This weeks Top Ten Tuesday was a freebie, with the prompt to write about something to do with back to school/learning since school is starting up again soon [I’m moving into my first ever uni house on the 1st of September!]
I decided to do a ‘university reading list‘ for a class I’d love to teach one day, if I can’t take it at uni- one that focuses on analysing coming of age novels and films. Unfortunately, the list was so long with the films that I ended up making a separate post for my Film Friday series instead, that I really hope everyone checks out to get some recommendations for a genre I adore.
Lecture/Seminar 1: An Introduction to Coming-of-Age novels
For this, I went with two novels that I feel show the growth of coming-of-age in literature, while still showing how teenagers are going through the same issues now as they were 60 years ago: Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, and Solitaire by Alice Oseman. I feel both of these are great introductions to the genre- lost protagonists trying to find anything that will fill in the gaps in their lives, all the while being moody and stand-offish as they rebel against some sort of system. Tori is definitely displays more character growth and ultimately ends up in a better place than Holden, but I think both are valuable to study as main characters within the coming-of-age genre!
Lecture/Seminar 2: Young Adults Are Sexually Active, Actually
Sex positivity is very important to me within coming-of-age stories, and I feel it’s rarer to find books willing to have a frank discussion about the awkwardness of sex than it is in film, so this was a struggle. However, I did end up finding several: The DUFF by Kody Keplinger, The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M Danforth, and Whatever.: or, how junior became totally f$@ked by S.J. Goslee.
The DUFF was the first YA book [and probably the ONLY YA book since] that I read where a girl and a guy have a friends-with-benefits relationship that isn’t villainised or treated as disgusting. Cameron Post was my first experience with a book where masturbation is involved, and between two girls no less. Whatever has THE MOST graphic sex scene in a coming-of-age novel I’ve ever read, and it came so out of nowhere I had to put the book down and really check that it wasn’t an adult book.
There’s a trope in a lot of coming-of-age and YA romance literature where main female characters look down on other girls who are sexually active, and there’s a severe lack of literature in general showing teens being sexually active with people of the same gender. Breaking down what makes the sex positivity in these novels so important for coming-of-age stories would be key in understanding the genre just a little bit more, and how it’s beginning to change!
Lecture/Seminar 3: Identity and Belonging
Identity and belonging mean a lot of things within coming-of-age stories. Trying to find a place among your peers; exploring sexuality and gender identity; trying to break free from the constrains parents, or friends, or society, is trying to place on you. There’s a lot that can fall under this umbrella, and I feel identity and belonging has as much to do with family and friends as it does the individual, as these are the things that have a way of influencing you without even realising it’s happening.
The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli’s main character is a fat girl who has never been in a relationship [but wants to be], and is trying to find a way to bounce back and find herself after being abandoned by her twin sister after she gets a new girlfriend. Giant Days by Non Pratt [and its comic predecessor by John Allison] focuses on three friends struggling at university, two of them feeling pressured into being something they’re not due to a strain in the early stages of friendship.
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo follows Xiomara as she tries to break free from the constraints of her mother’s religion and begin performing slam poetry, and explore her first romantic relationship with a boy in her class. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz is all about exploring sexuality, shaping a place in the world big enough to fit you in it, and understanding your own race and the expectations society has of you and trying to free yourself from that.
Lecture/Seminar 4: Suffering and Grief
Unfortunately, I’m a very emotional person, and coming-of-age stories are always personal stories. They draw you in and connect you with characters who can be going through extreme suffering and grief, reflecting your own struggles with family and friends or just helping you understand what these characters are going through in the most personal way possible. It’s a ‘bare all’ genre, and that’s why I love it.
For this, I chose Second Chance Summer by Morgan Matson, where main character Taylor Edwards’s father receives terrible news, and the family spend their last summer as a whole at an old lake house they haven’t returned to in several years growing closer than they’ve been in years. In contrast, there’s I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, which focuses not only on the grief of losing a parent, but on growing apart from your sibling and losing that part of yourself you’ve had with you for so long. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness [I recommend the illustration version] finds main character Conor [younger than many of the protagonists in the books I’ve recommended so far] forced to confront the truth by an ancient visitor that comes to his window until he speaks up.
