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

Who am I?

It was cinema that lured me to historical bildungsroman* novels: Wuthering Heights, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Outsiders, The Color Purple. When a naïve character challenges conventionality and develops their own moral code, it is perhaps the most important moment in any life. In confronting the absurdist world, the reader is thus transformed via shared humanity. These coming-of-age stories are faithful to their historical time periods—snapshots of a bygone era—yet they contain timeless, universal truths. I wrote The Story Thief from a 1970s, queer, outsider perspective, influenced by my adoration of the bildungsroman genre. *A genre focused on the psychological development and moral growth of a protagonist (a sub-genre of coming-of-age).

I wrote...

The Story Thief

By Shari McNally,

Book cover of The Story Thief

What is my book about?

High school. 1978. Where every girl lives the same story, over and over. (Cinder) Ella Armstrong has tried to fit into other people’s stories. It doesn’t work. But her own story, the one where she’s courting a princess and not a prince, is way too weird to tell.

There are some things you just can’t help. When the school Rebel Queen Renee Hammond needs a knight, Ella dumps the idea of glass slippers and takes up the challenge. Worshiping from the sidelines works for her—until good girl Diane Lacey makes Ella yearn to write a new story for herself. A story where the girl might get the girl, but most of all, the girl gets herself.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit

Shari McNally Why did I love 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.

By Jeanette Winterson,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Key Features:

Study methods
Introduction to the text
Summaries with critical notes
Themes and techniques
Textual analysis of key passages
Author biography
Historical and literary background
Modern and historical critical approaches
Glossary of literary terms

Book cover of The Catcher in the Rye

Shari McNally Why did I love 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.

By J.D. Salinger,

Why should I read it?

14 authors picked The Catcher in the Rye as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

After leaving prep school Holden Caulfield spends three days on his own in New York City.

Book cover of The Color Purple

Shari McNally Why did I love 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.

By Alice Walker,

Why should I read it?

15 authors picked The Color Purple as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 14, 15, 16, and 17.

What is this book about?

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Alice Walker's iconic modern classic is now a Penguin Book.

A powerful cultural touchstone of modern American literature, The Color Purple depicts the lives of African American women in early twentieth-century rural Georgia. Separated as girls, sisters Celie and Nettie sustain their loyalty to and hope in each other across time, distance and silence. Through a series of letters spanning twenty years, first from Celie to God, then the sisters to each other despite the unknown, the novel draws readers into its rich and memorable portrayals of Celie, Nettie, Shug…

Book cover of Orlando: A Biography

Shari McNally Why did I love 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. 

By Virginia Woolf,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Orlando as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 14, 15, 16, and 17.

What is this book about?

HarperCollins is proud to present its new range of best-loved, essential classics.

'The flower bloomed and faded. The sun rose and sank. The lover loved and went. And what the poets said in rhyme, the young translated into practice.'

Written for her lover Vita Sackville-West, 'Orlando' is Woolf's playfully subversive take on a biography, here tracing the fantastical life of Orlando. As the novel spans centuries and continents, gender and identity, we follow Orlando's adventures in love - from being a lord in the Elizabethan court to a lady in 1920s London.

First published in 1928, this tale of unrivalled…

Book cover of The Outsiders

Shari McNally Why did I love 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.

By S.E. Hinton,

Why should I read it?

14 authors picked The Outsiders as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 12, 13, 14, and 15.

What is this book about?

50 years of an iconic classic! This international bestseller and inspiration for a beloved movie is a heroic story of friendship and belonging.

Cover may vary.

No one ever said life was easy. But Ponyboy is pretty sure that he's got things figured out. He knows that he can count on his brothers, Darry and Sodapop. And he knows that he can count on his friends-true friends who would do anything for him, like Johnny and Two-Bit. But not on much else besides trouble with the Socs, a vicious gang of rich kids whose idea of a good time is…

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At What Cost, Silence?

By Karen Lynne Klink,

Book cover of At What Cost, Silence?

Karen Lynne Klink Author Of At What Cost, Silence?

New book alert!

Who am I?

Author Child abuse survivor Reader Adventure traveler Animal lover

Karen's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Secrets, misunderstandings, and a plethora of family conflicts abound in this historical novel set along the Brazos River in antebellum Washington County, East Texas.

It is a compelling story of two neighboring plantation families and a few of the enslaved people who serve them. These two plantations are a microcosm of a country on the brink of war, encompassing a variety of issues: love and friendship between men, relationships between fathers and sons, sibling rivalry, slavery, and the position of women in society.

At What Cost, Silence?

By Karen Lynne Klink,

What is this book about?

Adrien Villere suspects he is not like other boys. For years, he desperately locks away his feelings and fears-but eventually, tragedy and loss drive him to seeking solace from his mentor, a young neighbor Jacob Hart. Jacob's betrayal of Adrien's trust, however, results in secret abuse, setting off a chain of actions from which neither Adrien's wise sister, Bernadette, nor his closest friend, Isaac, can turn him.

At What Cost, Silence presents two contrasting plantation families in a society where strict rules of belief and behavior are clear, and public opinion can shape an entire life. Centerstage are the Villeres,…

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