Growing up is hard no matter the circumstances, and teenagehood is a time rife with creative possibility for authors. As a result, the bildungsroman, or novel dealing with a person’s formative years, is one of our most popular forms in fiction. But for some teenagers, coming of age is difficult for more complicated reasons. S.E. Hinton‘s The Outsiders is one of our best-known novels that covers the darker side of young adulthood. Many other authors have written similarly engrossing tales of run-ins with law enforcement and decisions based on family dynamics and cultural expectations that lead to lifelong consequences. In this list, we collected several coming-of-age books like The Outsiders that astutely show the process of growing up in a complex, imperfect world. Publishers’ descriptions are included.
That Was Then, This Is Now by S.E. Hinton
Continue celebrating 50 years of The Outsiders by reading this companion novel. That Was Then, This is Now is S.E. Hinton’s moving portrait of the bond between best friends Bryon and Mark and the tensions that develop between them as they begin to grow up and grow apart.
Rumble Fish by S.E. Hinton
Rusty James wants to be just like his big brother Motorcycle Boy — tough enough to be respected by everyone in the neighborhood. But Motorcycle Boy is also smart, so smart that Rusty James relies on him to bail him out of trouble. The brothers are inseparable, and Motorcycle Boy will always be there to watch his back, so there’s nothing to worry about, right? Or so Rusty James believes, until his world falls apart and Motorcycle Boy isn’t there to pick up the pieces.
From the author of The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton looks into a world where hope is hard to find, and violence is a fact of life.
Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead
Benji Cooper is one of the few black students at an elite prep school in Manhattan. But every summer, Benji escapes to the Hamptons, to Sag Harbor, where a small community of African American professionals have built a world of their own.
The summer of ’85 won’t be without its usual trials and tribulations, of course. There will be complicated new handshakes to fumble through and state-of-the-art profanity to master. Benji will be tested by contests big and small, by his misshapen haircut (which seems to have a will of its own), by the New Coke Tragedy, and by his secret Lite FM addiction. But maybe, just maybe, this summer might be one for the ages.
Dear Martin by Nic Stone
Justyce McAllister is top of his class and set for the Ivy League — but none of that matters to the police officer who just put him in handcuffs. And despite leaving his rough neighborhood behind, he can’t escape the scorn of his former peers or the ridicule of his new classmates.
Justyce looks to the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for answers. But do they hold up anymore? He starts a journal to Dr. King to find out.
Then comes the day Justyce goes driving with his best friend, Manny, windows rolled down, music turned up — way up, sparking the fury of a white off-duty cop beside them. Words fly. Shots are fired. Justyce and Manny are caught in the crosshairs. In the media fallout, it’s Justyce who is under attack.
Monster by Walter Dean Myers
This New York Times bestselling novel from acclaimed author Walter Dean Myers tells the story of Steve Harmon, a teenage boy in juvenile detention and on trial. Presented as a screenplay of Steve’s own imagination, and peppered with journal entries, the book shows how one single decision can change our whole lives.
Monster is a multi-award-winning, provocative coming-of-age story that was the first-ever Michael L. Printz Award recipient, an ALA Best Book, a Coretta Scott King Honor selection, and a National Book Award finalist. In 2016, Monster was turned into a film starring Jennifer Hudson, Kelvin Harrison, Jr., and A$AP Rocky.
The late Walter Dean Myers was a National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, who was known for his commitment to realistically depicting kids from his hometown of Harlem.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
In his first book for young adults, bestselling author Sherman Alexie tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Determined to take his future into his own hands, Junior leaves his troubled school on the rez to attend an all-white farm town high school where the only other Indian is the school mascot. Heartbreaking, funny, and beautifully written, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which is based on the author’s own experiences, coupled with poignant drawings that reflect the character’s art, chronicles the contemporary adolescence of one Native American boy as he attempts to break away from the life he was destined to live.
Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
An ode to Put the Damn Guns Down, this is National Book Award finalist and New York Times bestseller Jason Reynolds’s fiercely stunning novel that takes place in sixty potent seconds — the time it takes a kid to decide whether or not he’s going to murder the guy who killed his brother.
