From angst-ridden introspection and existential awakenings, to dawning sexuality and taking those tentative first flutters from the nest, some of the world’s most enduring, unforgettable fiction is themed around growing up and coming-of-age. It’s something we can all relate to. All-consuming new desires mixed with fear and uncertainty. Shifting family and friendship relationships. The need to find your place in the world. These experiences are universal to us all.
Many coming-of-age classics have timeless sway. Take Bonjour Tristesse and Le Grande Meaulnes, for example. Though both set in France some decades ago, their differing perspectives on the complex anguish of complex first loves still resonate today. Then there’s The Outsiders, a powerful exploration of teen gangs and class conflict that’s as relevant now as it was in the sixties. The Catcher in the Rye is a similarly seminal novel, causing considerable controversy over the years for its unflinching portrayal of angst, alienation and disillusionment. For a more whimsical take on the teenage experience, I Capture the Castle sees a seventeen-year-old aspiring writer navigate the messy complexities of first love in a charming, bittersweet novel set around a crumbling castle. Another beautifully-written timeless treasure is Tuck Everlasting - though its protagonist is only ten, it brims with a coming-of-age spirit through the unique - and magical - way it explores life’s ever-shifting transitions.
Related to this theme (though a totally different kind of book), The Vanishing Half moves through major life-points of its unforgettable characters with the theme of growing up and becoming yourself woven throughout, demonstrating that coming-of-age doesn’t only happen during one’s teenage years. Rather, it might be a drawn-out, gradual process. Another recently published novel with a potent, unique take on shifting to adulthood is The Innocents, in which two siblings live a strange Garden of Eden/Babes in the Wood poverty-stricken existence without adults.
For a gritty, heart-wrenching story of a boy’s struggle to find himself in contemporary London, try That Reminds Me. Then there’s The God Child, a dazzling debut that follows its protagonist’s childhood in Germany and England to young womanhood in Ghana, and Purple Hibiscus, an outstanding exploration of adolescent yearning for freedom in the aftermath of a Nigerian coup.
Unsurprisingly, novelists specialising in writing for young adults have created some true coming-of-age gems. Being a popping-your-cherry classic, mention must go to Judy Blume’s Forever. When it comes to contemporary novels, I especially recommend Meg Rosoff’s The Great Godden - an incredible future classic with all the impact and elegance of Bonjour Tristesse. It really is exceptional. For more UK-based Young Adult writers whose work strikes potent chords with adult readers, Natasha Carthew, Patrick Ness and Sarah Crossan are outstanding, while personal favourites from across the pond include Elizabeth Acevedo’s Clap When You Land and With the Fire on High, and Reneé Watson’s What Momma Left Me.
Wide-ranging in style, setting, genre and era, the fabulous books included in this collection will variously make you cry, cringe, laugh and think. They might also make you reminisce, reappraise, and feel your heart surge afresh. They’re also stories you’re likely to want to return to - over and over again.