The best coming of age books allow you to follow along as a character travels that bumpy road from childhood to adulthood.
Why is there something so compelling about coming of age books?
I think it has to do with the power of watching someone’s journey unfold from beginning to end.
In the best coming of age books, you get to relive the most pivotal time of life as the main characters transform from childhood to adulthood. Let’s be honest, none of us want to relive those years again, but it can be fascinating to experience it through literature.
Today, I’ve compiled my list of the best coming of age books. From classics to modern fiction, for tweens to adults, each coming of age book on this list tells a story of growth and development that makes for a great read.
Best Coming of Age Books
To Kill a Mockingbird
There’s a good reason that practically every school makes you read this book. Voted the Great American Read and considered one of the best coming of age novels, To Kill A Mockingbird is a timeless classic that everyone should read. The story of young Scout and Jem watching their father Atticus Finch defend an innocent black man will make you want to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves.
The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell
Born with red eyes, Sam Hill has been called the “Devil Boy” all his life. Reflecting on his life, Sam realizes that his childhood friendship with two other misfits – Ernie Cantwell, the only African American boy at his school, and Mickie Kennedy, a firestorm in the form of a girl – has defined and shaped his extraordinary life. Dugoni’s touching coming-of-age tale was captivating from the first page with its story of friendship and acceptance of what life throws at us.
The House on Mango Street
Told in a series of vignettes, The House on Mango Street shows snippets in the day-to-day life of Esperanza Cordero, a young Mexican-American girl living in poverty. With no central plot, the story hints at the characters, events, and settings around her as she struggles to find where she belongs in a world that doesn’t seem to want her.
A Prayer for Owen Meany
During a Little League baseball game, Owen Meany hits a foul ball that kills his best friend’s mother. Believing himself to be God’s instrument, Owen seeks to fulfill his own prophecy. Narrated by Owen’s best friend John Wheelwright, A Prayer for Owen Meany is one of the best literary fiction books of all time and a beloved modern classic.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Brilliantly gifted and supremely logical, fifteen-year-old Christopher John Francis Boone, a teenager with autism, can easily relate to animals but struggles with human emotions. When Wellington, his neighbor’s dog, is killed, Christopher sets out to solve the case just like Sherlock Holmes would.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
A classic coming of age story that has enchanted readers for decades, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn chronicles young teen Francie Nolan as she grows up in the slums of Brooklyn. Covering poverty and the American dream, Betty Smith’s masterpiece points out the struggles of the poor families of the early 20th century. Yet, the enduring message of this classic book is one of hope for the future.
Recent Coming of Age Books
In a modern-day version of David Copperfield set in the American South, Demon Copperhead speaks of how institutional poverty damages young boys today. A child of a single mother living in a single wide trailer, young Demon must survive foster care, child labor, poor schools, addiction, success, and failure in this epic coming of age book.
In Red Hook, Brooklyn during the early 1900s, Sofia and Antonia are best friends and neighbors, members of “The Family,” the local Italian mafia. When Antonia’s father is disappeared, a wedge develops between the girls that will affect them as they grow older and begin to question the demands of their “family.”
What the Fireflies Knew
After her father dies from an overdose, eleven-year-old KB and her older sister are sent by their overwhelmed mother to live with their estranged grandfather in Michigan. With her world turned upside down, KB struggles to grapple with all the changes and must carve out a new identity for herself out of the wreckage. Featuring the boundless curiosity of a young Black girl on the brink of adolescence, What the Fireflies Knew is being hailed as one of the best coming of age books in 2022.
The Island of Missing Trees
On the island of Cyprus, two teenagers, one Greek and one Turkish, fall in love under the lush fig tree at the local tavern. When war breaks out, Kostas and Defne are separated, but they never stop wondering what happened to each other. Years later, a woman in London tries to parse out the secrets of her family rooted in the fig tree that grows in her backyard.
coming of age books 2021
The Lincoln Highway
After spending a year at a prison work farm for involuntary manslaughter, eighteen-year-old Emmett Watson returns to his Nebraska hometown. With his mother gone and his father recently deceased, Emmett plans to pick up his eight-year-old brother and head West. But his plans are derailed when two friends from the work farm suddenly appear with a scheme of their own.
