The best coming of age books with unstoppable, underdog protagonists

Who am I?

Since I began reading seriously (albeit late in life!), I’ve been seduced by the travails of underdog protagonists trying to save their own lives through transformation. If you had told me when I was a teenager—drinking too much, racing muscle cars, and scraping by with Ds and Cs in a vocational high school—that I would end up teaching writing at a university, I would’ve said you were nuts. It wasn’t until I started college in my mid-twenties that I actually read a novel for the pleasure of it. My novel and short story collection are expressions of my cheering on the young underdogs who bravely fight to change their worlds despite all odds.  

I wrote...

Spark and the Drive

By Wayne Harrison,

Book cover of Spark and the Drive

What is my book about?

Justin Bailey is seventeen when he arrives at the shop of legendary muscle car mechanic Nick Campbell. Anguished and out of place among the students at his rural Connecticut high school, Justin finds in Nick, his captivating wife Mary Ann, and their world of miraculous machines the sense of family he has struggled to find at home. But when Nick and Mary Ann's lives are struck by tragedy, Justin's own world is upended. Suddenly Nick has lost his touch. Mary Ann has turned distant. As Justin tries to support his suffering mentor, he finds himself drawn toward the man's grieving wife. Torn apart by feelings of betrayal, Justin must choose between the man he admires more than his own father and the woman he yearns for. 

The books I picked & why

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Story of a Girl

By Sara Zarr,

Book cover of Story of a Girl

Why this book?

In a heartfelt story of redemption, Deanna Lambert was labeled the school slut after her father caught her having car sex with a high school boy. Unforgiven and dejected in a smothering, gossip-fueled small town, Deanna faces the people she least wants to face in a moving attempt to outlive her past, with no help offered by her dysfunctional parents and a sister overwhelmed with young motherhood. I loved the gorgeous realism of this book, fueled by the deep intimacy Zarr creates with her sincere, frank-hearted, narrator.

This Boy's Life: A Memoir

By Tobias Wolff,

Book cover of This Boy's Life: A Memoir

Why this book?

Celebrated author and Stanford professor Tobias Wolff recounts his perilous teenage years in the 1950s Pacific Northwest. Clever, conniving Toby (self-named Jack Wolff) will do whatever it takes to reinvent himself in a memoir full of larger-than-life characters, thrilling events, emotional rollercoasters of betrayals, broken dreams, and hard-won triumphs, all conveyed in prose so lucid that the book has been college assigned for its poetic honesty at the sentence level for decades. Guaranteed you’ll be floored by what it takes for Wolff to ultimately transcend the merciless circumstances of his life. 

Billy Bathgate

By E.L. Doctorow,

Book cover of Billy Bathgate

Why this book?

Trust me; you’ve never read a book like Billy Bathgate. Not only does it have a high-stakes plotline full of peril on every page, but Doctorow’s breathtakingly explosive prose is as volatile and alluring as the characters themselves. Fifteen-year-old Billy Bathgate transcends his street urchin existence in the 1930s Bronx by endearing himself to (and falling in love with the girlfriend of) the outrageously violent and unpredictable Jewish mobster Dutch Schultz. Billy’s genius is far-reaching—juggling, scamming, acting, evading the wrath of police and rival mobsters including Lucky Luciano. Based loosely on true events, this one will supercharge you emotionally and intellectually (again, trust me).


By Walter Dean Myers,

Book cover of Monster

Why this book?

This one’s the fastest read of the bunch; in fact, you may find yourself rebooting for a second savory read without putting it down. Sixteen-year-old Steve Harmon faces a life sentence for his alleged participation in a robbery that killed a convenience store owner. To cope with the horrors of his cell block, where the spirited African American teen is housed until his trial ends, Steve recounts events before and after the crime in the form of a screenplay; this enthralling courtroom drama deep-dives into the racial and economic forces responsible for overcrowding our flawed criminal justice system. Steve’s perseverance against odds is truly inspiring.  

Winter's Bone

By Daniel Woodrell,

Book cover of Winter's Bone

Why this book?

Made into the film that launched Jennifer Lawrence’s career (with a stunning performance by John Hawkes as Teardrop), the read is truly an exhilaration. After her father puts up their house for bond and disappears, Ree Dolly has set out to track him down dead or alive. The book’s razor focus on a beautifully clean line of tension, paired with Woodrell’s signature prose that is at once raw and lyrical, visceral and philosophical, make the book un-put-downable; from its violent beginnings to its super nova ending, we feel every second of Ree’s considerable wounds and triumphs as she goes against generations of savage patriarchy. Fans of Ozark will experience an even deeper plunge into the drug cartels (meth cooks in this case) and horrific lawlessness that smothers the woods of southwestern Missouri.

5 book lists we think you will like!

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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