Bar mitzvahs, quinceañeras, sweet 16s—coming-of-age is a process of transformation and development honored and celebrated by countless traditions and ceremonies throughout history and all around the world. The epicenter of cultural activity, coming-of-age has become one of the most common and broad genres in literature, film, and television. Though ubiquitous, these narratives are inseparable from matters of gender, class, race, ethnicity, and sexuality, each of which particularize a person’s experiences. And that is what I love about the genre: it is simultaneously universal, inspiring instant connection between character and reader, and highly individual, with the potential to educate audiences on the personal impact of sociopolitical and cultural issues.
If you peruse Goodreads for some book suggestions, you’ll find that the list is endless. And there are so many lists. Really, you have hundreds, thousands, of options. So here’s a short list of some must-read coming-of-age novels that I personally deem representative of the genre:
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Now, when I first read this book in eleventh grade, I wasn’t a huge fan. Holden isn’t the most likeable of protagonists, and with his long-winded rants (filled with verbal tics) about the so-called phoniness of everyone and everything, he sounds like your typical privileged, disaffected teenager. However, when I revisited the book in a college course, I found that Salinger’s novel, at its core, explores how a young person processes grief and depression in the face of imminent adulthood–and the loneliness that comes with that kind of independence.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Chbosky’s epistolary novel, which is clearly influenced by Salinger, especially resonated with me in high school, when I, like the protagonist Charlie, found myself trapped within introversion and insecurity, isolated from my peers. Perks charts Charlie’s departure from a past of alienation and trauma as he builds relationships with a group of friends that push him towards self-empowerment and liberation. The centrality of friendship in the process of recovery and discovery is perhaps one of the novel’s most important and poignant qualities.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
The Bluest Eye delves into the lives of women of color who are faced with the pressure of striving for mainstream ideals. White beauty. White success. Masculine power. Morrison’s novel frankly addresses so many of the topics that people tiptoe around like sexual abuse and racism and domestic violence. Fragmented families. Socioeconomic disparities. She takes all of this and shows us how it molds the identities of youth and how it shapes their futures, consequently demonstrating how these problems are perpetuated, sustained. Coming-of-age, Morrison reveals, is not always transformative in an inspiring and uplifting way. It is, however, crucial and formative, not only for the individual, but for entire communities.
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel depicts how an individual’s coming-of-age is both informed by and influences the coming-of-age of his or her entire family. The author’s revelations about her sexuality and artistic identity are not isolated events or processes. Whereas some novels in the genre depict parents as background figures, like the babbling of adults in the Peanuts movies, Bechdel breaks out of the conventions of adolescent self-absorption and meticulously maps out the creation of self as it relates to her home environment, notably her father.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Plath’s novel is one of the most famous and honest portrayals of mental illness out there, following Esther Greenwood as she descends into clinical depression at the end of her college career. Esther’s story highlights how coming-of-age is, for some of us, a period of heightened self-awareness, in which we develop the maturity and intellectual capacity to evaluate our own emotional and mental wellbeing. It is also a time in which we experience major developments in these sectors of our life—which is undoubtedly why so many novels in this genre touch upon mental health (Chbosky and Salinger’s works included).
Read and enjoy!
(Featured image via.)