A cannon. A strap.
A piece. A biscuit.
A burner. A heater.
A chopper. A gat.
Or, you can call it a gun. That’s what 15-year-old Will has shoved in the back waistband of his jeans. See, his brother Shawn was just murdered. And Will knows the rules. No crying. No snitching. Revenge. That’s where Will’s now heading, with that gun shoved in the back waistband of his jeans, the gun that was his brother’s gun. He gets on the elevator, seventh floor, stoked. He knows who he’s after. Or does he? As the elevator stops on the sixth floor, on comes Buck. Buck, Will finds out, is who gave Shawn the gun before Will took the gun. Buck tells Will to check that the gun is even loaded. And that’s when Will sees that one bullet is missing. And the only one who could have fired Shawn’s gun was Shawn. Huh. Will didn’t know that Shawn had ever actually USED his gun. Bigger huh. BUCK IS DEAD. But Buck’s in the elevator? Just as Will’s trying to think this through, the door to the next floor opens. A teenage girl gets on, waves away the smoke from Dead Buck’s cigarette. Will doesn’t know her, but she knew him. Knew. When they were eight. And stray bullets had cut through the playground, and Will had tried to cover her, but she was hit anyway, and so what she wants to know, on that fifth floor elevator stop, is, what if Will, Will with the gun shoved in the back waistband of his jeans, MISSES.
And so it goes, the whole long way down, as the elevator stops on each floor, and at each stop someone connected to his brother gets on to give Will a piece to a bigger story than the one he thinks he knows. A story that might never know an END… if WILL gets off that elevator.
Told in short, fierce staccato narrative verse, Long Way Down is a fast and furious, dazzlingly brilliant look at teenage gun violence, as could only be told by Jason Reynolds.
Prep by Jake Coburn
Nick and his friends have everything: expensive clothes, beautiful apartments, rich friends. The island of Manhattan is at their feet. But underneath this picture-perfect world of private schools and private parties lies a gang world filled with drinking, drugs, casual sex, and graffiti. And Nick wants out. He’s had enough of the life, and he’s in love with his best friend, Kris, even though she’s oblivious to his feelings. When Kris’s younger brother becomes a gang target, Nick thinks he can help, even if it means putting his own life at risk.
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
The hero-narrator of The Catcher in the Rye is an ancient child of 16, a native New Yorker named Holden Caulfield. Through circumstances that tend to preclude adult, secondhand description, he leaves his prep school in Pennsylvania and goes underground in New York City for three days.
The boy himself is at once too simple and too complex for us to make any final comment about him or his story. Perhaps the safest thing we can say about Holden is that he was born in the world not just strongly attracted to beauty but, almost, hopelessly impaled on it.
There are many voices in this novel: children’s voices, adult voices, underground voices — but Holden’s voice is the most eloquent of all. Transcending his own vernacular, yet remaining marvelously faithful to it, he issues a perfectly articulated cry of mixed pain and pleasure. However, like most lovers and clowns and poets of the higher orders, he keeps most of the pain to, and for, himself. The pleasure he gives away, or sets aside, with all his heart. It is there for the reader who can handle it to keep.
The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
After suffering rejection from seven major publishers, The Chocolate War made its debut in 1974, and quickly became a bestselling — and provocative — classic for young adults. This chilling portrait of an all-boys prep school casts an unflinching eye on the pitfalls of conformity and corruption in our most elite cultural institutions.
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
“Speak up for yourself — we want to know what you have to say.” From the first moment of her freshman year at Merryweather High, Melinda knows this is a big fat lie, part of the nonsense of high school. She is friendless, outcast, because she busted an end-of-summer party by calling the cops, so now nobody will talk to her, let alone listen to her. As time passes, she becomes increasingly isolated and practically stops talking altogether. Only her art class offers any solace, and it is through her work on an art project that she is finally able to face what really happened at that terrible party: she was raped by an upperclassman, a guy who still attends Merryweather and is still a threat to her. Her healing process has just begun when she has another violent encounter with him. But this time Melinda fights back, refuses to be silent, and thereby achieves a measure of vindication. In Laurie Halse Anderson’s powerful novel, an utterly believable heroine with a bitterly ironic voice delivers a blow to the hypocritical world of high school. She speaks for many a disenfranchised teenager while demonstrating the importance of speaking up for oneself.
Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt
“It’s still true.” That’s the first thing James Tillerman says to his older sister, Dicey, every morning. It’s still true that their mother has abandoned the four Tillermans in a mall parking lot somewhere in the middle of Connecticut. It’s still true that they have to find their own way to Great-aunt Cilla’s house in Bridgeport. It’s still true that they need to spend as little as possible on food and seek shelter anywhere that is out of view of the authorities. It’s still true that the only way they can hope to all stay together is to just keep moving forward.
Deep down, Dicey hopes they can find someone to trust, someone who will take them in and love them. But she’s afraid it’s just too much to hope for…
Drown by Junot Díaz
A coming-of-age story of unparalleled power, Drown introduced the world to Junot Díaz’s exhilarating talents. It also introduced an unforgettable narrator — Yunior, the haunted, brilliant young man who tracks his family’s precarious journey from the barrios of Santo Domingo to the tenements of industrial New Jersey, and their epic passage from hope to loss to something like love. Here is the soulful, unsparing book that made Díaz a literary sensation.
Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes
When Wesley Boone writes a poem for his high school English class, some of his classmates clamor to read their poems aloud too. Soon they’re having weekly poetry sessions and, one by one, the 18 students are opening up and taking on the risky challenge of self-revelation. There’s Lupe Alvarin, desperate to have a baby so she will feel loved. Raynard Patterson, hiding a secret behind his silence. Porscha Johnson, needing an outlet for her anger after her mother OD’s. Through the poetry they share and narratives in which they reveal their most intimate thoughts about themselves and one another, their words and lives show what lies beneath the skin, behind the eyes, beyond the masquerade.
Notes from the Midnight Driver by Jordan Sonnenblick
“Alex Peter Gregory, you are a moron!” Laurie slammed her palms down on my desk and stomped her foot. I get a lot of that.
One car crash.
One measly little car crash. And suddenly, I’m some kind of convicted felon.
My parents are getting divorced, my dad is shacking up with my third-grade teacher, I might be in love with a girl who could kill me with one finger, and now I’m sentenced to babysit some insane old guy.
What else could possibly go wrong?
This is the story of Alex Gregory, his guitar, his best gal pal Laurie, and the friendship of a lifetime that he never would have expected.
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
An American classic and great bestseller for over 30 years, A Separate Peace is timeless in its description of adolescence during a period when the entire country was losing its innocence to World War II.
Set at a boys’ boarding school in New England during the early years of World War II, A Separate Peace is a harrowing and luminous parable of the dark side of adolescence. Gene is a lonely, introverted intellectual. Phineas is a handsome, taunting, daredevil athlete. What happens between the two friends one summer, like the war itself, banishes the innocence of these boys and their world.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
16-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.
Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.
But what Starr does — or does not — say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
The bestselling coming-of-age classic, acclaimed by critics, beloved by readers of all ages, taught in schools and universities alike, and translated around the world.
The House on Mango Street is the remarkable story of Esperanza Cordero, a young Latina girl growing up in Chicago, inventing for herself who and what she will become. Told in a series of vignettes — sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes deeply joyous — Sandra Cisneros’ masterpiece is a classic story of childhood and self-discovery. Few other books in our time have touched so many readers.
Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid
Annie John is a haunting and provocative story of a young girl growing up on the island of Antigua. A classic coming-of-age story in the tradition of The Catcher in the Rye and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Kincaid’s novel focuses on a universal, tragic, and often comic theme: the loss of childhood. Annie’s voice — urgent, demanding to be heard — is one that will not soon be forgotten by readers.
