The best novels in which an impaired character propels the protagonist’s coming of age

Who am I?

Susan Beckham Zurenda taught English for 33 years on the college level and at the high school level to AP students. Her debut novel, Bells for Eli (Mercer University Press, March 2020; paperback edition March 2021), has been selected the Gold Medal (first place) winner for Best First Book—Fiction in the 2021 IPPY (Independent Publisher Book Awards), a Foreword Indie Book Award finalist, a Winter 2020 Okra Pick by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, a 2020 Notable Indie on Shelf Unbound, a 2020 finalist for American Book Fest Best Book Awards, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for 2021. She has won numerous regional awards for her short fiction. She lives in Spartanburg, SC.


I wrote...

Bells for Eli

By Susan Beckham Zurenda,

Book cover of Bells for Eli

What is my book about?

In the 1960’s small-town of Green Branch, SC, first cousins, Eli and Delia, grow up across the street in a relationship illustrating extraordinary depths of tenderness and friendship. After a life-altering childhood accident compromises Eli and makes him the target of bullying, Delia becomes his great defender. Later, the outer appearance of Eli’s accident gone, the cousins’ relationship evolves into more complicated feelings. Though Eli dates every girl in town, Delia is never far away. At every turn he assumes the role of her protector. His wounds of the heart from childhood never leave, however, and are the catalyst for decisions that bring the novel to a staggering conclusion, and Delia discovers a shocking family secret revealing truths about Eli she has never known.

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

Amy and Isabelle

By Elizabeth Strout,

Book cover of Amy and Isabelle

Why this book?

In this exceptional story that I’ve read twice, Elizabeth Strout places a seemingly ordinary, though distant, mother and her shy teenage daughter in the provincial town of Shirley Falls, Maine, to create a stunning awakening in the daughter Amy and foster the admission of a long-hidden secret by Amy’s mother Isabelle. As much as Amy thinks her development is about her sexuality, it is more about forming a relationship with her lonely mother. After Amy learns her mother’s story, she learns her most important moment of identity has not been sexual initiation, but her self-acceptance. The relationship between mother and daughter fosters Amy’s coming of age. 

Amy and Isabelle

By Elizabeth Strout,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Amy and Isabelle as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the Man Booker Prize longlisted author of My Name is Lucy Barton

Isabelle Goodrow has been living in self-imposed exile with her daughter Amy for 15 years. Shamed by her past and her affair with Amy's father she has submerged herself in the routine of her dead-end job and her unrequited love for her boss. But when Amy, frustrated by her quiet and unemotional mother, embarks on an illicit affair with her maths teacher, the disgrace intensifies the shame Isabelle feels about her own past.

Throughout one long, sweltering summer as the events of the small town ebb and…


Sing, Unburied, Sing

By Jesmyn Ward,

Book cover of Sing, Unburied, Sing

Why this book?

This richly-told journey story revolves around 13-year-old Jojo and his family. Jojo lives with his grandparents, Mam and Pop, his baby sister, Kayla, and his emotionally absent and drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on the small family farm. The many trials Jojo faces while caring for his baby sister on a trip with his neglectful, selfish mother to Parchman Prison to retrieve his father propel him toward maturity. At the beginning of the novel Jojo says he doesn’t understand his mother, but by the end he has developed understanding.

Sing, Unburied, Sing

By Jesmyn Ward,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Sing, Unburied, Sing as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

SHORTLISTED FOR THE WOMEN'S PRIZE FOR FICTION 2018 WINNER OF THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD 2017 ONE OF BARACK OBAMA'S BEST BOOKS OF 2017 SELECTED AS A BOOK OF THE YEAR BY THE NEW YORK TIMES, THE NEW STATESMAN, THE FINANCIAL TIMES, THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW, TIME AND THE BBC Finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction Finalist for the Kirkus Prize Finalist for the Andrew Carnegie Medal Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award 'This wrenching new novel by Jesmyn Ward digs deep into the not-buried heart of the American nightmare. A must' Margaret Atwood 'A powerfully…


Rich in Love

By Josephine Humphreys,

Book cover of Rich in Love

Why this book?