At 17, Samuel Sooleyman gets the chance of a lifetime: a trip to America with his South Sudanese teammates to play basketball in front of college scouts. While there, war breaks out across South Sudan, ransacking his village and killing his father. When he is offered a scholarship to play at North Carolina Central, Samuel uses his raw talent and determination to succeed, desperately hoping to bring his family to America.
Peach Blossom Spring
In America, Lily Dao is desperate to learn more about her family’s heritage. However, her father refuses to talk about his childhood. As a child growing up in China, Renshu and his mother were forced to flee the invading Japanese army with only a scroll of ancient fables to guide them as they journeyed across a ravaged country.
Good Coming of Age Books for Book Clubs
The Kite Runner
An unforgettable story of the unlikely friendship between a wealthy Afghan boy and the son of his father’s servant that beautifully describes love, friendship, betrayal, and redemption. Be warned that the novel is violent and graphic at times, so understand that while moving, the story is dark and disturbing. It’s that contrast between the worst of human nature and the best that truly brings out a remarkable coming of age book that will stay with you for a long time.
Ask Again, Yes
Mary Beth Keane
NYPD cops Francis and Brian happen to move next door to each other in the suburbs. Though their children Kate and Peter become the best of friends, Francis and his wife have learned to keep their distance from Brian’s wife due to her precarious mental health. When tragedy strikes between the two families, Brian’s family moves away in shame. But when Kate and Peter fall in love, the two families must learn to confront the tragedy that ties them together.
The Orphans of Race Point
Set in a Portuguese community in Massachusetts, young Hallie Costa forms a lifelong bond with Gus Silva after the murder of his mother. One of the best coming of age books about love, the story follows them through the ups and downs of their lives – examining the balance between the good and evil that lives within each of us. Patry Francis will leave you feeling hope for the future and make you reconsider the true meaning of soul mates.
To understand why she is different from other girls, Calliope Stephanides dives into her Greek American family’s history. Immigrating from a tiny village in Greece to Prohibition-era Detroit and eventually the shores of Michigan, three generations of the Stephanides family are swept into the pull of history while hiding a shameful family secret – a genetic trait that turns Calliope into Cal.
Saving Ruby King
Catherine Adel West
After Ruby King’s mother is murdered on the South Side of Chicago, she must now live alone with her violent father. Layla is determined to save Ruby despite her parent’s insistence that she stay away from her best friend. The more Layla becomes involved with Ruby, the more she learns the dark secrets tying their families together.
Best Selling Coming of Age Novels
Sing, Unburied, Sing
Thirteen-year-old Jojo is trying to figure out life as a half-white half-Black teen in Mississippi. When his family learns his father is being released from prison, his mom Leonie, a struggling drug addict, packs up Jojo and his little sister for a drive up to the state penitentiary where Jojo encounters the ghost of a boy who was killed as an inmate. Combining a dysfunctional family character study with a haunting ghost story, Sing, Unburied, Sing is expertly crafted to convey the coming of age story that Ward wanted to tell, not necessarily the story you want to read.
Loved and hated alike, The Goldfinch is a literary coming of age epic that will long be remembered as one of the top books of the 2010s. Abandoned by his father after his mother’s death, 13-year-old Theo Decker must readjust to a whole new life. His one tie to his mother – a small painting of a goldfinch – will eventually lead him into the intricate underworld of art.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Luck has never been on the side of Oscar, a kind but severely overweight Dominican nerd who dreams of finding love. Living in the ghetto in New Jersey with his strict mother and rebellious sister, he blames a family curse for his luck. For generations, his family has been plagued by prison, tragic accidents, and ill-fated love stories.
