The most poignant coming-of-age novels about boys

William Mark Habeeb Author Of Venice Beach
By William Mark Habeeb

Who am I?

My novel Venice Beach—like the five books I recommend here—has been classified as a “coming-of-age” novel, a classification that I have no quarrels with as long as it’s understood that coming-of-age is not regarded simply as a synonym for “adolescence” or “being a teenager.” The coming-of-age years—generally defined as between ages 12 and 18—are so much more than a period of life wedged between childhood and adulthood. Coming of age is a process, not a block of time; it is a hot emotional forge in which we experience so many “firsts” and are hammered, usually painfully, into the shapes that will last a lifetime. 

I wrote...

Venice Beach

By William Mark Habeeb,

Book cover of Venice Beach

What is my book about?

It's 1968. A thirteen-year-old runaway flees his home for the lure of California. He barely survives on the streets of Los Angeles until a fateful encounter leads him to the bohemian community of Venice Beach, known at the time as the "Slum-by-the-Sea." He renames himself Moon, symbolizing his quest for something that will shine light on him, just as the sun illumines the moon. Over the next two years he experiences first loves, sexual confusion, drug use, and haunting childhood flashbacks. Amidst cultural upheaval over Vietnam, Moon assembles a new family of his own making, until a shocking and unexpected discovery upends who he thought he was. Venice Beach is a moving tale of the resilience of youth and the power of our personal stories.

The books I picked & why

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By Padgett Powell,

Book cover of Edisto

Why this book?

Edisto was the first coming-of-age novel I fell in love with as an adult reader and the book that showed me the tremendous literary potential of the genre. Padgett Powell endows his protagonist, twelve-year-old Simons, with what comes across as precociousness, but in fact reflects the depth of thinking that many young tweens and teens have. Simons wrestles with his narcissistic parents’ competing visions of his future—although neither bothers to ask him what he wants—while hanging out on the sultry island of Edisto off the coast of South Carolina with an enigmatic older acquaintance, Taurus, who offers him tastes of adult life and the kind of attention his parents are incapable of providing. Powell’s deft prose and realistic dialogue make it all fully believable, and at times riotously funny. Edisto is nothing short of brilliant.


By Richard Ford,

Book cover of Canada

Why this book?

You’re fifteen years old, living unhappily with your feckless parents and unstable older sister in a small town in Montana. And then your family implodes: your parents are arrested for bank robbery and your sister flees to parts unknown. As troubling as the premise is, Canada becomes even darker and more ominous as young Dell Parsons travels alone to Saskatchewan to live with erstwhile family friends, but in fact enters a whole new world of intrigue and violence. Dell is a stoic character, and you desperately want to see his life take a turn for the better. What you get instead is a case study in resiliency and survival. Ford’s prose is powerful; every word counts, every sentence pulls you deeper into the story.

Skippy Dies

By Paul Murray,

Book cover of Skippy Dies

Why this book?

Skippy Dies is nearly 700 pages long, but I wished it had been longer, it was that fun to read. It’s both tragically sad and laugh-out-loud funny—a difficult feat for any writer to pull off, and Irish novelist Paul Murray does so brilliantly. I’m not giving away anything by saying that the protagonist dies—after all, he dies in the book’s title—but I won’t reveal how or the circumstances. Let’s just say that if you are a diminutive, shy, buck-toothed 14-year-old at an all-boys boarding school in Dublin and somehow manage to develop a crush on the girlfriend of an older, drug-dealing, violent bully…well, things can’t turn out good. The cast of characters—the teenagers, the teachers, the school principal—are wonderfully drawn. Murray’s dialogue captures the boasting machismo as well as the angsty insecurities of teenage boyhood. A real gem.


By Ian Chorao,

Book cover of Bruiser

Why this book?

Bruiser is only nine years old, younger than most “coming of age” protagonists, but his anxiety-ridden family life in a Manhattan apartment has aged him. His father is a philanderer who rarely is home and often physically abusive when he is; his mother is a deeply depressed poet. Bruiser spends most of his time running around his Upper West Side neighborhood with a make-shift gang of older boysand has the bruises to show for it, hence his nicknameor hiding at the bottom of the clothes hamper when his parents are going at it. He befriends a 10-year-old girl, Darla, who lives across the courtyard with her drug-addled mother and who convinces him to run away with her. Their journey, which takes them first to West Virginia in search of Darla’s father and eventually to North Carolina, is the book’s magic. Both kids are pre-puberty, so it’s more like two buddies on a venturealthough Bruiser’s internal life is what gives Chorao’s book such power. 

Dear Edward

By Ann Napolitano,

Book cover of Dear Edward

Why this book?

Twelve-year-old Edward Adler enters his coming-of-age years in the wake of a horrific tragedy: A plane crash kills his parents and his cherished older brother; Edward is the doomed flight’s only survivor. How does one “grow up” when your past is effectively erased, when those you most love have been yanked from your life, when there is no one else on earth who shares your childhood memories? Edward goes to live with childless relatives who have no idea how to relate to himhonestly, who would?and is thrust back into the normal rhythms and expectations of teen life. He shies away from the unwanted fame his “sole survivor” status has bestowed on him. It seems that he will be doomed to a life of lonely pain until he makes a shocking discovery that creates the possibility of a new beginning. Napolitano guides us along Edward’s emotional journey in a way that allows the reader to feel his pain and heartbreak, but she never gets maudlin. This book will stay with you for a long time.

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