Like The Catcher in the Rye, but with more cannibalism

The coming-of-age novel (or Bildungsroman, if you want to be fancy about it), is very popular, but there are so many disappointing and forgettable examples in the genre that just reheat the same old stew, blurring together in a checklist of clichés: carefree young person lives in blissful innocence of the dangers/complexities/injustices of the world around them, experiences an eye-opening event that shatters this innocence and changes them irrevocably, catapulting them into the burdensome weight of adulthood.


We’ve all read the classic coming-of-age novels; the ones they make you read in school: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, The House on Mango Street, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, etc, and those are all fine books, but my schoolgirl days are long behind me, and I like my coming-of-age books to have a little something different—something dark or unexpected, something that transcends the typical coming-of-age template.

Here are ten of them that do just that.

When We Were Animals

A small Midwestern town has a longstanding traditional rite of passage: during every full moon, all of its pubescent teenagers “breach;” they are compelled to run wild, performing acts of violence, vandalism and sexual abandon, helpless to resist until the sun comes up. All except Lumen, that is, who is stubbornly resisting this transition. It’s fabulism, but it’s still a shockingly perfect depiction of adolescence.

Lullabies for Little Criminals

12 year old Baby and her dad live in Montreal where her wide-eyed insouciance propels her through the streets full of pimps and junkies unscathed. Jules was 15 when Baby was born, so their relationship is more like best friends than father/daughter, and with his heroin habit and mental illness, Baby is by far the more capable of the two. With her mix of giddy innocence and old soul wisdom, Baby’s is a phenomenal POV.

Bones & All

Maren has one character flaw: whenever someone feels affection for her, she eats them. Oops! Her first meal was the babysitter; her mother returned home to a pile of bones on the floor and part of an ear in her baby’s mouth. She leaves Maren on her own when she turns 16, sending her on a quest to find her father, with whom she may have some things in common. Adventures ensue. It sounds dark, but it’s funny. Promise.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home

No fantasy here, nor is the situation all that unusual, but it’s my favorite C.O.A. novel ever, and it’s my list, so ppblt! This is the sad, sweet story of a lonely girl named June growing up in the late 80’s whose beloved uncle Finn has just died of a new disease called AIDS. When June meets Finn’s friend Toby, they bond over their grief and form a friendship that celebrates Finn’s life and heals their own. Tissues.

Perfect Peace

Perfect is a pampered 8 year old girl when she is told she’s biologically male. Her mother wanted a daughter so badly that after 6 sons in a row, she decided to raise the seventh as a girl, until the lie became impossible to sustain. In a rural black community in1940’s Arkansas, Perfect, now Paul, must navigate expectations of masculinity and sacrifice the special privilege of being a daughter. And many worse things.

Every Heart a Doorway

Not precisely C.O.A., but C.O.A.-adjacent, this book is about a therapeutic school for children who have gone through portals to fantasy worlds and returned against their wills; completely unsuited for living in the “real” world and yearning to return to the only place that ever felt like home to them. It doesn’t dwell overmuch on “life lessons learned,” but it’s a perfect depiction of the alienation of adolescence.

The Last Days of California

Road trip to The Rapture! An evangelical family travels from their home in Alabama to California, where the Second Coming is scheduled to take place. However, their two teenage daughters, one secretly pregnant, lack religious zeal, and the story is an emotional road trip through Jess’ 15 year old unpregnant eyes as she stares out the window pondering life, faith, family and self with unusual clarity and sensitivity.

Golden Boy

Max is 16, intersex, and a rape victim. Before the assault, he’d been a happy, normal ‘golden’ boy, but the attack and its consequences send him and his family into an emotional and psychological tailspin as they are forced to address a situation they’d avoided until now. The rape scene may be too graphic for some readers, but if you can get past that, it’s a powerful story of family and secrets and identity.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

On her 9th birthday, Rose Edelstein discovers she has a palate so sensitive she can taste the emotions of whomever prepared her food, and her lemon-flavored birthday cake reveals her seemingly happy mother’s sorrow and dissatisfaction. A quirky-sweet-saddish family story that offers a unique spin on the C.O.A. convention of a young character’s dawning awareness of the emotional complexities and nuances of others.

The Age of Miracles

An ordinary C.O.A. story set against an extraordinary backdrop, this book depicts a suburban Californian family’s experiences when the Earth’s rotation begins to slow, causing disruption in gravity, changes in electromagnetic fields, dead crops and animals. Amidst these global changes, 11 year old Julia is an observer to the strain in her parents’ relationship, while experiencing her own growing pains and awareness.

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