The Secret Life of Bees
Sue Monk Kidd
At age 14, Lily Owens runs away from her father and moves with her nanny to Tiburon, South Carolina. There they are both taken in by the Calendar Sisters, a charming but eccentric trio of beekeepers. As the white Lily comes of age, she learns about womanhood and the Black Madonna from these four Black women she has come to consider her family. A heartwarming tale set amid the racial tensions of the 1960s, The Secret Life of Bees is a delightful coming of age story perfect for book club night.
When Juan Ruiz proposes to fifteen-year-old Ana Cancion, she knows she must accept even though he is twice her age. With Juan, she can move to America and help her family immigrate from the Dominican Republic. In New York, Ana is miserable until Juan returns to the Dominican Republic because of political unrest and Ana gets a taste of true freedom, and spends time with Juan’s younger brother. But with Juan’s return, Ana is forced to choose between her duty to her family and her heart.
William Kent Krueger
In the sleepy town of New Bremen, Minnesota, death will forever shape one young man. In 1961, Frank Drum is having a typical teenage summer with his family: his minister father, his doubting mother, his talented older sister, and his quiet younger brother who stutters. When deaths start accumulating by accident, nature, suicide, and murder, Frank’s ordinary life is rocked by the secrets and motives of an adult world he doesn’t fully understand. A stunning addition to any reading list, Ordinary Grace was exactly what you want from coming-of-age historical fiction.
Red at the Bone
Woodson’s story opens with sixteen-year-old Melody’s coming-of-age ceremony in Brooklyn. From there, the narrative jumps into the past to tell all that has led the family to this moment – the struggles her parents and grandparents have faced. Covering racism, gentrification, education, class, and ambition, Red at the Bone leaves you plenty to discuss in fewer than 200 pages.
Historical Fiction Coming-of-Age Books
Christina Baker Kline
On the verge of aging out of the child welfare system, Molly’s life is changed when she is assigned to do community service cleaning out the house of an elderly woman. Sorting through Vivian’s attic, Molly learns of Vivian’s childhood as a young Irish immigrant sent to the Midwest on an orphan train and realizes that they have the power to help each other understand their pasts.
The Boston Girl
If you are looking for a gorgeous coming of age novel about family relationships and feminism, try this book club favorite. Born in Boston in 1900 to Jewish immigrants, Addie Baum embraces life in America in a way her parents never truly can. She wants to go to college, find true love, and live her own truth. Told from the perspective of an old woman looking back on her life, The Boston Girl gives a magnificent portrayal of Addie’s life and her search to find her place in the world.
Before We Were Yours
In this intensely emotional coming of age book, Lisa Wingate bases her story on a notorious real-life scandal of an adoption agency that kidnapped and sold poor children to wealthy families. In 1939, twelve-year-old Rill Floss is asked to watch her four younger siblings while her father takes her mother to the hospital. Suddenly, a group of strangers arrives and takes Rill and her siblings to a Memphis-based orphanage where Rill must fight to keep her siblings together under the eye of the cruel director.
The Great Alone
A recently returned Vietnam War POW, Ernt Allbright decides to move his family to the Alaskan frontier. At first, Alaska seems to be the answer to their prayers and just what Ernt needs. But when the harsh Alaskan winter approaches and Ernt’s mental state begins to deteriorate, his wife and daughter must fight to survive. A captivating, stay-up-all-night novel that is a favorite among book clubs.
One summer day in 1934, 13-year-old Briony Tallis misunderstands a flirtation between her older sister and a neighborhood boy, with devastating consequences. Now, as World War II rages, an older Briony starts to realize the reality of what happened and the full repercussions she has caused. Can Briony find atonement or is it too late? No matter what you do, make sure to read until the very end, because the ending is what makes this one of those books that move you to rethink everything you just read.
