10 Y/A Novels That Capture the Profound Experience of Coming-to-Age

“And in that moment, I swear we were infinite.”
― Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower 

There is something to be said about the heady days of youth. Those are the days when we live life without a care in the world and at the same time, these are the memories etched the hardest and the deepest in our minds. Youth is that time of our lives when we are truly immersed in our experiences and adventures. Those same heady days, days of frolic and adventure and days of misery and grim forebodings are what we remember as we grow older. Here are 10 books that talk about the angst, hope, happiness and joy of growing up as a young adult.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was being a young adult.

Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

Oh. It seems so wonderful that I’m going to live with you and belong to you. I’ve never belonged to anybody – not really.

A canonised staple since the mid-20th century, Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables is a children’s classic that continues to be as remarkable as the day it was written. Set in the late 19th century, the novel recounts the adventures of 11-year-old orphan Anne, as she is accidentally delivered to rapidly-ageing siblings, Matthew and Marilla, who hoped to adopt a male farm hand for their estate in Avonlea. First in a series of books on Anne, it introduces you to the Jane-Eyre quoting, swoon-prone, fiery redhead that we all know and can’t help but love. A first-rate bildungsroman, a book that captures the genial warmth of small-town folk and the beauty of quaint country living, Anne of Green Gables inspires all readers to unleash their imaginations, give into romantic flights of fancy, and tend towards an empathetic bent of mind. 

Followed by Anna of Avonlea, Anne of the Island and five more books.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug. 

So begins Louisa May Alcott’s autobiographical Little Women. Following the lives of the four March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, the novel details their turbulent and delightful passage from childhood to womanhood. Set in the scape of the American Civil War and an all-consuming war effort that has taken many fathers far from home, Alcott’s novel seats itself into the heart of a woman’s household. Populated by sisters who are fast friends and constant playmates, a loving mother who quietly manages the distance between the father and his daughters, and Laurie, the neighbour who is all too welcome in the open arms of the March household. Good Christians, wide-eyed with personal ambitions, no woman is the same and none less than the other. It is often hard to faithfully follow novelistic characters to their fated destinies. Even as the journey gets lonely, and the path bleak for some, all of the sisters find a place between hard-held reality and close-nurtured idealism. A classic for all ages, a coming-of-age par-exemplar, Alcott’s Little Women is a tenderly told tale of women navigating the big-wide world and reconciling their dreams with harsh realism. Marked by heart and winning character, it’s a must-read for anyone who hasn’t and a worthy re-read for the loving audience who has.

Followed by Good Wives.  

Looking for Alaska by John Green

So, I walked back to my room and collapsed on the bottom bunk, thinking that if people were rain, I was drizzle and she was a hurricane.

Miles’ whole life has been one big non-event. That is until he meets Alaska.  Gorgeous, clever and undoubtedly screwed up, Alaska draws Miles into her reckless world and irrevocably steals his heart. Another remarkable addition to John Green’s popularly frequented novelistic world, Looking for Alaska is that terribly good Y/A novel that refuses to reduce seemingly manic-pixie-dream girls to a manic-pixie-dream girl treatment. Deftly dealing with profound elements of young-adult relationships, Green’s novel takes a last-words-obsessed main character to a seemingly destined brush with death and bereavement, teaching him the underpinning value of the scavenged messages people leave behind for those who’re looking. If you haven’t read this one, just do. 

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green 

You’re both the fire and the water that extinguishes it. You’re the narrator, the protagonist, and the sidekick. You’re the storyteller and the story told. You are somebody’s something, but you are also your you.

Alluding to the mythological idea of the earth resting on a great turtle’s back, Green’s profound title refers to the philosophical problem of ‘infinite regress’— that all rests on the other, and so one can go down a recursive rabbit hole of connections that link the existence of everything to the other. As with all of his books, the elusive stuff of life can be wonderfully explained by the curious thoughts that occur within literary and philosophical discourse. And so, “Turtles All the Way Down ”, does exactly that. In exploring an autobiographical experience with OCD and anxiety, Green makes 16-year-old Aza the novelistic protagonist who experiences the infinite regress psychodynamic that is characteristic of certain mental health disorders. It also stages the infinite regress that is contained within all acts of narrativising (ref. quote), as well as the logic that irreverently connects us. The novel follows best friends Aza and Daisy as they embark on a rabbit-hole search for an allegedly fugitive millionaire, their neighbour. Romantic, rousing, emotional, and evocative, it is perhaps Green’s most mature work, displaying an apparent apotheosis of themes that are characteristic of his oeuvre.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire

One summer night I fell asleep hoping the world would be different when I woke. In the morning, when I opened my eyes, the world was the same.

