The best historical bildungsroman (coming-of-age) novels

Shari McNally Author Of The Story Thief
By Shari McNally

The Books I Picked & Why

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit

By Jeanette Winterson

Book cover of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit

Why this book?

A lesbian adopted by evangelists. Enough said. This book has it all—from unique voice to inventive storytelling—and holds up today even though it was written in 1985 and takes place in the 1960s. It is a story as much about seeking to understand those who oppress as it is a story of the queer outsider searching for personal freedom in a world both hidden from her and, ultimately, not built for her. Gorgeously written, it moves me to read any prose by Winterson.

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The Catcher in the Rye

By J.D. Salinger

Book cover of The Catcher in the Rye

Why this book?

A boy gets kicked out of prep school and wanders about the city, trying to come to terms with the absurdity of society, his unhappy life, and his PTSD. I nearly didn’t include this book because it has been written about ad nauseam, but I can’t discount the innovation of voice and mental health perspective of this novel set in the late 50s, early 60s. This honest portrayal of a young man in the midst of a mental health crisis made The Catcher in the Rye a deeply influential novel.

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The Color Purple

By Alice Walker

Book cover of The Color Purple

Why this book?

Set in the rural south (1910-1940), The Color Purple follows the coming of age of Celie, a girl born into circumstances she is unable to escape. Much like The Catcher in the Rye, it’s hard to find something new that hasn’t already been said about this Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece. It is an intimate tale that holds within it the full scope of the human condition. Celie reveals the true north of our humanity, our innate goodness, in the face of systemic abuse. More than that, Celie finds the power to define herself against paralyzing odds. A masterful book that soars, lifting the human soul to astonishing heights.

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Orlando: A Biography

By Virginia Woolf

Book cover of Orlando: A Biography

Why this book?

This brilliant novel is the wildly imagined “biographical” tale of Orlando—a poet who lived for centuries (1588-1928), first as a man and then as a woman—was far ahead of its time in so many ways. This fantastical story serves as a treatise on gender and sexuality, a meditation on the nonbinary, a century before the gender revolution we live in today. And yet, at its heart, Orlando is truly a love poem to the nonbinary human (Vita Sackville-West) who stole Virginia Woolf’s heart. 

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The Outsiders

By S.E. Hinton

Book cover of The Outsiders

Why this book?

A microcosm of classism personified by a gang of kids in 1960s Oklahoma (the Socs from the wealthy side of town and the Greasers from the poor side) as seen through the eyes of Ponyboy, an orphan being cared for by his two brothers who are not much older than he. Through Ponyboy’s less-than-tough perspective, we feel the split factions of class that these gangs were born into—the fights, the blood spilled, the lives lost. Ultimately, The Outsiders is a story of hope and transformation. Because, in the end, we are all Ponyboy.

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