Modern Coming of Age Books
Tell the Wolves I’m Home
Carol Rifka Brunt
In 1987, fourteen-year-old June feels like she doesn’t fit in. Her only confidant is her uncle Finn. When Finn dies of a mysterious illness (AIDS) that her mother refuses to talk about, June is devastated. At the funeral, she meets Finn’s “friend” Toby, and the two strike up a friendship that will help them both navigate their grief.
In 1980s Atlanta, James Witherspoon has his perfect middle-class family … and his secret other middle-class family. When his two teenage daughters from different wives meet, only one knows they are sisters. Their budding friendship threatens to expose the bigamy of their father and throw both of their families into chaos.
In 1985, Benji Cooper is the only Black student at his elite prep school in Manhattan. In contrast, Benji spends every summer in Sag Harbor, an African American community of artists where the teens are allowed complete freedom most of the time. In this coming of age book, Whitehead uses the hilarity of teenage mortification to underscore Benji’s struggle to find his identity between his all-white and all-Black lives.
My Brilliant Friend
An epic coming of age story from Italian author Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend is the first in her acclaimed Neapolitan Novels. In a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples, bookish Elena meets the fiery Lila, and they strike up a friendship that will last them decades as they grow from school girls into women while post-World War II Italy transforms around them.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
In Enugu, Nigeria, Kambili and her brother Jaja live a seeming life of privilege, yet their home life is terrorized by their fanatically religious father. After a military coup causes chaos, Kambili and Jaja are sent to live with their aunt and discover what life can be like without their father. Once they return home, Kambili must find the strength to demand a better life.
The Girl with the Louding Voice
This debut novel from Abi Daré highlights the coming-of-age story of a Nigerian woman. All Adunni wants to do is get an education so that she can craft her own future. When her father sells her as the third wife to a local man, Adduni runs away to the city, only to become a servant to a wealthy family. Yet, Adunni finds that no matter her circumstances, she can still speak out for herself and all the other girls just like her.
Nonfiction Coming of Age Stories
I Am Malala
Living in Pakistan as the Taliban took over her valley, Malala’s advocacy for women’s education led her to international recognition and an assassination attempt by the Taliban. Her autobiographical coming of age book will inspire you to stand up for your beliefs because one ordinary girl can change the world.
The Glass Castle
One of the most powerful memoirs of recent years, Jeannette Walls recounts the story of her tumultuous childhood. She opens the book with the account of how at 3 years old, she ends up hospitalized with severe burns after pouring scalding water on herself when cooking hot dogs for lunch. You meet her charming father Rex, equal measures brilliant and paranoid; her mother Rose, selfish and depressed; and her three siblings, trying their best just to survive. To quote my husband, “Sometimes someone’s train wreck of a life is fascinating.”
Qian Julie Wang
When Qian was seven years old, her family immigrated to the United States. As her parents struggled to cope with the transition from respected professors to “illegal” sweatshop laborers, Qian finds herself an outcast at school and seeks comfort in the library. When her mother becomes ill, Qian’s fears multiply in this moving coming of age memoir about the immigrant experience in the US.
Born a Crime
Normally I wouldn’t recommend celebrity memoirs because they usually have such a limited shelf life, but Trevor Noah’s life story is the exception to the rule. Telling of his formative years in South Africa during the last days of apartheid, Noah shows you a fascinating slice of history. With his ability to change accents and mimic his mother, Trevor Noah’s audio narration of the book wins him the award for the best audiobook of the decade.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Poet Maya Angelou’s memoir of the early years of her life is touching and heartbreaking all at the same time. Growing up with her grandmother in a small Southern town, she details how affecting segregation was as a young black girl, as well as the feeling of abandonment from her mother.
Classic Novels Coming of Age
You’ve heard plenty of stories of a boy and his dog, but this children’s classic follows the eternal love of a boy and his pet fawn, a yearling deer named Flag. Through thick and thin, Jody and Flag are inseparable, and their adventures are heartwarming. But as they both grow up, can their friendship survive the harsh realities of the Florida Backwoods?
