The best coming of age books

4 authors have picked their favorite books about coming of age and why they recommend each book.

Soon, you will be able to filter by genre, age group, and more. Sign up here to follow our story as we build a better way to explore books.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy through links on our website, we may earn an affiliate commission (learn more).

The Edwardians

By Vita Sackville-West,

Book cover of The Edwardians

I devoured this modern classic comedy of manners like a good period drama. 

The novel follows the adolescent years of Sebastian, duke and heir of the country house Chevron, where his mother Lucy plots luncheons and indulges parties where alcohol, games, and affairs are the prime guests. The tone is witty and the food, from the ingredients on display to the behaviours of those who eat, is used as a powerful show of appearances.


Who am I?

I’m a French-born, London-based novelist and food writer. As an author, I have nurtured my voice at the kitchen counter, where I find language loosens up and as a reader, cookbooks, food memoirs, and novels sit in one pile on my bedside table. Food is never not political and I find that its depiction is a wonderful narrative tool, for plot development with the setting of a meal or to portray a character through ingredients for examples. The relationship between food, culture, and writing is something I also explore with my podcast, book club, and culinary community The Salmon Pink Kitchen. Happy reading, and bon appétit! 


I wrote...

The Yellow Kitchen

By Margaux Vialleron,

Book cover of The Yellow Kitchen

What is my book about?

London, 2019. A yellow kitchen stands as a metaphor for the lifelong friendship between three women: Claude, the baker, goal-orientated Sophie, and political Giulia. They are chasing life and careers; dating, dreaming, and consuming but always returning to be reunited in the yellow kitchen. That is, until a trip to Lisbon unravels unexplored desires between Claude and Sophie. 

A novel of belonging and friendship, The Yellow Kitchen is a hymn to the last year of London as we knew it and a celebration of the culture, the food, and the rhythms we live by.

Bruiser

By Ian Chorao,

Book cover of Bruiser

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…


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.

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

By Ocean Vuong,

Book cover of On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

Ocean Vuong’s poetic quality of writing stunned me. His beautiful use of language captured the mutual attraction between two lonely teenage boys who become lovers, coupled with the pain and complexity of their lives. I felt the novel stepped away from the personal torment and anguish often seen in books about teenage same-sex love, though it didn’t refrain from acknowledging the impact of the Vietnam war, abuse, poverty, drugs, and dysfunctional family dynamics. I liked the book because the boys’ love and desire for one another had the power to temporarily circumnavigate their differences, personal torments, and sexual boundaries. The flashbacks Little Dog (the protagonist), had about his family and his mother’s memories of Vietnam were also haunting.


Who am I?

I wrote my first novel in a quest to create a story about a girl who loves girls surviving a violent, repressive world. Reading novels pertinent to the life I’ve lived was both affirming and life-saving. After graduate school, I developed a class at UC Berkeley where I focused on novels written by and about women of color, knowing compelling stories gave the students a chance to live in someone else’s universe. I still believe books can change hearts and minds, and reading them propels me to continue seeking well-told stories by authors—particularly writers of color—who have the courage to put their words on the page. 


I wrote...

What Night Brings

By Carla Trujillo,

Book cover of What Night Brings

What is my book about?

Marci Cruz wants two things from God: change her into a boy, and rid her of her father. What Night Brings is the unforgettable story of Marci’s struggle to find and maintain her identity against all odds—a perilous home life, an incomprehensible Church, and a largely indifferent world. Smart, feisty, and funny, 13-year-old Marci prays to become a boy so that she can capture the attention of Raquel, the teenage beauty next door. Marci's fighting spirit, her sense of justice, and her power of observation enable her to find her identity and her freedom.

The Whale Surfaces

By Ruth Rotkowitz,

Book cover of The Whale Surfaces: Prequel to Escaping The Whale

After reading Escaping The Whale, I was eager to meet Marcia Gold as a young girl. Here again, Ruth Rotkowitz does not disappoint. The desires and dreams of Holocaust survivors for their children to have an innocent and happy childhood are not always possible. Marcia, a young girl in the 1960's experiences the impact of her parent's history and the complications they bring to the anxiety of adolescence and the emotional problems that will be part of her life in the future.


