Coming of Age in Books
Today, following my own advice, I sat in on the Wordstock 2011 panel discussion titled, "Move Over, Holden Caulfield," a conversation about coming-of-age stories with Anna Solomon, Blake Nelson, and Jen Violi. Each of these authors read a bit from their novels, all featuring central characters that were girls, 16 or so. Was the new coming-of-age heroine not man, but woman?
While this wasn't explored much, my favorite question was this: what coming-of-age novels made the biggest impact on the writers of the panel? Solomon, whose book is classified as literary fiction -- and which I, stunned by the passage she wrote, bought -- said her first memory of a coming-of-age book that moved her was Judy Blume's classic Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret. Her second choice was a memorable one for me, as well: A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L'Engle.
(Nelson said all he read as a kid was Peanuts; some quality stuff in the comic strip, but not quite meeting the description.)
I thought for a while about my own answer to this question. Surely those L'Engle books are on my list, as well as another one that made an even bigger impact on me, A Swiftly Tilting Planet. (I read it a few years ago to Everett, and it's eerily modern.) So, too, the good vs. evil series like Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising books and The Chronicles of Narnia (both The Magician's Nephew and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader were particularly interesting to me, for some reason; I think it's that the character whose trajectory is most central in both of these, Diggory and Eustace, have something of a transformation from insufferable to brave). The Little Women books were also beloved, as were the Little House on the Prairie novels; I suppose each of these had its coming of age book. I read so voraciously as a child that it's hard to pick anything as key in my development; in high school, of course, I read all the legendary ones including Holden Caulfield's vessel (A Catcher in the Rye), A Separate Peace, Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, even Black Boy; the one, though, that I remember most keenly from high school was Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior. But each of these classic ones stays with me, even though I haven't even touched the cover of many of them in decades.
When you were a child on the cusp of your own coming of age, which books did you read -- and which had the biggest impact on you? Which coming of age stories will you urge your own children to read, when they're ready? If you have children who are old enough to dive into such books, which have they read?