The first response that pops up when you Google “coming of age books?” is The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger’s novel features the famous Holden Caulfield as he wanders 1940s New York City, turning a cynical eye on everything and everyone he interacts with. While Holden’s story has become a staple in English classrooms all over the country, we are here to open up the world of coming of age stories to include tales that provide new and refreshing points of view. There are many perspectives when it comes to growing pains and it’s time for a refresh on the spotlight.
We dug a little deeper to create a reading list that’s ripe for the picking. From being true to who you want to be to the courageous stories of standing up for what you believe in, our book list has something for just about everyone.
Take the quiz below to find your perfectly paired book match!
Radiant Child - Javaka Steptoe (picture book, preschool)
Step into a vibrant New York City as imagined by Steptoe in this biography of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Basquiat is one of my all-time favorite artists, so I was thrilled to discover this picture book that introduces kids to his uniquely beautiful art, and celebrates the Haitian-Puerto Rican ethnicity that impacts his work. This story reminds us that art doesn’t have to be neat, clean, or inside the lines to be beautiful!
For a fun post-read activity, encourage kids to make their own masterpieces inspired by Basquiat’s works. If you can, take a trip to the museum to see his art in person -- try the Whitney in New York or the Broad in LA!
El Deafo - Cece Bell (graphic novel, elementary school)
Introducing El Deafo, the world’s first deaf superhero! In this semi-autobiographical graphic novel, Cece imagines herself as the superpowered El Deafo to cope with the frustrations of being the only deaf kid in a hearing person’s world.
I’ve spent some time studying American Sign Language, so I was so pleasantly surprised to stumble across a kid’s book with a deaf main character. Cece brings a unique deaf perspective to traditional themes of friendship and belonging, and brings the story to life through a graphic-novel styled book. Use El Deafo to introduce kids to concepts of deafness and difference, to talk about healthy friendships, or if you just need a good giggle!
Lola Levine Is Not Mean - Monica Brown (chapter book, middle elementary school)
Spunky Lola Levine just wants to play her favorite sport -- soccer! But when she gets a little too competitive at recess and accidentally injures her friend Juan, she must find a grown-up way to deal with the unpleasant consequences.
In this charming chapter book series, Monica Brown brings Lola Levine to life. This pick made my list because of the wonderfully casual way Brown weaves in Lola’s multi-ethnic Jewish and Latina identity, emphasizing its importance to Lola without making it a source of tension in the plot.
The Witch Boy - Molly Ostertag (middle school, graphic novel)
In a hidden world of shapeshifters and witches, Aster finds himself stuck in the middle. Despite the pressures of tradition all around him to grow into his shapeshifting powers, Aster can’t help but be drawn to the teachings of witchcraft. But there’s one big barrier: magic is only meant for girls.
As a long-time fan of Molly Ostertag, I was over-the-moon excited about this beautifully drawn gender-binary breaking story. Not only does it offer kids and teens representation of gender role exploration, but it acts as a mirror for adults to examine their own implicit biases about gender that they might be imposing on the Asters in their classrooms and homes.
Does My Head Look Big in This? - Randa Abdel-Fattah (middle school, novel)
When sixteen-year-old Amal decides to wear the hijab full time, she is faced with an onslaught of opinions, reactions, and taunts. The biography follows Amal’s decision to stay true to her faith and her decision in the face of the minefield that is the social world of high school.
This novel explores issues of identity, growing up, and managing social interactions, all threaded together with Amal’s decision to wear the hijab. It brings the experience of a young, Muslim woman into focus in a way that many students, including myself, can relate to and learn from.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post - Emily Danforth (high school, novel)
When rough and tough Cameron Post’s bible-thumping aunt finds out that her feelings for girls run deeper than friendship, she sends her off to a conversion camp where Cameron is faced with the reality of her identity.
This book is near and dear to my heart. While a difficult read, it was the first book I read that was centered on a queer experience -- in fact, before this book, I didn’t know that queer characters existed in books at all. This moving story pushes readers of any sexuality to understand and empathize with a varied range of LGBTQIA+ realities.
The House on Mango Street - Sandra Cisneros (high school, novel)
Through vivid descriptions and lively vignettes, readers are pulled into the world of Esperanza as she grows up in her house on Mango Street. She faces the normal ebb and flow of getting older along with some of the harsher realities of her world.
The book was banned from many school curriculums, which automatically drew me to the story. The semi-autobiographical novel ultimately is a story of individuality and growing into yourself despite a harsh world of labeling, stereotyping, and even violence. This novel contains some graphic accounts of sexual assault, so giving students a proper warning is necessary when teaching this book.