Who am I?

As the only child of Holocaust survivors, I wanted to know everything, and my parents would tell me nothing. "It is to spare you" would be my mother's words of comfort to me. Sadly they were not. Growing up is at best complex; growing up as children of Holocaust survivors is even more so. Some second-generation children could escape the shadow of their parents' suffering; for others, their parents' experiences led them, as I did, into early maturity.


I wrote...

Lila

By Rose Ross,

Book cover of Lila

What is my book about?

Lila is about two children born the same day, minutes apart, in a displaced persons camp in Germany. Their parents, Holocaust survivors, saw them as miracles and that their lives would bond them forever. They were wrong. 

Both families relocate to the United States, settle in the South Bronx in the same neighborhood, and start their new lives. Both girls experience the conflicts of their relationship and their parents. By the summer of 1960, everyone finds themselves in the turmoil of love, friendship, and competition. Secrets are exposed, accusations made, leading to an act of vengeance.

Girlhood

By Melissa Febos,

Book cover of Girlhood

Girlhood was published while I was in edits and though I bought the book, I couldn’t risk reading it. The subject matter was too close to my own. What if I wanted to add or (gasp) rewrite? I’m glad I waited. Febos’ stunning essays perfectly encapsulate the confusion of adolescent girlhood, the mixed messages—from adults, from our own bodies—and the traps that lay in wait.My favorite, “The Mirror Test,” contains lines that crackle such as: “Before it carried any sexual connotation, the word slut was a term for a slovenly woman… A slut was a careless girl, hands sunk haphazardly into the dough…—eyes cast out the window, mouth humming a song, always thinking of something else. Oh was I ever a messy child. A real slut in the making.”


Who am I?

I was raised in the Midwest by parents who told me I could have whatever kind of life I wanted. I took them at their word, never considering that my gender might come with limitations. It wasn’t until I had my first child and began investigating Paula’s case that the true complexity of womanhood began to dawn on me. I’ve since spent nine years reading and writing and thinking about the experience of being a woman in the modern world. 


I wrote...

What Happened to Paula: An Unsolved Death and the Danger of American Girlhood

By Katherine Dykstra,

Book cover of What Happened to Paula: An Unsolved Death and the Danger of American Girlhood

What is my book about?

One summer night in 1970, eighteen-year-old Paula Oberbroeckling left her house in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and didn’t return. Four months later, her body was discovered just beyond the mouth of a culvert adjacent to the Cedar River. Her homicide has never been solved.

Paula’s case had been mostly forgotten when, 50 years later, journalist Katherine Dykstra began looking for answers. What begins as an inverstigation into an unsolved homicide, evolves into a reckoning about all the ways women are at risk in the world, simply by being women. Part true crime, part memoir, What Happened to Paula is a timely and important look at gender, autonomy, and the cost of being a woman.

This Boy's Life

By Tobias Wolff,

Book cover of This Boy's Life: A Memoir

Celebrated author and Stanford professor Tobias Wolff recounts his perilous teenage years in the 1950s Pacific Northwest. Clever, conniving Toby (self-named Jack Wolff) will do whatever it takes to reinvent himself in a memoir full of larger-than-life characters, thrilling events, emotional rollercoasters of betrayals, broken dreams, and hard-won triumphs, all conveyed in prose so lucid that the book has been college assigned for its poetic honesty at the sentence level for decades. Guaranteed you’ll be floored by what it takes for Wolff to ultimately transcend the merciless circumstances of his life. 


Who am I?

Since I began reading seriously (albeit late in life!), I’ve been seduced by the travails of underdog protagonists trying to save their own lives through transformation. If you had told me when I was a teenager—drinking too much, racing muscle cars, and scraping by with Ds and Cs in a vocational high school—that I would end up teaching writing at a university, I would’ve said you were nuts. It wasn’t until I started college in my mid-twenties that I actually read a novel for the pleasure of it. My novel and short story collection are expressions of my cheering on the young underdogs who bravely fight to change their worlds despite all odds.  


I wrote...

Spark and the Drive

By Wayne Harrison,

Book cover of Spark and the Drive

What is my book about?

