that the world works against the possibility of a change of heart. It’s as if all important decisions have to be made young and are final for the entirety of your life – which is unrealistic considering the unpredictability of the years ahead. When we’re coming of age, there are so many factors that play a role. No two people have the same adolescent experience, and circumstance and privilege play leading roles in what opportunities present themselves to us as we grow older. As for change, well, change is usually good.
The characters in these twelve novels are trying to find their place in the world the best they can, and though they face great adversity, they push themselves to continue on, and make the most out of what they cannot control. Check out the listed coming-of-age novels below, and get lost in transformative lives that aren’t your own, but very well could be.
John Boyne, the New York Times bestselling author of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, is back with another compelling historical fiction novel. This story takes place in post-WWII Ireland and follows the life of Cyril Avery from his birth to his death, and everything in-between. It’s a story of self-discovery, acceptance, and perseverance in spite of immense hardship. When you see Cyril’s world through his eyes, it’ll change the way you view your own; you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll be reminded that a strong spirit can never truly break.
This stunning debut showcases Thandi, a young African-American woman coming-of-age in Pennsylvania, where she always feels out of place, and finds herself caught between two wildly different cultures. Thandi wonders about her mother’s life in Johannesburg and wishes to understand more about where she comes from, but, before she has the chance, her mother dies from cancer and Thandi is left to her own devices. This novel is about choosing to live when the person you love the most is no longer beside you, and finding strength to heal in even the hardest of times.
Lindsey Lee Johnson
Taking place in an American high school in a wealthy California neighborhood, this captivating debut proves that having money doesn’t equate to being happy, or being moral. The students we encounter throughout the story are haunted by past mistakes, crushing expectations, insurmountable pressure, stereotypes, and drama. Lots and lots of drama. When a schoolteacher comes along from the poor side of town, she tries to reconnect her students and mend all the broken parts of them that have accumulated over the years.
Julia Greenfield managed to navigate the turns of life and make it into adulthood with minimal complications. There’s just one problem: She’s twenty-six, and she’s still a virgin. In hopes of finding someone, Julia heads to North Carolina, where her fifty-eight-year-old aunt Vivienne lives. The real kicker? Aunt Vivienne’s a virgin, too. When Julia learns this, she enters panic mode, becomes fixated on her virginity, and well, losing it.
The day before Rachel moved from the city, she left a love letter between the pages of a book for her longtime best friend and crush, Henry Jones, to find. She waited on him for a reply, but it never came. Years later, Rachel is moving back to the same city to start fresh after losing her brother who drowned just months before. She’ll live with her aunt for a while, and scores a job in a cafe. The problem? She’ll have to confront her past and face Henry again – the boy she once loved with everything she had. As the story unfolds, the two find themselves drawn to each other once again, and learn that healing means forgiving, and that second chances can be the gateway to happiness in a sad world.
Three years into her graduate studies at a demanding Boston university, the unnamed narrator in Weike Wang’s Chemistry discovers that her passion for chemistry is dwindling. She feels like a failure, and is constantly reminded of her shortcomings by her peers, her adviser, and most of all by her Chinese parents, who have always set their expectations of her high. When her loving boyfriend, a fellow scientist, proposes to her, she finds herself in a bind; she doesn’t want to settle down before finding success on her own.
It’s November of 2020, and the world is freezing over. Many people have died as a result of the harsh climate conditions, and it’s only going to get worse. Dylan lives in London, where thousands of residents are evacuating to the south in hopes of finding warmer weather. Dylan sets out in the opposite direction, seeking to build a new life in Scotland and bury the ashes of his mother and grandmother where they once lived. Miles away, Estella and her resourceful mother, Constance, fight for survival in the snowy, mountainous Highlands, preparing for the most dangerous winter yet. When Dylan arrives at their caravan looking for shelter, everything changes. Dylan’s presence brings a new light to their daily life, and when the ultimate disaster finally strikes, they’ll all be ready.
Sophie Chen Keller
Walter Lavender Jr. suffers from a motor speech disorder that strips him of his ability to speak, which can get lonely sometimes. But Walter has his lovable golden retriever, his mother’s special bake shop, and his hobby of finding missing things to keep him occupied. When a vital part of the bakery’s magic vanishes, Walter sets out on a mission through New York City to find it, and meets a cast of lost souls along the way, all with perplexing and profound stories waiting to be told. This compelling novel teaches us to never lose sight of our humanity and kindness, and that if we do, we must remember to find it again.
Loo Hawley hasn’t had an average life by any means, and that’s all thanks to her dad. She grew up with no permanent home, moving from place to place with her father, who is always on the run. Now as a teenager, Loo finally has a chance at a normal life in her late mother’s hometown, where her father finds work as a fisherman and decides to settle down. Loo begins high school, struggles to fit in, and finds herself constantly wondering about the mother that she never knew. She begins to unravel mysteries about her parents’ lives before she was born, and uncovers secrets that were meant to stay hidden. Before long, Loo realizes that past demons are still very alive in the present. In fact, her father is in danger – and so is she.
This heart-wrenching novel perfectly captures a family in distress, struggling to cope with a tragedy that strikes down each character with grief. The story unfolds through the keen eyes of eleven-year-old Isidore, a boy who doesn’t quite fit in and lacks a filter, but knows more than others recognize. Isidore, or Dory, for short, continuously searches for a sense of belonging in those around him. Readers grasp the true meaning of change with each turn of the page as they watch the Mazal family evolve, and find that growing older doesn’t always mean growing wiser.
When Lane Roanoke was fifteen, her mother committed suicide, and life as she knew it slipped away. She was uprooted to live with her grandparents and cousin, Allegra, on their estate in rural Kansas. Though Lane knew little of her mother’s mysterious family, she quickly embraced life as one of the rich and beautiful Roanoke girls – until she discovered a deep, dark secret and ran far away, as fast as she possibly could, never looking back. Eleven years later, Lane gets a frantic phone call from her grandfather and learns that Allegra has gone missing. Lane returns to the estate to help search for her cousin, and faces trouble from her past. But this time around, she may not be strong enough to leave.
This debut short story collection illuminates the Chinese immigrant experience through the eyes of Chinese-American daughters growing up in New York City. Each story visits the life of a different young girl, and though all the stories have their own unique plot, there are similar underlying issues: every girl is impacted by her parents’ current struggles and past experiences. Not for the fainthearted, this collection is raw, riveting, and packs a punch straight to the gut while delivering a message to everyone out there: Privilege is not something that should be taken for granted.