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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.

Jen Violi, whose book sounds funny and macabre but also wise, also chose a L'Engle book, the classic, A Wrinkle in Time. Her other choice was (she said) a testament to her dark side: Jane Eyre.

(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?


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I have two books from that period - "Are you there God" and "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn". Of the two, "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" is the one I most remember. It is the story of a girl coming of age in NYC in the early 1920s. Francie became one of my heros when she plans on reading all the books in the NYC public library starting with the A's. It is a dark book a good deal of the time. However, what I most remember is how strong a character Francie was and how much I wanted to be her friend and share books.

The book that had the biggest impact on me was Mildred D. Taylor's 1977 Newbery-winner, Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry. As a kid growing up in a very white, affluent town, going to a school (Waldorf) where by 7th grade I had learned nothing about the civil rights movement (or any American history, for that matter), this book was a huge eye-opener about a lot of things. But for all that, it was the story of a girl my own age, with a lot of my own thoughts and feelings, and despite its setting in 1930's Mississippi, Cassie Logan felt like someone I could identify with.

"Little Women." "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn." The "Anne of Green Gables" books. Madeleine L'Engle's books (which go well beyond the initial "Wrinkle in Time" series into Meg and Calvin's oldest daughter's life and the intersecting lives of another family, the Austins). The "Little House on the Prairie" series (watched the TV show, too!). The Narnia books. Robert Cormier's stuff. "To Kill a Mockingbird." "It's Like This, Cat."

As a younger person, it was Judy Blume. In high school, "On the Road," by Jack Kerouac blew my mind. Oh, how I hope at least one of my two little boys grows in to a passionate reader.

So glad you came to the event at Wordstock and thanks for starting a great conversation here!

Ditto what Anna said--that was such a fun crowd at the Wordstock panel, and this is an awesome conversation--thank you! And, I feel like I also need to add Lois Lowry's "The Giver" to the mix.

I have to second Susan Cooper's Dark is Rising series. I loved that and any Madeline L'Engle book I could get my hands on when I was in middle school. I also remember Summer of My German Soldier, Island of the Blue Dolphins, another British series called Children of the Green Knowe and books by Penelope Livley, but I've only re-read the Dark is Rising as an adult. I'd add Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea series which I discovered in my 20s but was written as young adult fiction and, of course, Lyra's coming of age story in His Dark Materials. Wish I could have gone to Wordstock.

I don't even know where to start with the favorite books growing up...I read the Laura Engalls Wilder books & Madeliene L'Engle. I liked the one about the arm of the starfish...can anyone remember what that book was called? I also read the children of Green Knowe. I really got into the Black Stallion series, Nancy Drew (but the publication date needs to be pre-1970) and the Hardy Boys. Pretty early on my mom introduced me to grown up literature and I remember being particulary impressed by Anna Karenina and Catcher in the Rye. I'll also admit to being fascinated by the Clan of the Cave Bear. It didn't go past book 3 back then. I also enjoyed the graphic novel ElfQuest series as well as still have a life-long love of Tintin.

I'm following my seven-year old into today's kids' series...what do you all think about the graphic novel "Bone". I'm not so sure about it...

I'm following my seven-year old into today's kids' series...what do you all think about the graphic novel "Bone". I'm not so sure about it...

Wish I could have gone to Woodstock...

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