An adored only child, Annie has until recently lived an idyllic life. She is inseparable from her beautiful mother, a powerful presence, who is the very center of the little girl’s existence. Loved and cherished, Annie grows and thrives within her mother’s benign shadow. Looking back on her childhood, she reflects, “It was in such a paradise that I lived.” When she turns 12, however, Annie’s life changes, in ways that are often mysterious to her. She begins to question the cultural assumptions of her island world; at school she instinctively rebels against authority; and most frighteningly, her mother, seeing Annie as a “young lady,” ceases to be the source of unconditional adoration and takes on the new and unfamiliar guise of adversary. At the end of her school years, Annie decides to leave Antigua and her family, but not without a measure of sorrow, especially for the mother she once knew and never ceases to mourn. “For I could not be sure,” she reflects, “whether for the rest of my life I would be able to tell when it was really my mother and when it was really her shadow standing between me and the rest of the world.”
I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez
Perfect Mexican daughters do not go away to college. And they do not move out of their parents’ house after high school graduation. Perfect Mexican daughters never abandon their family.
But Julia is not your perfect Mexican daughter. That was Olga’s role.
Then a tragic accident on the busiest street in Chicago leaves Olga dead and Julia left behind to reassemble the shattered pieces of her family. And no one seems to acknowledge that Julia is broken, too. Instead, her mother seems to channel her grief into pointing out every possible way Julia has failed.
But it’s not long before Julia discovers that Olga might not have been as perfect as everyone thought. With the help of her best friend Lorena, and her first kiss, first love, first everything boyfriend Connor, Julia is determined to find out. Was Olga really what she seemed? Or was there more to her sister’s story? And either way, how can Julia even attempt to live up to a seemingly impossible ideal?
All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
In an unforgettable new novel from award-winning authors Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, two teens — one black, one white — grapple with the repercussions of a single violent act that leaves their school, their community, and, ultimately, the country bitterly divided by racial tension.
A bag of chips. That’s all 16-year-old Rashad is looking for at the corner bodega. What he finds instead is a fist-happy cop, Paul Galluzzo, who mistakes Rashad for a shoplifter, mistakes Rashad’s pleadings that he’s stolen nothing for belligerence, mistakes Rashad’s resistance to leave the bodega as resisting arrest, mistakes Rashad’s every flinch at every punch the cop throws as further resistance and refusal to STAY STILL as ordered. But how can you stay still when someone is pounding your face into the concrete pavement?
But there were witnesses: Quinn Collins — a varsity basketball player and Rashad’s classmate who has been raised by Paul since his own father died in Afghanistan — and a video camera. Soon the beating is all over the news and Paul is getting threatened with accusations of prejudice and racial brutality. Quinn refuses to believe that the man who has basically been his savior could possibly be guilty. But then Rashad is absent. And absent again. And again. And the basketball team — half of whom are Rashad’s best friends — start to take sides. As does the school. And the town. Simmering tensions threaten to explode as Rashad and Quinn are forced to face decisions and consequences they had never considered before.
Written in tandem by two award-winning authors, this tour de force shares the alternating perspectives of Rashad and Quinn as the complications from that single violent moment, the type taken from the headlines, unfold and reverberate to highlight an unwelcome truth.
Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen
In his Napra Nautilus Award-winning novel Touching Spirit Bear, author Ben Mikaelson delivers a poignant coming-of-age story of a boy who must overcome the effects that violence has had on his life.
After severely injuring Peter Driscal in an empty parking lot, mischief-maker Cole Matthews is in major trouble. But instead of jail time, Cole is given another option: attend Circle Justice, an alternative program that sends juvenile offenders to a remote Alaskan Island to focus on changing their ways. Desperate to avoid prison, Cole fakes humility and agrees to go.
While there, Cole is mauled by a mysterious white bear and left for dead. Thoughts of his abusive parents, helpless Peter, and his own anger cause him to examine his actions and seek redemption — from the spirit bear that attacked him, from his victims, and from himself.
What’s the best coming-of-age novel you’ve ever read? Tell us in the comments!