The best coming-of-age novels about breaking cycles of family dysfunction

Why am I passionate about this?

Since reading To Kill a Mockingbird in my high school literature class, I’ve been drawn to coming-of-age tales about brave young girls who stand up and speak truth against oppressive systems. Scout was one of my childhood heroes. Along with spunky female characters like Pippi Longstocking, Anne of Green Gables, and Ramona Quimby. As I became a novelist, these feisty female voices resurfaced, and I began writing stories about female protagonists who find their own way in the world, even when the world does everything in its power to stop them.  

I wrote...

Into the Free

By Julie Cantrell,

Book cover of Into the Free

What is my book about?

In Depression-era Mississippi, Millie Reynolds longs to escape the madness that marks her world. With an abusive father and a “nothing mama,” she struggles to find a place where she really belongs. For answers, Millie turns to the Gypsies who caravan through town each spring. The travelers lead Millie to a key that unlocks generations of shocking family secrets. When tragedy strikes, will the mysterious contents of the box give Millie the tools she needs to finally make her way into the free?

“Gritty, compelling, and beautifully told, Into the Free will take you into a coming-of-age story filled with heartrending hardship and luminous hope. Julie Cantrell is a writer to watch!” —Lisa WingateNew York Times bestselling author of Before We Were Yours

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Great Alone

Julie Cantrell Why did I love this book?

I’ve loved all of Kristin Hannah’s books, but this one tops my list. It transported me to the beautiful but treacherous coast of Alaska, where a brave young girl must face steep obstacles to break free of the dangers all around her. Drawing from her own family’s experiences living in Alaska, Hannah takes readers through the complicated layers of his wild landscape while exploring the complicated tangles of an unhealthy family system. A must-read. 

By Kristin Hannah,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked The Great Alone as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone, a desperate family seeks a new beginning in the near-isolated wilderness of Alaska only to find that their unpredictable environment is less threatening than the erratic behavior found in human nature.

#1 New York Times Instant Bestseller (February 2018)
A People “Book of the Week”
Buzzfeed’s “Most Anticipated Women’s Fiction Reads of 2018”
Seattle Times’s “Books to Look Forward to in 2018”

Alaska, 1974. Ernt Allbright came home from the Vietnam War a changed and volatile man. When he loses yet another job, he makes the impulsive decision to move his wife and daughter…

Book cover of The Poisonwood Bible

Julie Cantrell Why did I love this book?

It’s been years since this near-perfect novel was released by one of America’s greatest writers, Barbara Kingsolver, but it’s still one of my all-time faves. Not only is it a literary masterpiece, with brilliant plot structure and spot-on character development, but it explores incredibly rich coming-of-age themes all within the fascinating backdrop of Africa’s Belgian-occupied Congo. As a missionary’s daughter finds her way in this strange new world, she begins to question everything she’s ever known of truth. 

By Barbara Kingsolver,

Why should I read it?

18 authors picked The Poisonwood Bible as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?



An international bestseller and a modern classic, this suspenseful epic of one family's tragic undoing and their remarkable reconstruction has been read, adored and shared by millions around the world.

'Breathtaking.' Sunday Times
'Exquisite.' The Times
'Beautiful.' Independent
'Powerful.' New York Times

This story is told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959.

They carry with them everything they believe they will…

Book cover of Where the Crawdads Sing

Julie Cantrell Why did I love this book?

There’s a reason this novel was selected for Reese Witherspoon’s book club and then adapted to a film by Reese’s production company. And there’s a reason it’s still topping the charts. Delia brings to life one of the most stunning young protagonists the world has seen since Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. Readers around the world fell instantly in love with the “Marsh Girl” and rooted her to victory against some particularly shady characters. Shining a light on racism and classicism, hypocrisy and dysfunction, abuse and mental illness, creativity and nature, this story checks all the boxes and delivers a page-turning mystery to boot. 

By Delia Owens,

Why should I read it?

44 authors picked Where the Crawdads Sing as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


For years, rumours of the 'Marsh Girl' have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl. But Kya is not what they say. Sensitive and intelligent, she has survived for years alone in the marsh that she calls home, finding friends in the gulls and lessons in the sand. Then the time comes when she yearns to be…

Book cover of The Yellow Wife

Julie Cantrell Why did I love this book?

This book will break your heart a million ways, but you’ll still want your friends to read it. Phelby Brown is a teenage girl navigating the complicated world of cross-generational slavery. But just when she thinks she’s figured it all out, she’s put up against an especially cruel “Jailer” on the Devil’s Half Acre in Virginia, where the enslaved people are tortured and sold every day. How will she outsmart this dangerous man and turn the tables on this mad, mad world? Readers will be hooked from page one and cheering for Phelby every step of the way (even between their own tears).

By Sadeqa Johnson,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Yellow Wife as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A Best Book of the Year by NPR and Christian Science Monitor

Called “wholly engrossing” by New York Times bestselling author Kathleen Grissom, this “fully immersive” (Lisa Wingate, #1 bestselling author of Before We Were Yours) story follows an enslaved woman forced to barter love and freedom while living in the most infamous slave jail in Virginia.

Born on a plantation in Charles City, Virginia, Pheby Delores Brown has lived a relatively sheltered life. Shielded by her mother’s position as the estate’s medicine woman and cherished by the Master’s sister, she is set apart from the others on the plantation,…

Book cover of Ellen Foster

Julie Cantrell Why did I love this book?

Long ago, Oprah Winfrey chose this novel for her Book Club, and I’ve been a devoted fan ever since. Kaye Gibbons gives us one of the most loveable young protagonists I’ve ever seen on the page, a courageous and spunky girl who says what she means and means what she says. Gibbons not only offers Ellen’s heartbreaking story of abuse and neglect, but she delivers dashes of humor and a heartwarming ending that reminds us of the redemptive power of love. 

By Kaye Gibbons,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Ellen Foster as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Filled with lively humor, compassion, and intimacy."
—Alice Hoffman, The New York Times Book Review

"When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy." With that opening sentence we enter the childhood world of one of the most appealing young heroines in contemporary fiction. Her courage, her humor, and her wisdom are unforgettable as she tells her own story with stunning honesty and insight. An Oprah Book Club selection, this powerful novel has become an American classic.

Winner of the American Academy of Arts and Letters' Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction and the Ernest Hemingway…

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The Woodland Stranger: A Fairy Tale with Benefits

By Jane Buehler,

Book cover of The Woodland Stranger: A Fairy Tale with Benefits

Jane Buehler Author Of The Ocean Girl

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Storyteller Introvert Romantic Norm avoider Backyard birdwatcher

Jane's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Burne’s been hiding out in the forest since deserting the King’s Guard. Each time he tries to return to the village, he begins to panic. And then one day, he encounters a handsome stranger picking flowers and hides behind a tree instead of talking.

He wants to be braver—and he’s about to get another chance. Because the stranger is Gray, a fairy and master of illusions who’s now following Burne home. And Gray’s got more on his mind than talking. Would a fairy that beautiful ever want someone like him? Stranger things have happened.

The Woodland Stranger: A Fairy Tale with Benefits

By Jane Buehler,

What is this book about?

Whoever said, Don't talk to strangers?

Burne hid behind a tree. He wanted to talk to the handsome man picking flowers at the edge of the forest, but he'd only flub it if he tried-he'd stumble over his words and blush bright red. And now the man is gone.

He tries to continue on to the village, but the same thing happens as always: his hands start shaking and panic wells up inside him. What if he runs into the bullies who tormented him in the King's Guard last spring? Ever since he deserted, he has hidden out in the…

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