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
In a sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain details the life of Tom’s friend Huckleberry Finn. As Huck travels down the river with a runaway slave, he meets feuding families, scoundrels, and even Tom Sawyer’s aunt. Hailed at the time of publication for its satire of racist attitudes and bold depictions of youth, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of the more controversial coming of age books modernly, denounced for its use of the n-word and racial stereotypes.
A Separate Peace
During the early days of World War II, Southern boy Gene Forrester attends an elite New Hampshire boarding school. Feeling insecure among the prep school kids, quite introverted Gene eventually becomes friends with the charming athletic Phineas. But when friendly competition goes awry, the consequences last a lifetime. A thought-provoking coming of age novel that quickly became an American classic.
Louisa May Alcott
The story of the charming March sisters’ New England life during the Civil War is a timeless tale that steals your heart. As you fall in love with headstrong Jo, sweet Beth, kind Meg, and impetuous Amy, you’ll feel drawn into all the concerns of their life. If you haven’t had the chance to enjoy this wonderful classic, there is no better time than now. And if you have read it before, well there are no better classic books worth reading again, in my opinion.
Dickens’s classic tells the story of Pip, the humble orphan who dreams of becoming a gentleman. Pip’s fortune changes when an eccentric wealthy spinster asks for a boy to come visit her. Over the ensuing years, Pip spends time at Miss Havisham’s house and falls for her aloof adopted daughter, Estella. After years as an apprentice, Pip is anonymously given a sum of money that will let him live as a gentleman but feels the gift comes with great expectations of him.
Go Tell It on the Mountain
A semi-autobiographical novel, Go Tell It On the Mountain describes one day in the life of John Grimes, the fourteen-year-old stepson of a Pentecostal preacher in 1930s Harlem. As the backstories of John’s mother, biological father, and violent stepfather are revealed, John grapples with his desires versus his family’s expectations and Baldwin highlights the positive and negative influences of the church in their lives.
Coming of Age Books for Teens
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
In a series of letters, fifteen-year-old Charlie narrates his struggles to adapt to his first year in high school, especially after the suicide of his best friend from middle school and the death of his beloved aunt. He befriends two seniors, Patrick and Sam, and together they navigate a difficult year, hitting on the tough topics of abuse and mental health.
The Book Thief
A book narrated by Death might be off-putting at first, but quickly you’ll fall in love with this Young Adult WWII historical fiction. In 1939, Liesel Meminger is sent to live with foster parents in Munich. There she befriends the charming neighborhood boy Rudy and settles into a life of book thievery. Coming of age during the rise of the Nazis, Liesel and Rudy must face the complications of growing up in a dictatorship they hate.
The Poet X
Xiomara Batista feels trapped and confused as she grows into adulthood. Instead of letting her fists fly, Xiomara begins to record her thoughts in a little leather notebook. When she is invited to join her school’s slam poetry club, she realizes the power of expressing her own emotions even if against her family’s disapproval.
Eleanor & Park
The new girl in town, Eleanor, with her unruly red hair and mismatched clothes, doesn’t fit in at her high school. Park doesn’t fully fit in either and tends to hide behind his books and his headphones. When the two misfits bond over comic books and music, a friendship springs up that reminds you of the transformative power of love.
The Serpent King
The son of a snake-handling preacher currently imprisoned for child pornography, Dill does not exactly fit in at school. Luckily he has his best friends Lydia, a vintage fashion blogger, and Travis, a gentle-hearted giant obsessed with fantasy books. Teaching about friendship, love, and the struggles of growing up, The Serpent King is a touching coming of age novel that will give you all the feels.
The Hate U Give
Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter works hard to find balance in her life between her poor neighborhood and the elite suburban prep school she attends. Yet, when Starr is the only witness to the fatal police shooting of her best friend, she finds herself in the middle of a national headline. With all the coverage of police shootings in recent years, Thomas’ novel adds a new layer to the conversation on this important topic.
