Coming of age stories have a more specific focus than ordinary literary fiction. They highlight the struggles and triumphs of growing up in difficult, even dangerous circumstances. Every childhood has its rough patches, but the young people in these stories must face truly imposing odds to get what they need. They deal with family drama, death, abandonment, and desperation. Some of their tales even become crime stories, with the protagonists resorting to illegal means to survive–or just to pass the time. These dark books offer no guarantee of a happy ending, but with these narratives, the ending isn’t what counts: it is what the characters go through during their most formative years, and how that experience shapes the adults they will become.
When he was thirteen years old, Theo survived a terrorist bombing. His mother did not. Grief-stricken and wracked with guilt, all Theo has left of his mother is her love of art, and one piece in particular: a painting of a goldfinch, her favorite painting in the whole world. This painting, what Theo does with it, and his inability to overcome his past change the course of his life forever. Intense details and realistic emotion make Donna Tartt's Pulitzer Prize-winning classic a must-read.
Lutie and Fate McFee haven't seen their father since he took off for Las Vegas years ago. Instead, they live in a remote South Dakota town with their father's ex-girlfriend as their guardian. They have little to do but indulge their own, not always legal interests. But when their guardian suddenly dies, even this fragile bit of stability vanishes. Lutie and Fate steal their dead guardian's car and set out for Nevada in search of their long-lost father–and, they hope, the type of home they have never known.
Now, Zal lives in New York in the days leading up to 9/11. Before, he lived in a birdcage in a small Iranian village, condemned by his mother for his oddly pale skin and hair. Zal doesn't quite know what to do with his freedom, and he ends up gravitating toward a group of people who are just as strange and ill-suited for the world as he. The Last Illusion is not available as an ebook.
A father is supposed to protect his family. And yet, for the Dolly family, it is teenaged Ree who must step up to the plate after her father's illegal activity puts her and her siblings at risk. Faced with the choice of losing her home or returning her father to police custody to face drug charges, Ree sets out alone at the start of a brutal Ozark winter to find him at any cost. And with a family as secretive and self-protective as hers, the cost may be very high indeed.
As a poor Black girl attending an elite, white-majority school, Starr is made aware of her race every day. These little revelations can be uncomfortable, but she manages. Then, the breaking point: her friend, an unarmed Black teen, is murdered by a white police officer. How Starr reacts to his death will force her to reevaluate her identity–and may put her life at risk. This painful coming of age story remains relevant years after its debut and inspired a 2018 film of the same name.
To Lizzie, her best friend Evie had a perfect family and the perfect life. Lizzie thought she knew everything about Evie, but when Evie inexplicably disappears, she is just as shocked as everyone else. As the adults pepper her with questions but have no luck in finding Evie, Lizzie embarks on an investigation of her own. Her attempts at amateur sleuthing bear more fruit than she perhaps wanted, forcing Lizzie to rethink everything she thought she knew about her missing friend and her perfect life.
Fabiola so looked forward to leaving Haiti with her mother and starting over in Detroit, Michigan. But the fabled American dream proves elusive: Fabiola's mother is sent to a detention facility, the relatives she stays with are strange and loud, and her new home is nothing like the American houses she knows from television. As Fabiola strives to fit in, she learns just how difficult starting over can be, even in a supposedly welcoming place like America.
A fifth grader's main concerns should be making friends and finishing homework. But in Atlanta in 1982, with Black people–including children–disappearing and dying, Rodney, Tasha, and Octavia face the constant fear of kidnapping and death. They navigate this world of strictly enforced curfews, family drama, and constant danger by holding tight to familiar rituals–and to each other.
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Eileen Gonzalez is a freelance writer from Connecticut. She has a Master’s degree in communications and years of experience writing about pop culture. She contributes to Book Riot and Foreword Reviews, and she occasionally tweets at @eileen2thestars.