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Coming-of-age novels: three questions

Pat sent me a list of 11 classic coming-of-age novels. I’ve read 7 of the 11 (only saw the movie of another); Pat can account for 7-1/2.

The ones I’m familiar with are great books everybody will probably encounter at some time, and some may (at the right moment) even be life-changing, as the article claims. But I also noticed the whole list is from another age.

Where’s The Giver? And The Chocolate War? And The Hunger Games trilogy? Not to mention quite a few others, both modern and classic.

For that matter, what constitutes a coming-of-age novel? I never thought of Catch-22 (on the original list) in that context even though I first read it at 14. OTOH, I could make a serious case that The Lord of the Rings trilogy is the greatest coming-of-age fiction of all time, despite the protagonist being a 50-year-old hobbit.

So how about you?

* What makes a great coming-of-age novel?

* How many on the original list of 11 have you read?

* And what’s missing from that list and why should it be on there?


  1. jed
    jed September 16, 2015 11:11 am

    “Coming of age” would mean different things to different people. Classically, it would be coming to terms with facing life as an adult. Lots of military fiction could fit this bill, but I don’t think Catch-22 does.

    Read: Lord of the Flies

    Saw the movie:
    – Catch-22
    – World According to Garp
    – One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest

    Don’t think One Flew fits either.

  2. Bear
    Bear September 16, 2015 12:07 pm

    Frankly, I’d add some real SF to the list. Heinlein’s Red Planet and Tunnel In the Sky come to mind. His other ‘juveniles’ could be on the list, but I think those two do it best.

  3. A.G.
    A.G. September 16, 2015 12:18 pm

    Only 2/11. I do want to read “On The Road”. Preferably when I’m about to take an extended road trip into unknown (to me) regions.

  4. MamaLiberty
    MamaLiberty September 16, 2015 12:29 pm

    I can’t even imagine any kind of “one size fits all” list. Too many variables. On this list, there are only two that I’ve read. To Kill a Mockingbird was likely required reading in school at some point, but I don’t remember anything about it. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is much more memorable, since it gave me some insight into city living, though I don’t remember any details of the story. Need to look it up and read it again.

    What to add to a “list?” The LOTR stories, definitely. Heinlein, of course. Seems to me that the most valuable lists would be compiled by parents for their children, to pass along what they have learned. As or more important would be encouraging them to explore all of the possibilities for themselves.

  5. Lard
    Lard September 16, 2015 12:44 pm

    I guess I don’t have the same definition of “coming of age novel” as the author of that piece. I would define it, similar to Jed, as the loss of juvenile innocence upon entry into the adult world. And from that perspective I don’t think that, other than A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, any of those books would qualify (although, to be fair, I haven’t read them all).

    I agree with Bear that some of Heinlein’s “juveniles” should be on the list.

  6. A.G.
    A.G. September 16, 2015 12:46 pm

    I will add that two books I picked up at random at around age 19/20 had significant impacts, and not just because they renewed my interest in reading after four years of being force fed dreck like “Ethan Frome”. “David Copperfield” and “Starship Troopers” were magic and alive. Dickens was a familiar household name and his coming of age novel hit me emotionally. Heinlein’s name was unknown to me, but the intellectual seeds planted have since shaped several areas of my life. Protagonists of both works were males roughly my age and wrestling with similar life questions.

  7. Pat
    Pat September 16, 2015 12:48 pm

    As I told Claire, I think “RebelFire: Out Of The Grey Zone”*Version*=1&*entries*=0 should be on that list (though the author probably has not read it). It is a coming-of-age book for modern times – for the world as we know it, and what young adults may/will have to face in the future. No one can live in this world today without being aware of the politically-dangerous influence on his or her life.

    (By the way, through Claire’s link, Amazon has almost priced the book out of sales reach – and frequently couldn’t find the book at all. What’s that all about?)

  8. Joel
    Joel September 16, 2015 1:16 pm

    Gah, lists like this remind me of how unread I remain after all these years. I’ve read 3 of the eleven and haven’t even heard of at least that many. To Kill A Mockingbird was required reading at some point, I think, but I remember loving it. I’ve read Catch-22, and if that’s a ‘coming of age’ book I’d need to know which age Ann Brenoff wants us to come to. Ditto Johnny Got His Gun, which was a horrifying anti-war novel but a ‘coming of age’ novel? In what way?