Justin Bailey is seventeen when he arrives at the shop of legendary muscle car mechanic Nick Campbell. Anguished and out of place among the students at his rural Connecticut high school, Justin finds in Nick, his captivating wife Mary Ann, and their world of miraculous machines the sense of family he has struggled to find at home. But when Nick and Mary Ann's lives are struck by tragedy, Justin's own world is upended. Suddenly Nick has lost his touch. Mary Ann has turned distant. As Justin tries to support his suffering mentor, he finds himself drawn toward the man's grieving wife. Torn apart by feelings of betrayal, Justin must choose between the man he admires more than his own father and the woman he yearns for. 

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit

By Jeanette Winterson,

Book cover of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit

I first read this brilliant coming-of-age book years ago and was unsurprised to hear it had won the Whitbread Award. Fiction, non-fiction, children’s books—Winterson is one of the cleverest, smartest, and (sometimes) funniest authors I’ve ever read. Even using her own name for the main character in Oranges, is inspired; in a recent introduction to the book she speaks of “self-invention” and using herself as a fictional character. Winterson employs fairy tale, legend, and the first eight books of the Bible to tell this story of a girl adopted by a hardline Pentecostal Christian whose aim is to prepare her daughter to be a missionary to the world. Jeanette’s intelligence and curiosity and her so-called “unnatural passions” send her down a very different path.


Who am I?

In the acknowledgments in my novel I mention my late mother “who might have wanted to flee, but didn’t.” My pregnant mother driving eight hours down the Fraser Canyon. Baby me “in a cardboard box” in the front seat, my brothers, armed with pop guns, in the back. My dad, having finally found work, gone ahead alone. We didn’t tell this as a story of her courage and strength. It was considered funny. But after I became a mother, I had a clearer vision of the stress and poverty of my mother’s life. My novel, and the ones I’m recommending, show compassion for women as mothers, and for their children, who are sometimes left behind.


I wrote...

The Very Marrow of Our Bones

By Christine Higdon,

Book cover of The Very Marrow of Our Bones

What is my book about?

On a miserable November day in 1967, two women disappear from a working-class town on the west coast. The community is thrown into panic, with talk of drifters and murderous husbands, but no one can find a trace of Bette Parsons or Alice McFee. Ten-year-old Lulu Parsons discovers something though: a milk-stained note her mother left for her father on the kitchen table. Lulu tells no one and for forty years she uses solitude and detachment to live and cope with her mother loss. Finally, at fifty, Lulu learns she is not the only one who carries a secret.

Hopeful, lyrical, comedic, and intriguingly and lovingly told, the book explores the isolated landscapes and thorny attachments bred by childhood loss and buried secrets.

Farmer in the Sky

By Robert A. Heinlein,

Book cover of Farmer in the Sky

All of Robert Heinlein's YA novels are good (better, in my opinion, than his adult novels), but this one has special meaning for me because it was the first book I ever read about colonizing an uninhabited world. At the time it was published in 1950 I was sixteen and had been enthusiastic about the possibility of space travel for four years, since long before the general public was familiar with it; but all the space fiction I knew of was about mere adventure, usually adventure focused on fighting. The idea that families could someday settle a new planet--and, despite danger and hardship, accomplish something of immense importance to the future of humankind--made a strong impression on me and became one of my deepest convictions.

Who am I?

I’ve always been interested in worlds other than ours, primarily extraterrestrial worlds because I believe expansion into space is vital to the future survival of humankind, but also fantasy worlds that illuminate ideas and feelings that are universal. I’ve written the Newbery Honor book Enchantress from the Stars and ten other science fiction novels, a classification that limits their discovery because they're often liked better by people who read little if any science fiction than by avid fans of that genre. Because they’re set in imaginary worlds distant from Earth—and are not fantasy because they contain no mythical creatures or magic—there is nothing else to call them. I wish books didn’t have to be labeled with categories!


I wrote...

This Star Shall Abide: aka Heritage of the Star

By Sylvia Engdahl,

Book cover of This Star Shall Abide: aka Heritage of the Star

What is my book about?

