As I lay in bed the other night, snuggled up under the duvet, reading Sue Monk Kidd's gloriously mesmirising The Secret Life of Bees, it suddenly occurred to me that I have read an awful lot of books over the past couple of years that have been told from the perspective of older children and young teenagers negotiating that difficult transition period between childhood and adult responsibilites.
Most, if not all of them, have been female coming-of-age stories (for example, My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Pocult, Personality by Andrew O'Hagan and My Summer of Love by Helen Cross), which made me wonder, what are my favourite books of this genre?
So here's my list of all-time favourite coming-of-age books (in alphabetical order according to author's name).
This isn't a typical coming-of-age novel, given that it's told from the perspective of four very divergent characters: a young girl, a drunken socialist, a black doctor and a sympathetic deaf mute. But in many ways each of the characters share similarities: they are yearning for something that will help them "grow" emotionally. But my favourite character from this book is the delightful Mick Kelly, who teeters between being a playful tomboy and a proper young lady. Her "journey" is a heartfelt one: a poor girl who has an amazing amount of creative energy but doesn't know how to channel it in a fulfilling way. It's not until she has some kind of "awakening" that she realises she is growing up and that her destiny is in her hands...
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2002, the story opens on the hottest day of the summer of 1934. It richly evokes the individual lives of a family living in a lavish country house in England, and the preparations they undergo to stage a welcome home dinner for their eldest son. But the happiness and excitement of the festivities soon turns on its head when a tragedy occurs on the estate and the finger of blame is pointed at the wrong person. This is something which 13 year-old Briony Tallis spends the rest of her life trying to atone. And for that reason alone, this book is a classic coming-of-age tome.
When I read this book, I loved the premise of it: a girl who does something terribly wrong and then tries to appease her guilt. And while the first part is outstanding fiction (the sense of dread builds and builds like nothing I've ever read before), I did find the rest of the book a little disappointing by comparison.
This wonderful, heart-warming tale is simply delightful. There's no other word for it. It's set in 1964 during the Civil Rights movement and 14-year-old Lily Owens lives on a South Carolina peach farm with a father she detests so much that she can't even bring herself to call him Daddy. Raised by Rosaleen, an African-American housekeeper, Lily knows little about her mother who died when Lily was just four. Her only memento is a picture of a black Virgin Mary with the words "Tiburon, South Carolina" scrawled on the back.
After Rosaleen is attacked by three racists and thrown in jail, Lily decides to rescue her, and together the two of them embark on an amazing adventure, destination Tiburon, where they are taken in by three black bee-keeping sisters. Here, in the safe arms of three proud women, Lily learns the truth about her mother and the healing, recuperative power of love.
I've just finished this book, so it's quite fresh in my mind. I enjoyed the wonderful writing and the sense of family that Monk Kidd creates. The characters are amazingly rich and well-drawn and also quite believable. My only quibble is the extraordinary amount of coincidences in the story, but I guess they were needed to make the book "work".
A full review of this book will be published on this site shortly.
"I was 12 going on 13 the first time I saw a dead human being. It happened in the summer of 1959 - a long time ago, but only if you measure in terms of years. I was living in a small town in Oregon called Castle Rock; there were only twelve hundred and eighty-one people, but to me it was the whole world."
So opens this amazing boys own adventure story about the childhood friendship between Gordie, Chris, Teddy and Vern, and the trials and tribulations upon which those friendships are based. Stephen King may be best known for his scary horror stories but I think his real talent lies in being able to write from a child's perspective, with all its naivety and wonder, that puts him in a class above the rest.
This novella (available in King's Different Seasons but also recently released as a separate volume) was filmed as Stand By Me in 1986 starring a delightfully young and cute River Phoenix. The movie version is very faithful to the written text on which it is based, although, if truth be told, I like the film better than the book. In fact, I think I've seen the film about six times - and could never tire of it.