Coming of Age Books for Tweens
Brown Girl Dreaming
Growing up as an African-American in both South Carolina and New York during the 1960-70s, Jacqueline Woodson never truly felt at home in either place. Caught between the highly urban New York and the Southern views of South Carolina, she learned to find a place in the world balancing the best of each. Told in enchanting verse, the story of her childhood is poignant and moving. I’m not usually one for poetry, but Woodson’s eloquent lines bring her story to life.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret
When eleven-year-old Margaret Simons moves to New Jersey, she desperately wants to fit in with her new friends as they talk about boys, bras, getting their first periods, and religion. Now, on top of dealing with puberty, Margaret must also decide her beliefs about God in this classic coming-of-age book.
Bridge to Terabithia
When a new girl dashes Jess’s hope of being the fastest runner in fifth grade, he quickly strikes up a friendship with her. Jess and Leslie end up spending most days in the woods behind her house, inventing a magical world called Terabithia. Celebrating the delights of childhood imagination, the story also shows what happens when tragedy strikes, so keep your tissues close.
Sharon M. Draper
One week at her mom’s. One week at her dad’s. Not only is Isabella’s life split in half by her parents’ divorce, but also she feels as if her own identity is divided in two. Half-white and half-Black, Isabella’s split custody parallels her split racial identity. Sharon M. Draper’s middle grade coming of age book explores Isabella’s need to figure out how a blended girl bridges the gap in a world full of duality. Not nearly as light-hearted as the pink striped color suggests, Blended is a more serious discussion on important topics for kids today – divorce, racial profiling, Black Lives Matter, and blended families.
Where the Red Fern Grows
A sobworthy middle-grade read based on the author’s childhood, Where the Red Fern Grows tells the story of Billy Colman, who saves up all his money for two years to purchase two coonhounds. Soon, Billy, Little Ann, and Old Dan become the best hunting team in the Ozark Mountains where glory and tragedy await them.
Anne of Green Gables
L. M. Montgomery
Every girl should be required to read the adventures of orphan Anne Shirley who uses all her imagination and spunk to win the hearts of everyone around her. She’s the girl every girl wishes she could be. Rereading this childhood classic, I found it just as entertaining as an adult and loved every minute of it.
Do you enjoy reading coming of age books?
Connie Faulkner says
I may have a weakness for coming of age books. I’ve read many of these and will be adding more to my library app! I would also recommend Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns, The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig, and The Fault In Our Stars by John Green.
Thanks for the recommendations!
Great list as always Rachael!
I have a little To Kill A Mockingbird side story.
I grew up near the town where Horton Foote was born. Mr. Foote won an Oscar for writing the screenplay for To Kill A Mockingbird based on Harper Lee’s book.
He lived right around the corner from my Grandmother. He is one of our great American playwrights, famous for writing about his hometown.
I love both the book and the movie adaptation. Definitely a powerful story that has stood the test of time.
Another interesting tidbit: Nelle Harper Lee was neighbors with Truman Capote (In Cold Blood) in her small hometown of Monroeville, AL. She based the character Dill on Truman.
That’s such an insteresting connection you have. Have you read Furious Hours? It’s this true crime story about a serial killer than Harper Lee tried to write about for her second book (a la Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood) that she never finished.
THE GREAT ALONE is wonderful.
BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY has a wonderful surprising ending.
As for Amor Towles, I don’t know how he’s going to better A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW.
Give Ruta Septys’ OUT OF THE EASY a read.
THE ISLAND OF MISSING TREES is a must-read. Elif Shafak has 2 other must-reads: 10 MINUTES AND 38 SECONDS IN THIS STRANGE WORLD and non-fiction short HOW TO STAY SANE IN AN AGE OF DIVISION. I dare you to read them and not like them.