The Top Coming-of-Age Novels

Mark Twain at his writing desk

Library of Congress / Contributor / Getty Images

In a classic coming-of-age story or novel, the character undergoes adventures and/or inner turmoil in their growth and development as a human being. Some characters come to grips with the reality of cruelty in the world—with war, violence, death, racism, and hatred—while others deal with family, friends, or community issues.

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Great Expectations

Great Expectations cover

Great Expectations is one of the most famous works by Charles Dickens. Philip Pirrip (Pip) narrates the events of years after the episodes occur. The novel also contains some autobiographical elements.

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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Movie Poster
20th Century Fox/Wikimedia Commons

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is now considered an essential part of American literature. As an indispensable classic, ​Betty Smith's book appears ​on reading lists across the country. It has profoundly influenced readers from all walks of life—young and old alike. The ​New York Public Library even chose the book as one of the "Books of the Century."

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Catcher in the Rye

The Catcher in the Rye
Little Brown & Co.

First published in 1951, The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger, details 48 hours in the life of Holden Caulfield. The novel is the only novel-length work by J.D. Salinger, and its history has been colorful (and controversial).

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To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee was popular at the time of its publication, though the book has also encountered censorship battles. The book is considered one of the most influential novels of the 20th century.

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The Red Badge of Courage

The Red Badge of Courage cover

When The Red Badge of Courage was published in 1895, Stephen Crane was a struggling American writer. He was 23. This book made him famous. Crane tells the tale of a young man who is traumatized by his experience in the Civil War.

He hears the crash/roar of battle, sees the men dying all around him, and feels the cannons throwing out their deadly projectiles. It's the story of a young man growing up in the midst of death and destruction, with his whole world turned upside down.

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The Member of the Wedding

The Member of the Wedding cover

In The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers focuses on a young, motherless girl who is in the midst of growing up. The work started out as a short story; the novel-length version was completed in 1945.

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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Portrait of Irish writer James Joyce
Portrait of Irish writer James Joyce. Getty Images/Culture Club/Hulton Archive

First published in the Egoist between 1914 and 1915, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is one of James Joyce's most famous works, as it details the early childhood of Stephen Dedalus in Ireland. The novel is also one of the earliest works to employ stream of consciousness, though the novel is not as revolutionary as Joyce's later masterpiece, Ulysses.

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Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre cover

Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre is a famous romantic novel about an orphaned young girl. She lives with her aunt and cousins and then goes to live in an even more torturous place. Through her lonely (and uncared-for) childhood, she grows up to become a governess and teacher. She eventually finds love and a home for herself.

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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Bedford/St. Martin Press

Originally published in 1884, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, is the journey of a young boy (Huck Finn) down the Mississippi River. Huck encounters thieves, murders, and various adventures and along the way, he also grows up. He makes observations about other people, and he develops a friendship with Jim, a self-liberated enslaved man.

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Lombardi, Esther. "The Top Coming-of-Age Novels." ThoughtCo, Sep. 7, 2021, Lombardi, Esther. (2021, September 7). The Top Coming-of-Age Novels. Retrieved from Lombardi, Esther. "The Top Coming-of-Age Novels." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).