Having read this novel a number of times, I am always drawn into its emotional depth. The departure of 17-year-old Lucille Odom’s mother Helen has a shattering effect on Warren, Lucille’s father, and his paralysis intensifies Lucille’s coming of age. Warren’s regression into a kind of adolescent state forces Lucille into the role of parent. She must take control in ways that are at the limit of her competence. Lucille says, “I don’t know now whether the disappearance of my mother was like a trigger mechanism setting off the series of surprises that was to follow. There is no reason the one thing had to lead to the others. But a family without a mother is vulnerable.” As she guides her family through discontent, Lucille discovers she is a woman rich in love.

Rich in Love

By Josephine Humphreys,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Rich in Love as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

At the age of seventeen, Lucille Odom finds herself in the middle of an unexpected domestic crisis. As she helps guide her family through its discontent, Lucille discovers in herself a woman rich in wisdom, rich in humor, and rich in love.


Child of My Heart

By Alice McDermott,

Book cover of Child of My Heart

Why this book?

Though I have read and relished all of Alice McDermott’s novels, Child of my Heart is my favorite. Theresa, age 15, is East Hampton’s most sought-after babysitter when her favorite cousin, eight-year-old Daisy, comes to spend the summer in this gorgeous coming-of-age novel. Though Theresa and Daisy share a magical world, Theresa eventually realizes the ongoing bruises on Daisy’s feet and body mean she is seriously ill. While the cousins intuitively conceal Daisy’s condition, Theresa becomes aroused by and wary of her sexual attraction to the father of Flora, a toddler she babysits. Through the haunting presence of death and her dawning sexuality for a much-older man, Theresa crosses into adulthood. 

Child of My Heart

By Alice McDermott,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Child of My Heart as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On the cusp of fifteen, pretty Theresa is the town's most sought-after babysitter - cheerful, beloved, adored by children and animals, but also a solitary soul with an already complex understanding of human nature. She is Titania among her fairies, the one person to call on for help with a child in extreme distress. Theresa does not doubt her power over the fathers of her adoring charges either, like the elderly artist whose signature and doodles may fetch a fortune, but whose potential lechery Theresa toys with like a kitten with yarn. Yet, during this unforgettable summer, it is her…


Peace Like a River

By Leif Enger,

Book cover of Peace Like a River

Why this book?

Years ago, I pulled this novel from the library shelf on a whim, knowing nothing then of its author. Oh, what a powerful book! Reuben’s coming of age pulled me in and never let go. Eleven years old and asthmatic, Reuben idolizes his brother Davy. But after Davy is wanted for murder, Reuben faces the moral dilemma of justice versus loyalty. Initially, Reuben considers the federal agent tasked with finding Davy a “bad guy” and struggles with his father’s cooperation with the agent. But as time goes on, Reuben’s decision to value the agent’s life over his brother’s freedom suggests that growing up involves allowing one's perception of right and wrong to change as evidence is presented. 

Peace Like a River

By Leif Enger,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Peace Like a River as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When Israel Finch and Tommy Basca, the town bullies, break into the home of school caretaker Jeremiah Land, wielding a baseball bat and looking for trouble, they find more of it than even they expected. For seventeen-year-old Davey is sitting up in bed waiting for them with a Winchester rifle. His younger brother Reuben has seen their father perform miracles, but Jeremiah now seems as powerless to prevent Davey from being arrested for manslaughter, as he has always been to ease Reuben's daily spungy struggle to breathe. Nor does brave and brilliant nine-year-old Swede, obsessed as she is with the…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in coming of age, brothers, and Mississippi?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about coming of age, brothers, and Mississippi.

Coming Of Age Explore 120 books about coming of age
Brothers Explore 67 books about brothers
Mississippi Explore 54 books about Mississippi

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like To Kill a Mockingbird, Wise Blood, and Life of Pi if you like this list.