Lecture/Seminar 5: Mental Health
Not only is there suffering to do with grief and loss, main characters in coming-of-age literature suffer due to their struggles with mental illnesses. I feel this is a topic still not explored enough in detail in novels: mental health either takes the back burner for romance to ‘save’ the main character- a very harmful trope- or is badly written, demonizing our character instead of helping us connect with them. However, there are some novels I feel would be interesting to look at under the coming-of-age genre in terms of how they present the mental health of teenagers, and whether or not it’s something audiences can relate to at any age.
Turtles All the Way Down by John Green has main character Aza struggling with OCD and anxiety on top of maintaining good grades, friendships, and a strong relationship with her mum, all the while looking for the missing father of a boy she knew growing up. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky focuses on Charlie, a freshman in highschool who suffers from anxiety and depression as a result of PTSD surrounding memories he has blocked out from when he was a child.
It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini follows 15 year old Craig who, after making it into a prestigious high school, begins suffering from stress, which manifests into an eating disorder, a ruined sleep pattern and suicidal thoughts, which pushes him to check himself into a psychiatric hospital. Finally is We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson, where depressed teenager Henry Denton must decide whether to save the world from destruction after being visited by aliens, incredibly disillusioned due to his ex-boyfriend committing suicide and the constant issues with family and bullying he experiences at the hands of his homophobic classmates.
[I would really like some recommendations for books written by women with female characters suffering from mental health issues!]
Lecture/Seminar 6: The Horror of Growing Up
How many horror novels have you read? Now, how many of those have children in a significant role, whether that be as a main character or a figure plaguing the adults around them? There’s a strong link between coming-of-age and horror, with teenagers doing and experiencing terrible things as a metaphor for puberty, or to punish them for the things puberty brings [never have sex in a slasher film, guys]. Teenagers and children are no strangers to terror, and it’s an important part of coming-of-age literature to explore.
First up is Carrie by Stephen King. This centres around teenager Carrie White who, right at the start of the novel, starts her period in the shower room at school- and is bullied terribly for it, which triggers the manifestation of her psychic powers as well. This book is an incredible look at the horrible parts of highschool and just how vicious teenagers can be, and was a contributing factor to me being terrified of going into secondary school when I read this at 10 years old.
There’s also two modern coming-of-age novels that I want to talk about. The Fallen Children by David Owen is based off of The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndam, where an entire council estate falls asleep and, upon waking, one woman and three girls have been impregnated. Despite the sci-fi elements, the main focus is on the violation these girls have experienced and the way the suffer at the hands of the adults around them, who don’t seem to want to accept that these girls have been raped. It’s a brutal story, and hard to read at times, but I think it’s a brilliant choice for coming-of-age themes.
Last up is As I Descended by Robin Talley, an adaptation of Macbeth set at a prestigious American boarding school. There’s ghosts, there’s murder, there are girls in love with girls and boys in love with boys, and none of it ends happily. However, a lot of the horror is not down to the supernatural- it’s down to the anger the girls feel at how society treats them, and them going to any lengths to get what they want. This one is as bleak as Carrie, and I feel it is crucial in showing just how awful growing up can be.
[Honorable mentions: Hurt by Tabitha Suzuma [sexual assault, grief]; Radio Silence by Alice Oseman [Identity, focus on further education]; The Astonishing Colour of After by Emily X.R. Pan [grief]]
[TBR honorable mentions: Sadie by Courtney Summers [grief]; Nina Is Not OK by Shappi Khorsandi [deals with alcoholism in teenagers]; This Is What It Feels Like by Rebecca Barrow [alcoholism, teenage pregnancy]; We Are Okay by Nina LaCour [identity, grief]]
I really hope you enjoy this post, and I would love to talk more with people about these books and the coming-of-age genre in the comments.
Thanks for reading!