    I think of a coming of age novel as books about or relevant to kids becoming adults. That may be simpleminded, but I always assumed that was what the phrase meant. Red Planet comes to mind, but Brenoff is as unlikely to have read it as she is to have read Rebelfire – which I agree would be another good choice. “Summer of ’42” would be a good one, if it had started as a novel.

  9. Pat
    Pat September 16, 2015 1:51 pm

    BTW, I once read someone thought “The Catcher in the Rye” was a coming-of-age novel. I remember thinking, “Oh, god, I hope not!”

  10. Claire
    Claire September 16, 2015 1:56 pm

    I’m surprised nobody’s mentioned The Catcher in the Rye yet, but I love the variety of titles already coming up. I’d have never thought of David Copperfield, for one.

    Pat, thanks for the recommendation of RebelFire. 🙂 I can’t say exactly what’s going on with Amazon, but since the only remaining brand-new, never-sold copies of the book are in boxes in the back of my house, I take it everybody’s just selling their used or stashed copies of RF at Amazon.

    If anybody wants an autographed copy, they’re available from me via the Zelman Partisans’ store, with a share of the proceeds going to TZP.

  11. Claire
    Claire September 16, 2015 2:00 pm

    “I would define it, similar to Jed, as the loss of juvenile innocence upon entry into the adult world.”

    Amen to that. The loss of innocence and the dawning of maturity and independence.

    I agree that Cuckoo’s Nest doesn’t fit that description — except for Chief Bromden’s ultimate escape from his dependency and passivity in the mental ward. He’s no kid, but he does finally grow up.

  12. Claire
    Claire September 16, 2015 2:03 pm

    … force fed dreck like “Ethan Frome”…

    I loved Ethan Frome! Tried to read it again later and couldn’t. (Once you know the ending you can never forget it or see the events the same way again.) But loved it when I was a teenager.

  13. Claire
    Claire September 16, 2015 2:06 pm

    Oh. Pat. Looks like someone (you) DID mention Catcher — just as I was writing that.

    When I was a teenager, everything J.D. Salinger wrote struck me as being a coming-of-age story. Gads, I loved his writing — though Catcher wasn’t a favorite. Looking back, I realize Salinger only seemed so in tune with high school and college-age readers because he himself never really grew up, in a sense.

  14. JP
    JP September 16, 2015 2:07 pm

    I’d include El Neil’s Pallas & The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman.

    Just remember about Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Those are good too.

  15. jc2k
    jc2k September 16, 2015 2:41 pm

    I’ve come to regard internet lists as complete B.S. Half the time the title is just clickbait with no effort put into the content. While everyone would probably have their own list, it seems kind of random to have something like ‘Catch-22’ (which I loved but isn’t coming-of-age) but not ‘Catcher in the Rye’. My list would have also included ‘Look Homeward, Angel’.

  16. LarryA
    LarryA September 16, 2015 3:49 pm

    * What makes a great coming-of-age novel?
    Other than the ’70s subgenre, where “coming of age” = “first getting laid” it’s a story about becoming an adult. What makes it “great” is universality, telling a story most young people can relate to. Thus I wouldn’t include The Fault in our Stars, due to it’s limited “kids about to die of cancer” viewpoint.
    In this list, that would disqualify the war novels, Cuckoo, and the adult road trip books.
    * How many on the original list of 11 have you read?
    I was an older generation, growing up on Old Yeller, Johnny Tremain, April Morning, etc. And the last two were war; but from a kid’s view, not a soldier’s; and war here not over there.
    Of course Heinlein: Misfit, Rocket Ship Galileo, Red Planet, The Menace from Earth, Farmer in the Sky, Have Space Suit-Will Travel, Podkayne of Mars, Starship Troopers. (I can see my bookshelf, they’re still there.)
    I had a set of “Junior Classics,” and still remember Kipling’s stories, and The Lance of Kanana.
    Catcher left me cold, I just couldn’t relate. Lord was interesting, but I couldn’t see how it applied to my life at that naïve age.
    * And what’s missing from that list and why should it be on there?
    Books? Not sure. I don’t think I’d include the spate of dystopian YA series like Hunger Games because of my previous objection to non-universality. At the movies, however, look no further than Pixar. Inside Out, Brave, WALL-E, Ratatouille, Monsters Inc., Toy Story.

