Coming-of-Age Novels—One Old, One New

What is it about adolescence—that time between childhood and adulthood—that is so endlessly fascinating to us? Why is it that the music of those years stays with us as “the best” music of all time? Why do we remember, with sharp poignancy, the dreams, passions, and preoccupations of our teen years, decades after we experienced them?

There’s something compelling about this stage of life … a time of self-discovery, rebellion (major or minor), and the end of childhood innocence. The best coming-of-age novels encapsulate these themes and more, with characters that tug at our hearts and remind us of our own journey to adulthood. And (in my experience, at least), it matters not whether that transition was overall a positive or negative experience for us—or for the characters we read about.

Recently I read two coming-of-age novels back to back (unintentionally), and was reminded of how much I love this genre.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (1943)

This semi-autobiographical novel about a girl growing up poor in Brooklyn soon after the turn of the 20th century is a classic, and deservedly so. Told from the point of view of the memorable and likable Francie Nolan, it’s a beautifully told story that’s also a treatise on the changing perceptions and roles of women during the first two decades of the 20th century. I love the complexity of each character in this book; although there are many “strong women”—a whole family of them, in fact—they are not without their flaws. And although there are plenty of not-admirable men, there are also men who are honorable and kind. The setting and dialogue are realistic for the time period, which means there is bigotry in all directions among the many different nationalities and ethnic groups inhabiting New York’s slums at the time, making it a good history lesson as well as a good story. If I gave “tissue warnings” for books, based on how likely they are to make you cry, this one would get 4 out of 5 tissues for poignancy and a relatable heroine who came of age more than 100 years ago.

West with Giraffes by Lynda Rutledge (2021)

Billed as “part adventure, part historical saga, and part coming-of-age love story,” this recent bestseller is a little bit heavy-handed in the “animals are people, too” category, but overall I really enjoyed this book. Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Nickel, age 105, sets out (rather urgently, as one might expect at his age) to finally write his incredible story of transporting two giraffes by truck from New York to San Diego in 1938. This novel was inspired by a true event, but the main characters and their details are fictional. Like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, there is a lot of interesting American history offered in this book, especially regarding the Dust Bowl and migration to California, racism in various areas of the country in the 1930s, and (again) women’s changing roles between the two World Wars. If you’re not a fan of books that bounce back and forth between time periods, this may not be the book for you, but I enjoy that most of the time and Rutledge handles it well. I’m a sucker for end-of-a-long-life stories as well as coming-of-age stories (A Lantern in Her Hand comes to mind), and this book fits both categories. I shed a few tears at the end of this one, too—which honestly isn’t all that unusual for me, I suppose.

A few of my other favorite coming-of-age novels:

One that I’m looking forward to but haven’t read yet:

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver (2022) – I loved The Poisonwood Bible and I’ve been hearing good things about this one.

Two more that are technically coming-of-age novels but somehow I don’t usually think of them that way:

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (1850)

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1885)

And what some would consider the quintessential coming-of-age novel but I don’t like it, so it didn’t make my list:

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger (1951) – There is way too much self-indulgent angst (among other things) in this book for my taste, but since it’s so famous in this genre it seems remiss to not even mention it.

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