Noren can see that his world is not as it should beit is wrong that only the Scholars, and their representatives the Technicians, can use metal tools and Machines. It's wrong that only they have access to the impenetrable City, which he has always longed to enter. Above all, it is wrong for the Scholars to have sole power over the distribution of knowledge. Unable to believe in the Prophecy that promises these restrictions will someday end, he declares it to be a fraud and defies the High Lew under which they are enforced. His family and the girl to whom he is betrothed reject him. Yet he cannot turn back from the path that leads him to the mysterious fate awaiting heretics.

Bridge to Terabithia

By Katherine Paterson, Donna Diamond (illustrator),

Book cover of Bridge to Terabithia

The concept of a hidden space away from adults and the problems of everyday life is the enthralling concept behind Bridge to Terabithia. Deep in the woods near their homes, Jess and Leslie share their own imaginary kingdom which they call Terabithia—a place hidden away from the pressures of the world. This coming-of-age tale packs an emotional punch, no matter the age of the reader. I love the magical settings in the book and they directly influenced the way I decided to write my own book.


Who am I?

When I was a child, there was a wooded lot across from my house. All the neighborhood kids gathered there daily after school, running amongst the tall conifers, making forts, and climbing the smaller trees. I begged to be able to play there, but was never allowed. So sometimes, I’d sneak across the street and stand at the edge of the trees and desperately wonder what was within the gloriously dark shadows. There’s just something magical about kids spending time in secret places, away from the cares of the adult world. I'm a Pacific Northwest author, graphic designer, and coffee addict who lives for mysteries of any kind. I'm the author of two YA mystery fiction trilogies, two children's books, and one nonfiction history.


I wrote...

The Incredible Secrets of Hadley Hill

By Tai Stith,

Book cover of The Incredible Secrets of Hadley Hill

What is my book about?

Fifteen-year-old Aribelle Cartwright is uprooted from her native San Francisco when her father gets a job in a different state. Instead of majestic skyscrapers and the urban bustle of the city, Ari has to adjust to the solitude of a rural town. Right away, Ari notices something is curiously different about the hill her historic home resides on. Complicating matters is the aloof boy next door, Dane, who is nearly as mysterious as Hadley Hill itself. Will Ari be able to break through Dane’s cautious demeanor to discover the incredible secrets of Hadley Hill?

Fool's Assassin

By Robin Hobb,

Book cover of Fool's Assassin

Writing at its absolute finest. I adore all the Robin Hobb novels. I revere all her characters, her world building, and her carefully traced storylines she never loses, and never labours. But the Fool, the Fool was my favourite. Ambiguous, indefinable, irresistible, brave, beautiful, and self-sacrificing. The Fool's Assassin is so beautifully crafted from Robin’s words, dancing out from the page in mischief, magic, and melancholy, that you are left feeling like you knew them.


Who am I?

I’ve been a connoisseur of all things terrifying and fantastical since I was 5, and so scared of my Baba Yaga book downstairs I couldn’t sleep. I pursued the delicious fear of a well-written monster through my teens and into adulthood but found that so many books within the horror and fantasy genres are aimed at younger readers. So I wrote the books I wanted to read. I’d always planned to write, but it was developing extreme anxiety that inspired me to nurture my creative side and finally do it. I was having terrible nightmares at the time, and these awful dreams became the central scenes of my novels.


I wrote...

Darkly Dreaming: Book 1 of the Darkly Vampire Trilogy

By Chloe Hammond,

Book cover of Darkly Dreaming: Book 1 of the Darkly Vampire Trilogy

What is my book about?

Darkly Dreaming is for readers who savour rich characters and carefully crafted writing; it’s as much about friendship as it is about vampires. It’s been accused of giving people ‘the feels’. Rae and her best friend Layla have just moved back in together after their marriages ended. They’re busy being violently happy, pretending everything is fine. They stumble into a party infested with vampires.

Infected with the vampire virus, which mutates and distorts their DNA, Rae, and Layla struggle to come to terms with losing their humanity and their old lives, and coming to terms with their strange new gifts. They should be wary in a Pride rife with jealousies and ancient rivalries. They aren’t safe, but will they recognise the threats in time?

Or, view all 101 books about coming of age

New book lists related to coming of age

All book lists related to coming of age

Bookshelves related to coming of age