In the summer of 1987, 15-year-old Aristotle meets a boy named Dante at the local pool. The two boys bond over their classical names and eventually become inseparable. Dante teaches Ari about literature and poetry, while Ari is fascinated by Dante’s swimming and sincerity. It’s a boy-meet-boy story that is profound, heartfelt and honest. Exploring crucial themes of racial and sexual identities, as well as the fragile nature of familial and interpersonal relationships, Alire’s Y/A novel expertly displays the many violences of shame and love. Critically acclaimed and widely well-received, it’s a luminous book in the world of young adult literature.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak 

I do not carry a sickle or scythe.
I only wear a hooded black robe when it’s cold.
And I don’t have those skull-like facial features you seem to enjoy pinning on me from a distance. You want to know what I truly look like? I’ll help you out. Find yourself a mirror while I continue. 

Says Death, the narrator of this book. A beautiful historical fiction set in Nazi Germany, The Book Thief follows young Liesel Meminger, who finds solace and escape in stolen books. Living with foster parents who are also secretly, and very illegally, hiding a Jewish man from the authorities, the book explores the terrifying ambit of the Nazi spectre through its protagonist’s innocent and often naive perspective. Narrated by an all-seeing and empathetic Death, Zusak’s novel brilliantly navigates the power of courage, compassion, and the power of words in the face of monstrous totalitarian hatred. While we don’t endorse book stealing, we do endorse reading this book.

Submarine by Joe Dunthorne

I took a photo of us, mid-embrace. When I am old and alone, I will remember that I once held something truly beautiful.

Adapted for film by our favourite TV man, Richard Ayoade, and the basis for Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner’s OST, Dunthorne’s Submarine is a coming-of-age drama that stands apart in the genre. The plot follows a fifteen-year-old Oliver Tate, as he navigates the turbulent waters of adolescence in Irish Wales. Juggling complex family drama, a quest for lost virginity, and the baffling world of adults, Tate offers a simultaneous commentary on life that is both darkly humorous and quietly wise. 

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

It’s strange because sometimes, I read a book, and I think I am the people in the book.

Very rarely does a young adult novel cause such a massive wave across popular culture. And even rarer are instances when such waves are merited. The Perks of Being a Wallflower tells the story of Charlie, a shy freshman, through letters to an unseen friend. Navigating the complexities of high school, he finds solace and acceptance in a group of seniors, Sam and Patrick. As Charlie embraces new experiences – first love, friendships, and self-discovery – he also grapples with past traumas and the challenges of growing up. The 90’s answer to Catcher in The Rye, full of an unforgettable cast of characters, this one stays with you forever. Chbosky has expertly incorporated both fictional ideas and personal experiences into the novel, offering a poignant and honest portrayal of adolescence, exploring themes of friendship, love, loss, and mental health. After five long years of ideation and planning, he finally wrote the novel while experiencing an unpleasant breakup— which is perhaps what led him to ask—why do good people let themselves get treated so badly?

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.

This is one of the greatest opening sentences in the history of literature, and to understand its brilliance, you’d have to make it to the final sentence. 

The Outsiders is one of those books that is unputdownable, a timeless masterpiece, with universal appeal. A timeless coming-of-age story set in 1960s America, where rival greaser and Soc gangs clash, it delves into universal themes of identity, belonging, and societal divides. Resonating deeply with readers, and becoming a young adult literature staple, it is perhaps just as important for its genre as Camus is for philosophy. Its impact has transcended the page, launching the careers of actors like Tom Cruise and influencing fashion choices with its greaser imagery. The novel’s enduring legacy lies in sparking conversations about social issues and reminding us that appearances can be deceiving.

The Catcher in The Rye 

What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though. 

Most books on this list are directly or indirectly inspired by this one, with even John Green being a confessed Salinger fan. Undoubtedly this is the most iconic YA book of all time, if not the greatest. Holden is scared of growing up, like we all are, and is often disturbed by the hypocrisies of the adult world. Holden is also angry, just as he is scared, deciding to run away far from his hostel and responsibilities. Speaking to the secret anxiety and devastating disillusionment of every young boy or girl above the age of 13, it is oftentimes recognised as the only validating answer to the experience of teenage angst.

End of list, Goodbye!

“No one ever says good-bye unless they want to see you again. Aa.”

— John Green, Turtles All the Way Down

Pick up any of these superb Y/A novels from any Kunzum store or WhatsApp +91.8800200280 to order. Buy the book(s) and the coffee’s on us.

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