My wife is an English teacher at Bethesda-Chevy Chase high school in Maryland, and this summer her students are supposed to read a coming-of-age novel. That assignment got me thinking about what titles I might recommend. As many critics have noted, American literature has long been preoccupied with stories about children and teens confronting the world. (Blame Mark Twain.) Looking at the shelves around my desk, I’m surprised by just how many wonderful novels describe young people pushed too early from their homes, doing their best to figure out how to survive, how to live. Here are 10 that I enjoyed recently:
Arcadia, by Lauren Groff. In this poignant novel, a young man named Bit Stone is raised on a failing commune in New York. As Bit grows up and moves away, he isn’t naive enough to think his parents’ hippie community could have survived, but he can’t shake the hopeful story that spawned him, that edenic sense of harmony.
Canada, by Richard Ford. Dell is just 15 when his foolish parents try to rob a bank in Montana. They quickly get arrested, convicted and sent to prison. Afraid of being taken into social services, Dell flees to Canada where he’s placed under the care of a manipulative, cowardly guardian.
The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern. In this magical novel, two old wizards pit their favorite students against each other in a contest that goes on for yeas. But what happens when their students fall in love?
Once Upon a River, by Bonnie Jo Campbell. After 15-year-old Margo is raped by her uncle, she travels up the Stark River on her grandfather’s boat. She has vague plans of finding her mother, but mostly she wants to live in peace, eating what she can catch and sleeping where she can, outside the range of the law, school or social workers.
Rage Is Back, by Adam Mansbach. Kilroy Dondi Vance, “a mocha teenager” with a funkadelic soul, has just been expelled from a tony Manhattan prep school when he learns that his fugitive father has come back to New York to conduct a graffiti bombing the city will never forget.
The Round House, by Louise Erdrich. Thirteen-year-old Joe tries to catch the man who raped his mother near the round house, a structure used for sacred ceremonies on the Ojibwe reservation. This is part of Erdrich’s remarkable ongoing series, but it stands on its own. Winner of the 2012 National Book Award.
Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward. In the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, 14-year-old Esch realizes she’s pregnant. Without her mother, and with a father who moves clumsily along the edge of their lives, Esch struggles to figure out what love is. Can it be the ache she feels for a boy who rejects her? Can it be the sense of care she feels for her elfin youngest sibling? Or is true love closer to what her older brother feels for his pit bull? Winner of the 2011 National Book Award.
The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet, by Reif Larsen. I said “recent,” but I’m reaching back to 2009 here for this novel’s unusual graphic element. Comically precocious, 12-year-old TS is on a secret trek from Montana to the Smithsonian in Washington. He speaks in a mixture of Victorian formality and eighth-grade goofiness while diagraming and annotating everything around him. His antique-looking drawings fill the margins of this book, mixing the graphic intensity of Nick Bantock’s “Griffin & Sabine” with the ironic footnotes of Dave Eggers.
The Son, by Philipp Meyer. I’m cheating here, too: Only parts of this long historical novel about Texas have anything to do with coming of age, but it’s just too good to pass up: In 1846, Eli McCullough’s father moves his family past the line of settlement into the Comanche hunting grounds. What follows is a spectacular captivity narrative: the harrowing report of a boy adopted into an Indian band, absorbed into a doomed nomadic culture that he learns to adore.
Swamplandia!, by Karen Russell. When their mother dies and their father is called away, three teenage siblings are determined to save each other and the family’s alligator theme park. Russell has perfected a tone of deadpan wit and imperiled innocence.
When I was teaching English, I always tried to use summer reading assignments as a chance to introduce students to current fiction. After all the time we’d spent in the classroom reading old books, I wanted to help them find new novels they might enjoy — something beyond airport thrillers and teen romances. (Not that there’s anything wrong with those.) Sophisticated high school students could handle any of novels on this list, although some of these books contain language and sexual content that might run afoul of public school standards for approved titles. Consult your local censors.
If you’ve got a favorite coming-of-age novel to recommend, tell us about it here in the comments section.