The best books with protagonists coming-of-age while facing seemingly insurmountable challenges

The Books I Picked & Why

To Kill a Mockingbird

By Harper Lee

Book cover of To Kill a Mockingbird

Why this book?

To Kill a Mockingbird is not only the go-to classic coming-of-age tale, Harper Lee’s story is set in a time and place of seismic shift – small-town American South at the slow, dangerous dawn of the Civil Rights movement. Lee explores morality, racism, family, and courage through the eyes of Scout, who ages from six to nine throughout the course of the story. Lee also creates a constellation of authentic characters, among them Scout’s attorney father, Atticus, and beautifully maintains Scout’s at first innocent, then, increasingly knowing voice. Scout is precisely my favorite protagonist, an open, curious, and trusted narrator, and what inspires are the lessons Scout learns as she observes her small town of Mayfield and human nature over the course of a racially-charged trial.

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The Fault in Our Stars

By John Green

Book cover of The Fault in Our Stars

Why this book?

The fact that Green’s protagonist Hazel faces a terminal cancer diagnosis as she is coming of age is fraught enough to engage me as a reader, but it’s Hazel’s pragmatic, wry, and wise voice that utterly pulled me in. Green’s Hazel is both human and tragic. Enter Augustus, the guy she meets and falls for at a cancer patient support group, and all of the learning she has done to face her mortality takes on a whole new dimension as she navigates young love and enormous loss. Green’s prose is moving and smart, his characters resonant. It’s what I look for in a YA read, and what I strive to write myself; a tested yet curious and open protagonist navigating daunting terrain.

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Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays

By Joan Didion

Book cover of Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays

Why this book?

Simply put, the death knell of the sixties clearly explained. My favorite turbulent decade as described by my all-time favorite author. Didion’s style is incisive and brilliant, and she manages to find the exact moments in the demise of the hippie movement that define both its idealism and cynicism. The children in her essay, the titular Slouching Towards Bethlehem made me want to write about the impact this social movement had on children born into it. She chooses her defining moments so well! Didion’s essays made me understand how both non-fiction and essay could move me, emotionally, in the same way getting lost in a story can. 

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The Age of Miracles

By Karen Thompson Walker

Book cover of The Age of Miracles

Why this book?

I love The Age of Miracles because I was so taken with Walker’s scientific premise, that by the “slowing” of rotation, the world would come to its inevitable end. This scientifically grounded plot point was something I found arresting; it fascinated me immediately. I also loved Walker’s eleven-year-old protagonist, Julia. Julia is genuine, believable, set in her strange but also eerily recognizable nearing-the-apocalypse world. Julia also has a rich, and I felt very authentic, inner life. Her emotions rang true, and the plot not only riveted me, it broke my heart. 

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Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl

By Anne Frank, B.M. Mooyaart

Book cover of Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl

Why this book?

Anne’s diary is the world’s foremost first-hand account of coming of age in a time of peril, and also while in hiding. Anne’s own words are smart, funny, and profound. She bears witness to her plight, her growth, her hardships, and her joy. She embodies the concept of lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness. Anne is a symbol of the power of the written word to illuminate everything and resound eternally. Anne’s diary is both intimate, personal, and a sweeping testament to the power of a single voice to speak to generations. I love how her daily observations, started in the tiny space of the Secret Annex, now embody the epitome of hope and goodness. 

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