With the 23rd World Book Day, organized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), taking place on April 23, it’s time to refocus one’s attention to the novels that have shaped and accompanied one through life.
Let’s have a look at those books, that showed young adolescents and students that they are not alone in growing up. The coming-of-age story, the so-called Bildungsroman in German, has been a popular genre for over a decade. Here are ten of the best coming-of-age novels for students and book lovers, those that you should really read at some point in your life:
“The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger
One of the ultimate classics. If people speak of the coming-of-age novel, The Catcher in the Rye is what pops up automatically in everybody’s mind. The book was written in 1951 by American author J.D. Salinger. Although originally aimed at adults, it’s popular among adolescent readers for its themes of teenage angst, alienation, innocence, identity, belonging, loss, and connection.
The story follows teenage Holden Caulfield, as he wanders through New York after being kicked out of school, evading his parents and making plans of running away into the wild. The book still has a strong influence on modern day culture and has been referenced in film, television, literature, music and video games.
“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky
Written by American writer Stephen Chbosky in 1999, the story is set in the early 90s. It chronicles the life of Charlie, an introverted teenager. The novel follows him through his freshman year of high school in a Pittsburgh suburb. The story focuses on Charlie’s unconventional style of thinking as he navigates between the worlds of adolescence and adulthood, and attempts to deal with poignant questions spurred by his interactions with both his friends and family.
The novel addresses introversion, sexuality and drug use, as well as alluding to other literary works, films, and pop culture in general.
The Harry Potter novels by J.K. Rowling
The Harry Potter novels have been one of the most influential young adult novels over the last three decades. Written by English author Joanne Rowling, they created a Potter-mania around the globe and spanned a very successful merchandising and movie universe. The seven Harry Potter books follow the young protagonist over the span of seven years, as he discovers that he is a wizard and the sole survivor of the evil wizard Lord Voldemort. Having to fight Voldemort and his Death Eaters year after year, it soon becomes obvious that he is the only one who will be able to stop Voldemort once and for all.
According to Rowling herself, the main theme of the book series is death. Other major themes in the series include love, prejudice, corruption, and madness. The books are nowadays considered cornerstones of modern young adult literature. Many YA novelists today still take inspiration from Rowling, setting their stories in a supernatural or science fiction environment and creating their protagonist as the chosen one who has to fight evil powers.
“Looking for Alaska” by John Green
The book was the first publication by American author John Green in 2005. Green is nowadays known for writing popular Young Adult literature, among them Paper Towns and The Fault in our Stars. Both of them have been turned into movie adaptions.
Looking for Alaska is the story of teenager Miles Halter as he enrols at a boarding school, trying to gain a deeper perspective on life. There, he is sexually and emotionally attracted to Alaska Young who, for most of the novel, has a mixed relationship with him, mostly not returning his feelings. The novel is semi-autobiographical, as it was inspired by Green’s experiences as a high school student. The book was controversially received, as there are so-called profanity and sexually explicit scenes.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee
This novel is not only a classic of modern American literature, it also won a Pulitzer prize after being published in 1960 by American author Harper Lee. The plot and characters are loosely based on Lee’s observations of her family, her neighbours and an event that occurred near her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama.
To Kill a Mockingbird is primarily a novel about growing up in the 1930s in the Southern United States. It centres on Scout Finch, her brother Jem and their father Atticus. Scout and Jem spend their time trying to lure their mysterious neighbour Boo outside of his house. Their father Atticus defends a black man accused of raping a white woman in court. The family thereafter gets hit with a lot of racial backlash. The primary themes involve racial injustice and the destruction of innocence, as well as class, courage, compassion, and gender roles in the American South. It was also adapted into an Oscar-winning film in 1962 by director Robert Mulligan.
“The World According to Garp” by John Irving
The book was written by John Irving in 1978 and remained a bestseller for several years. The story is about a man born out of wedlock to a feminist leader who grows up to be a writer. While Garp sees himself as a “serious” writer, his mother Jenny writes a feminist manifesto at an opportune time, and finds herself as a magnet for all kinds of distressed women.
Garp meets amongst others a transsexual ex-football player named Roberta Muldoon, a reformed prostitute, and a group of women who practice self-mutilation all in the name of making a statement. The main themes are death, gender roles and sexuality. A movie adaptation of the novel starring Robin Williams was released in 1982.
The Adrian Mole novels by Sue Townsend
Although not that well-known anymore today, the Adrian Mole novels by English author Sue Townsend were a popular read in the 80s and 90s. The eight novels follow Adrian Albert Mole from age 13 ¾ to age 39 ¼. The books are written in the form of a diary and appealed to many readers as a realistic and humorous treatment of the inner life of an adolescent boy. They also captured something of the zeitgeist of the UK during the Thatcher period.
The series has dealt with many themes. It satirises teenage pretensions by showing Adrian’s desires and ambitions in life and his complete failure to achieve them. Another theme is the depiction of the social and political situation in Britain. The later books focus on political satire, as well as depictions of unemployment and public spending cutbacks.
“The Body” by Stephen King
This book is known in connection to the popular 1986 movie adaption Stand by Me and the song accompanying it. Its source material, The Body, is a novella by American writer Stephen King, originally published in his 1982 collection Different Seasons.
The story takes place during the summer of 1960. After a boy disappears and is presumed dead, Gordie Lachance and his three friends set out to find his body after telling their parents they will be camping out. During their journey, the boys, who all come from abusive or dysfunctional families, come to grips with some of the harsh truths of growing up in a small factory town that does not seem to offer them much in the way of a future.
“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain
This book by Mark Twain dates all the way back to 1884. Therefore, the way the themes of race and identity and the language used to express them are presented doesn’t resonate too well nowadays. Especially the perceived use of racial stereotypes and the frequent use of the racial slur “nig***” have caused controversy, despite arguments that the protagonist and the tenor of the book are anti-racist.
Nevertheless, it is commonly named among the Great American Novels. Set in Missouri during the 1840s, young Huck Finn fearful of his drunkard father and yearning for adventure, leaves his foster family and joins with runaway slave Jim in a voyage down the Mississippi River toward slavery free states. The story has been adapted several times for the movies over the last decade.
“The Virgin Suicides” by Jeffrey Eugenides
The book is the 1993 debut novel by American writer Jeffrey Eugenides. The story is set in Michigan during the 1970s and centres on the lives of five sisters, the Lisbon girls. The story is told from the perspective of an anonymous group of teenage boys.
Strictly unattainable due to their overprotective, authoritarian parents, the girls are the enigma that fill the boys’ conversations and dreams. The story starts with Cecilia’s, the youngest, suicide attempt, leading up to her sisters following down that path too and the struggle of the boys to find an explanation for the Lisbons’ deaths. The novel was adapted into a 1999 movie by director Sofia Coppola as her directorial debut.
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Which one of these books have you read? What other novels shouldn’t be absent from any list? Let us know in the comments. And remember: if you need student accommodation in Europe, you’ll find the perfect student home on Uniplaces.