  17. A.G.
    A.G. September 16, 2015 6:56 pm

    Great posting, LarryA.

    …I loved Ethan Frome!…


    So there.

  18. Mac the Knife
    Mac the Knife September 16, 2015 7:12 pm

    “Right of Passage” by Alexei Panshin. My favorite.

  19. MacBeth51
    MacBeth51 September 17, 2015 4:21 am

    “The Outsiders” by Hinton. If you’ve never read it, you should

  20. Thomas L. Knapp
    Thomas L. Knapp September 17, 2015 5:02 am

    Heinlein’s juveniles. If I could only pick one for this particular list, it would probably be Farmer in the Sky.

    Wolfe/Zelman’s Rebel Fire: Out of the Grey Zone.

    Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother.

    Spider Robinson’s Night of Power.

    Gustav Hasford’s The Short-Timers (better known to movie fans as “Full Metal Jacket”).

    Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash.

    Some of them are loosely defined as they are not ENTIRELY “coming of age” novels, but all of them have significant “coming of age” plot lines and theme angles.

  21. R.L. Wurdack
    R.L. Wurdack September 17, 2015 6:46 am

    I agree with all the above, or most of it, anyway.

    I don’t know if it’s a book, but the movie “”Breaking Away”” fits my definition.

  22. Matt, another
    Matt, another September 17, 2015 9:22 am

    I have read 7 of those 11. Didn’t make much of an impression except for the fact that they were good literature. My coming of age books included the collected works of Louis L’amour, April Morning, Johnny Tremain (read when I was 10), All Quiet on the Western Front, A Seperate Peace and the Bible. I was and still am an eclectic reader, mostly staying away from required reading or anything recommended by groups of people.

  23. Lard
    Lard September 17, 2015 9:33 am

    JP, coincidentally, I am just now reading Pallas (for the first time) and was thinking it might belong on this list.

  24. Paul Bonneau
    Paul Bonneau September 17, 2015 3:15 pm

    If “Coming of age” means “had an impact when you were in your teens”, then “Catch 22” is definitely on the list. Also John Barth’s “Giles Goat-Boy” and “The Tin Drum” by Gunter Grass. I read “Lord of the Flies” but hated it. “Starship Troopers” and “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” belongs for sure, along with the juvenile books. “Catcher in the Rye” was assigned in school and it was a big nothing for me; can’t remember it.

    Some on that list made great movies but I didn’t read them.

  25. Eric Oppen
    Eric Oppen September 17, 2015 5:46 pm

    Hi, Claire! I lurk a lot these days, but I’m still out here!

    One very good series along the lines you are talking about is the “Tomorrow” series by John Marsden. I reviewed them some while ago for TLE.

    Over the course of ten books, Ellie Linton, a rural Australian girl, goes from being a fairly commonplace teen (albeit one who, having grown up on what we’d call a ranch or a farm—I’m not clear about this point) is pretty competent, into a full adult in all ways save the right to vote. Of course, living through and fighting against an invasion of your country, with nothing but a pack of your school friends to help (the adults have all been rounded up; the kids escaped because they were on a camping trip) does tend to do that. At the end of the books, she’s still recognizably the same Ellie, but changed by war and trouble into an adult.

  26. Dana
    Dana September 19, 2015 3:36 pm

    I’m going to go out on a limb and mention Augustine’s Confessions.

    I mention it only because a local teen in my neighborhood considered it the greatest “coming of age” thing he’d ever read and was of the opinion that every high-school teenager ought to read it.

    I’d otherwise assumed that it would have been read under only the utmost of “this is a required assignment” duress.

  27. rodger moore
    rodger moore September 22, 2015 10:10 am

    Late on the subject.
    Captain’s Courageous by Kipling.
    Henry Martin by L. Neil.
    Citizen of the Galaxy by R.A. Hienlien.

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