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Coming-of-Age Novels

Arts & Lit | By Nicholas for The Top 13 on December 9, 2009

The coming-of-age novel or "bildungsroman" could be the single most ubiquitous genre of modern literature. You may have read a number of The Top 13 throughout your adolescence, but many of these coming-of-age stories deserve a second look with the added wisdom gained by surviving the tribulations of your teenage years. We took an expansive view as to what qualifies as a novel and, accordingly, you'll find a novella, a graphic novel, and a series of books among the many more traditional novels ranked below.

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J.D. Salinger - The Catcher in the Rye


J.D. Salinger - The Catcher in the Rye


There is simply no other novel that could possibly top this list. Salinger's masterpiece has practically become the definition of the coming-of-age novel, and has been both censored and praised since the day it was printed. In the words of the novel's iconic protagonist Holden Caufield, The Top 13 would have been a "phony" not to put this novel at number one.

James Joyce - Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man


James Joyce - Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man


Much like Holden Caufield, Joyce's alter-ego in Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus, is a rebel. Unlike Caufield, Dedalus' rebellions are small and subtle, almost imperceptible. In the end, though, Joyce/Dedalus' transformation is every bit as earth-shattering. All that aside, it's just really good. This is also Joyce's most accessible work, particularly when compared to his most well-known novel, Ulysses.

J.K. Rowling - The Harry Potter Series


J.K. Rowling - The Harry Potter Series


Groan if you must, naysayers, but this is the modern coming-of-age tale. Rowling certainly does not have the prosaic prowess of a Joyce or a Salinger, but in ten years and seven books, she has followed the growth of three characters from childhood to maturity in unbelievably lush detail – paralleling her primary audience's lives. Harry Potter is a cultural phenomenon and a work of literature which should not be ignored; it is human drama in the trappings of epic fantasy.

Alain-Fournier - Le Grand Meaulnes


Alain-Fournier - Le Grand Meaulnes


Universally beloved by the select few who've read it on this side of the Atlantic, this is the French analog to A Separate Peace and Catcher In The Rye. It is required reading at every école-secondaire across France. Le Grand Meaulnes is unflinchingly romantic, beautiful, and nostalgic; in other words, it's French. Translated numerous times into English, this book has been alternately titled The Wanderer and The Lost Estate.

Jeffry Eugenides - The Virgin Suicides


Jeffry Eugenides - The Virgin Suicides


One of the most evocative debut novels of the nineties, The Virgin Suicides portends to be about the titular virginal sisters, but in fact follows the nameless male narrators on their journey to adulthood. This is a tale of sexual-awakening and suburban ennui that has a place on every American bookshelf.

Donna Tartt - The Secret History


Donna Tartt - The Secret History


Labeled a "murder mystery in reverse" by New York Times critic A.O. Scott, The Secret History may not seem like a coming-of-age novel on the surface, but appearances can be deceiving: This is a novel preoccupied with the notion of an extended childhood for the wealthy and the process of finding and creating one's self in college. It also happens to be spectacular.

Harper Lee - To Kill a Mockingbird


Harper Lee - To Kill a Mockingbird


No, Truman Capote didn't write it. Yes, this Pulitzer Prize winning novel is every bit as great as you remember it, and Scout may just be the best young character ever written. Although Capote didn't write it, he did play a role in its creation. To Kill a Mockingbird is at least loosely based on people and events from Lee's childhood, including her father, an attorney who unsuccessfully defended two black men accused of murder. Capote (then known as Truman Parsons) was Lee's neighbor and was so close to her that the character of Dill was based on him.

Kazuo Ishiguro - Never Let Me Go


Kazuo Ishiguro - Never Let Me Go


To say too much about this subtle piece of genre subversion from the Booker Prize winning author of The Remains of the Day risks ruining some of the pleasure for a first-time reader, but the twists really aren't what make this remarkably assured coming-of-age tale so haunting. This is a book that transcends any genre classification; while it's typically referred to as a coming-of-age story, it also includes elements of science fiction, mystery, and British boarding school tales.

John Knowles - A Separate Peace


John Knowles - A Separate Peace


Ignore the fact that in high school your sophomore English teacher tried to shove this novel down your throat. Just put your preconceptions aside and reread A Separate Peace. When you do, you'll find a remarkably contemporary poem of a novel. With its languid pacing and allegoric plot, A Separate Peace will seem far more powerful without the looming threat of a pop-quiz.

