I love coming of age novels. I remember reading them while I was growing up, and identifying somehow with each character. It didn’t matter that they all faced much harder, often heartbreaking, circumstances than I had ever faced myself. I still learned so much from the likes of Jody Baxter, Caddie Woodlawn, Jo March, and Billy Coleman. And what I appreciated, even then, was that these characters faced the struggles and difficulties of life with strength and courage. Even if they messed up at some point, displayed weakness, or cried their heart out over loss, they still ended up on their own two feet, strong and resilient. They were characters I could look up to.
I’m certain many of the coming of age novels I love best are not very well known now. I have to admit, this saddens me. Because these stories are very dear to my heart. Oh yes, part of that is nostalgia and wanting to share treasured parts of my book loving childhood with anyone who will listen. But it’s more than that. These powerful stories shaped me.
In a time when so many tweens, teens, and parents visit the young adult section of the book store only to find books filled with sex and profanity—because publishers think that’s the way to attract young people—I want to say "there’s something better!” I have a passion for sharing books that will shape their readers for good. That’s the most important reason I talk about my favorite coming of age novels. It even trumps nostalgia. Like Gladys Hunt says “a good book is a magic gateway into a wider world of wonder, beauty, delight, and adventure. Books are experiences that make us grow, that add something to our inner stature.”
A good coming of age novel doesn’t need to appeal to teenage rebellion to pull in its reader. Using those things just cheapens the story. In fact, I think that by making a story salacious, we’re doing young readers a great disservice. A coming of age novel should talk about the truly hard parts of growing up: loss, doing the right thing, loyalty, forgiveness, loneliness, hard work, courage, and loving deeply. Sex, profanity, drugs, or sneaking around behind your parents’ back really have very little to do with it.
Yet that’s what many coming of age novels offer. They don’t talk about the real things, the hard things, how to face them, and how to grow from them. They don’t teach or strengthen. They don’t push their reader toward good. And that bothers me so much that I just want to stand in the middle of the young adult section, proselytizing, “wait guys, don’t read that one! There are better books out there waiting for you.”
When I read “The Catcher In the Rye” for the first time I was so disappointed. While the book was originally written for adults, I had heard many people describe it as the quintessential teenage book. I found Holden Caulfield whiney and completely uninspiring. The sex and profanity in the book seemed to me just as weak as those jokes in a movie where a guy gets hit in the crotch with a baseball bat. Sure everyone groans and laughs. But it doesn’t take much imagination to come up with that joke. “The Catcher In the Rye” didn’t motivate me to be a stronger or more courageous person. It just left me feeling kind of empty.
That is the exact opposite of what any book should offer. And especially a coming of age book. We’re handing books to kids at a time when they are figuring out what they believe, who they are, and who they want to become. Shouldn’t we, therefore, be giving them the very best? I think Madeleine L’Engle says it so well: “We don't want to feel less when we have finished a book; we want to feel that new possibilities of being have been opened to us. We don't want to close a book with a sense that life is totally unfair and that there is no light in the darkness; we want to feel that we have been given illumination.”
And if you’re worried about exposing your kids to those hard topics like loss, loneliness or betrayal, I get it. I know we want so badly to protect our kids from all the hard and sad things in this world. But the truth is, they will experience them at some point. Isn’t it good then, to show them people who have stood in the face of the struggle and fought well?
One of the best ways to handle the hard topics covered in a coming of age novel is to walk through those things with your child. Rather than handing the book to your kid and expecting him to wade through the thick of that story alone, take the opportunity to wade through it together! These books provide fodder for so much great discussion. You will sigh together. You will learn together. You might even cry together. We always do. And that’s ok. Because good stories move us. They touch our hearts and leave us changed. They leave us changed for the better.
Below you’ll find some of my favorite coming of age novels recommendations. These are all books I have read personally, on my own or with my kids. I know there are plenty more wonderful coming of age novels out there, but I only share ones I have read myself.
All of these books cover some difficult topics. Amongst the books I listed, some of the topics covered are: death of a beloved pet, death of a friend or parent, bullying, divorce, marital infidelity, anger towards a parent, coping with a disability, rape, racism, lying, loneliness, war, and running away from home, to name a few. Yes, these are hard topics! But each of these books handles these topics in a brave and tasteful way. They don’t feel salacious or included simply to get a reader’s attention. They are purposeful. It’s important to think of the opportunity these books give you to talk through these topics with your kids. And then to see characters who persevere, grow, and triumph in the face of truly difficult things.
Next to each book I’m putting the ages I’d share that book with my own kids. Of course you’ll have to determine what is right for your own child. So please know this is only a guide. And remember, you can let your kids read these books on their own, but you’ll be missing out on the fantastic opportunity for discussion and connection these books provide. So I highly recommend reading these books with your kids.
If you’re thinking, “I don’t have time to read these books aloud to my kids!’ Don’t worry! I’m sharing links to the ones we’ve listened to together on audio. Listening to one of these books on audio would be perfect for your upcoming summer road trip!
Audio books are expensive. But I have found them to be one of the most worthwhile investments I have made for myself as a parent and educator to my kids. Honestly, I can't recommend them to you enough. A few ways to get these books on audio if you're interested: 1. Sign up for a trial with Audible and get your first book free. You can access the book and Audible through the links below. Cancel if you don't want the monthly subscription but keep the book! 2. sign up for a monthly subscription with Audible. Use your free credit to get one of the more expensive books each month. Watch for sales to get audio books for low prices. 3. Purchase the audio book but don't purchase an Audible subscription. Just get the audio book through Amazon. Like I said, listening to books together is a fabulous way to connect with your kids. Especially with these coming of age novels. You'll have so much to talk about together!
I hope you find this list helpful and that it will inspire you to read some great books with your kiddos. Happy reading!
The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. (8+)
The Yearling audio book
The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams (5+)
Rascal by Sterling North (6+)
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (13+)
Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink ( 7+)
Caddie Woodlawn audio book
Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls (8+)
Where the Red Fern Grows audio book
Pax by Sara PennyPacker (10+)
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCammilo (8+)
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (6+)
Little Women audio book
Wonder by R. J. Palacio (8+)
Wonder audio book
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (6+)
My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George (6+)
My Side of the Mountain audio book
Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome (6+)
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson (10+)
Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder (4+)
Farmer Boy audio book
Rainbow Valley by Lucy Maud Montgomery (5+)
Rainbow Valley audio book
Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes (6+)
Johnny Tremain audio book
Man of the Family by Ralph Moody (7+)
Man of the Family audio book
On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder (5+)
On the Banks of Plum Creek audio book
A Door In the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli (7+)
A Door in the Wall audio book
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen (13+)