I've raved about this (relatively unknown) book in several posts before this one, so at the risk of repeating myself, let me say that not only is this one of the finest novels I've ever read it is also the finest coming-of-age novel I've ever had the pleasure of devouring. Essentially it is about an angry young women who hates her wacky name - Juniper Tree Burning - because it represents the alternative upbringing that singled her out as an oddball at school in New Mexico. So, as a way of turning her back against her painful childhood, she reinvents herself as "Jennie" and then embarks on an amazing cross-country adventure, running, essentially, from herself. While she might be a grown woman, it's her look back at her unusual and eccentric childhood that classes this as a true coming-of-age book.
"If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two haemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them."
Who hasn't read the opening lines of this classic novel, which so perfectly capture the cynical adolescent voice of 16-year-old Holden Caufield? Expelled from prep school, he goes to New York for a few days and the book resonates with his dry observations and his rants against the "phonies" that populate his world.
I read this book as a young adult and loved it. Why some authorities still persist in banning it, I really do not know: it's not that subversive, is it?
This is one of the more unusual coming-of-age stories because it's told by a character from beyond the grave. The narrator, Susie Salmon, tells the story of her family's life after she was murdered by a neighbour when she was just 14. From her vantage point in heaven Susie sees her parents and siblings try to cope with her terrible death, each one reacting and dealing with their loss in very different ways. This, in turn, teaches Susie much about herself and allows her the opportunity to let go of the people she left behind.
I had expected not to like this book when I read it several years ago, mainly because I didn't think it would live up to the hype. I was wrong. It was a brilliant and moving book that didn't resort to sentimental trickery to get the tear glands flowing. This is a lovely "what if" type story that shouldn't be missed.
While A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is written in the third person, this story of three generations of the same family living in Brooklyn in the early part of the 20th Century, is mainly told through the eyes of 12-year-old Francie Nolan. Francie, who longs to be a writer, manages, through hard work, much toil and a lot of sacrifices, to acquire an education that will hopefully lift her out of the mire of poverty that has strangled her mother's hopes and dreams. But along the way she suffers heartbreaks and agonies of her own.
I read this book very recently and can fully understand why it is a much-loved American classic. It is painfully sad in places, but also very uplifting. You almost want to cheer out loud when things start going right for Francie and her family.
Harriet is a 12-year-old girl living in the Deep South who has an overactive imagination. Her heart's desire is to solve the "murder" of her brother who died 12 years earlier when she herself was just an infant. We are introduced to Harriet's world: her trio of eccentric aunts; her young friend Hely who has a crush on her; and Danny Ratliff, the local redneck. Harriet, stubborn, wilful and obsessed with secrets, is a deftly drawn and mesmirising character - Tartt has really got inside her head.
And while the book has been criticised for taking so long to go anywhere, I loved the detail in each and every chapter, where the muggy atmosphere of Mississippi almost resonated off the page, but most of all I loved the main character's sparkiness, her courage, inquisitiveness and zest for life.
Nine-year-old Lucy Gault is so distressed that her parents want to flee troubled Ireland, she decides to fake her disappearance in order that she can stay. When her clothes are found on the beach not far from their coastal home, her parents assume that she has drowned. Devastated by grief, they pack up their belongings and head off to Europe to start their lives again. When Lucy is later discovered, still alive but with a bad ankle injury, no one is able to trace her parents. While she knows that she has done something wrong, Lucy is unable to do anything about her "abandonment" because that would mean "coming clean" about her situation. But as she grows older, the knowledge that she is living a lie gets harder and harder to deal with. And in the end the heartbreak gets too difficult to bear.
I have to say that while I can't remember all the details of this book, I can still remember the way my heart ached when I read it. This is one of those novels that should be read with a packet of tissues by your side it is that deeply affecting!
Have you read any of these books? If so, what did you think of them? Do you agree/disagree with my choices? Are there any other coming-of-age books that you think are worth including on this list?