Cormac McCarthy - Blood Meridian


Cormac McCarthy - Blood Meridian


Cormac McCarthy's two most disturbingly violent novels (this one, the full name of which is Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West , and The Road) also focus on the youngest of his protagonists. While that might seem misanthropic, in a way it makes sense: Adolescence is an extremely trying period in anyone's life, and both characters are unnamed everymen ("The Kid" in Blood Meridian and "Son" or "Boy" in The Road). Let's just say that "The Kid" has an extremely trying adolescence, one which makes for an amazing, not to mention affecting, read.

Charles Burns - Black Hole


Charles Burns - Black Hole


The best graphic novel of the past decade also happens to be one of the best bildungsroman of all time. Equal parts Dazed and Confused and Halloween, author/artist Charles Burns has a specific knack for turning genre conventions on their head. At the end of the day, though, his overarching message in this story about the repeated transmission of a horribly disfiguring sexually transmitted disease is pretty classic: Being a teenager sucks.

Charles Dickens - David Copperfield


Charles Dickens - David Copperfield


Just as no list of coming-of-age novels could leave off The Catcher In The Rye, none would be complete without the novel that, for all intents and purposes, invented the bildungsroman: David Copperfield. But make no mistake, this isn't on the list solely out of obligation. David Copperfield is a stunning novel that rivals Dickens' best work.

Philip Roth - Goodbye, Columbus


Philip Roth - Goodbye, Columbus


This story about two young Jews in love and lust launched Roth's career and won him the National Book Award, and it remains one of his strongest works. In the most grandiose of terms, this novella (found in a short story collection by the same name) can be read as an allegory about ethnic identity and assimilation in an America on the verge of a cultural revolution. But in its quietest moments, it reveals itself to be a portrait of that first, fumbling, serious relationship every young adult seems predestined to experience.

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Comments Leave a comment


Hmm, I've not heard of this Catcher in the Rye... must check it out...

8:34 AM   Dec 09, 2009

ajay ★★

I seriously just finished The Virgin Suicides last Tuesday. Easily one of my favorite books.
But I made the mistake of seeing Chapter 27, a terrible movie about John Lennon's assassin, right before starting Catcher in the Rye, and I refused to read it because it just made me think of the movie. Not ideal conditions. I'll probably start it back up soon, though.
And props for including Harry Potter.

11:18 AM   Dec 09, 2009


Bolano's The Savage Detectives belongs on the list, but admittedly, it will take time for its following to grow.

1:39 PM   Dec 09, 2009


Definitely agree with The Catcher in the Rye at #1 (also one of my favorite books of all time, though the style unfortunately turns off a lot of people who would actually like the rest of what Salinger wrote). However, I hate that its brilliance is so often followed by the cheap qualification that Holden is just an exemplification of teenage angstiness. Holden may be uncomfortable and angry in the way teenagers tend to be, but his complaints are 99% valid and spot-on, and I think the fact that he does not alter his viewpoint (though he does modify his philosophy) by the book's end shows that Salinger never intended him to be some bratty archetype. I really think he's a good guy.

A thousand thank you's for including Harry Potter. You and I and many others of our general age group literally grew up with this story, and the progression of the characters, plot, and writing style (i.e., Rowling kept getting better) make it the perfect series to read sequentially as you age.

Oddly, To Kill A Mockingbird is not one I thought would make the list. Not one of my favorites, but as far as its examination of childhood - yes, good choice.

Laughed out loud at your bit on A Separate Peace, even though I did not have Mr. Fast. I don't think I liked this book, but I honestly don't remember, so I will give it the benefit of the doubt until I reread.

Sadly, those are the only ones I've read! Portrait is coming up in AP English, The Virgin Suicides is on my list to read soon, and the rest I will check out (before I come of age, oh no it fast approaches)!

10:05 PM   Jan 20, 2010


this is a boyfest.

To Kill a Mockingbird, ok. Never Let Me Go, blah-di-blah. But the rest is a super boyfest. And Virgin Suicides doesn't count, because it makes girls its object, not its subject.

Where oh where oh where are the young women?

Somebody please.

9:57 AM   Apr 27, 2010


Sorry, bananafisher to add another 'boyfest'... But "A Separate Peace" should be on this's not enough to mention it in the same breath as "Le Grand Meaulnes" and "Catcher" and then leave it out. Harry Potter (sorry tyrante; get out more) has no mitt in this game.

2:43 PM   Mar 05, 2011


Well Secret History is surprise entry :) Still the list misses out classics like How Green Was My Valley, Angela's Ashes, Painted House (Yeah, It's a Classic by John Grisham :) ), A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and so on :)

8:55 PM   Aug 09, 2011

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