Booklists · Novels of Childhood and Youth
Novelists have always understood the power of stories about childhood and coming of age. Recapturing a child’s viewpoint, sharing the universal pains of growing up, or evoking the power of childhood memories, the genre offers rich rewards for both writer and reader. Try a few of these recent novels.
Through the Eyes of a Child
Johnnie Mae’s baby sister drowned while Johnnie Mae was supposed to be looking after her. They had gone swimming in the river because “colored” children couldn’t use the city pool. In a series of heartbreaking vignettes, this novel explores the effects of the death, especially on Johnnie Mae, who begins to grow up through grief and guilt.
John Gallatin, a newly orphaned white boy, is forced into virtual slavery on his uncle’s Alabama farm in the 1950s. It’s an unimaginably brutal life for a sheltered child, but eight-year-old John finds surprising strength. He plans an escape: to follow Tuway, a black man he works with, in Tuway’s dream of a new life in the North.
This radiant novel by Congolese native Dongala is set in a rapidly changing African country where VCRs and fetish makers exist side by side. It's narrated by Matapari, an intellectually ravenous, uncrushably optimistic boy as remarkable as the village life he describes.
The subject of this gentle story is Jim Sparks, who lives with his uncles on their North Carolina farm in the 1930s. The novel recounts episodes in Jim’s life from his tenth birthday to his eleventh, and though most of the events are small, Earley shows how such small things form a person’s character as decisively as large events.
Seven-year-old Rosie lives with her aunt and uncle over a small London café. She knows that the woman she thinks of as “the Perfume Lady” is really her mother, but her life is wrapped up in her working-class Soho neighborhood—until her mother’s wealthy family tries to take her away. Granger draws a marvelous picture of central London in the 1950s.
Ten-year-old Jeru Lamb is still mourning his brother’s death when the smartest girl in his class sends him a note that says “I am your half-sister.” How Jeru comes to grips with sorrow, guilt, and his confusion about his father’s past is the core of this novel set against the backdrop of the Kennedy assassination and the burgeoning civil rights movement.
This novel, set in Atlanta during the notorious serial killing of African-American children between 1979 and 1981, is told from the perspective of three fifth-graders, Tasha, Rodney, and Octavia. One of them disappears. The fear that haunted the city is wrenchingly portrayed in this story of children facing adult behavior beyond their comprehension.
Clara, an anxious eleven-year-old, is constantly imagining stories to explain the troubled family history her mother refuses to tell her. She befriends an elderly neighbor, Georg, who is touched by her chatter and gives her the patient attention she craves. Readers will be as bemused and charmed as he is by Clara’s distinctive voice and affecting story.
In the summer of 1962, emulating his hero, Hercule Poirot, twelve-year-old Edward Massey decides to solve the mystery of elderly Uncle Rufus, a recluse who lives in a shack on his aunt's property. What the boy learns is a fine and painful history of an African-American man in a deeply divided community.
Lulu, the daughter of Dutch colonials in Java just before World War II, is too young to understand the terrible events happening in the adult world. Ruebsamen's striking depiction of Lulu's inner life and her elaborate and magical world view make for a haunting and lyrical novel.
This beautifully understated novel is narrated by Gabriel, the older (at ten) of two sisters spending one last summer in the French countryside before their parents divorce. Troyan succeeds brilliantly in depicting a child’s perspective: the deep but half-articulated emotion, the skittish attention, and the vivid perceptions of a child come alive in her novel.
Cyrus Readymoney is a quiet boy with an insatiable curiosity to understand the mysteries of the adult world he is growing up in, the Bombay of the 1970s. Almost the only thing that can sate his hunger is the colorful, melodramatic Hindi cinema. This is a marvelous novel that captures the busy, daring, hopeful spirit of an inquisitive and sensitive child.
Coming of Age
Gabe Strickland knows that his father isn’t exactly normal—Roman is an old-school salesman, always hatching wild schemes to make a buck and win back Gabe’s mother. In 1974, when Gabe is sixteen, Roman takes him on the road. Great '70s ambiance, colorful adult characters, and a cynical but hopeful teen narrator distinguish this coming-of-age novel.
In 1968, Bernie joins her family at the U.S. military base on Okinawa. Old-fashioned base life seems surreal after her year at college, but the family seems changed, too. Bernie has to look back to their previous trip to Japan to understand why. A coming-of-age tale set in the generation-gap years of the 1960s, this features a perceptive narrator and an unusual family.
Thirteen-year-old Sister takes care of her younger siblings when her prostitute mother neglects and then abandons them. Though she is still a child herself (grocery shopping, she comes home with mostly candy), she makes adult sacrifices in a valiant—and heartbreaking—attempt to keep her family together in their small Georgia town.
Teenaged Si and his friends look forward to a lazy summer on the hill overlooking their London neighborhood. But violence intrudes, and Si is forced to make some terrible moral choices in Falconer's poignant, beautifully crafted story of damaged families and friendships.
Gough hits the perfect note of impatience, yearning, and perceptive humor for his young narrator in this delightful story of two Irish sisters attending university. Narrator Juliet has always played second fiddle to the beautiful Juno but comes into her own at last.
This novel is framed as a book being written by an autistic British teenager as he investigates the death of a neighbor’s dog. As Christopher pursues clues that may reveal the truth about the dog's death, he inadvertently uncovers other truths he is completely unequipped to handle. A triumph of narrative experiment and a moving story with an unusual hero.
Linked short stories follow the Anderson family of Acorn Lake, Minnesota, from 1959 to 1970. The storyteller is Lil, who from the ages of eight to eighteen pretty much brings herself up without a lot of help from her alcoholic father and emotionally flighty mother. Lil is a tough-minded girl and an honest, convincing narrator.
Mason Randolph is tired of being “the black guy,” the only African-American kid in his wealthy Louisiana neighborhood and school. A summer in New York City before law school gives him the chance to reinvent himself as streetwise Malik. But the lies he tells have unexpected consequences in this story of the humbling experience of becoming an adult.
Young Lily Owen embarks on a life of crime to rescue Rosaleen, the housekeeper who raised her, from violent arrest for trying to register to vote. The fugitives find an unusual new home with a trio of beekeeping sisters, from whom Lily learns important lessons about race, family, and womanhood.
Eighteen-year-old Paddy Hunter has never been anywhere but Blackden, the rural town in highland Scotland where he was born. Neither the town nor he seems to have much of a future, and over the course of one November weekend, Paddy realizes that it’s just not enough. This novel of a generation left behind by economic change is unusual for its rural setting.
Dottie is one of those wary, scowling little girls. She has good reason: her parents are divorced, her stepfather drinks, and they’re all moving across the country, where Dottie will be the new kid at school. Over the course of a few years, Dottie begins to grown up and find her place. But she faces new decisions when her family prepares to move again.
This haunting novel features a narrator who was never allowed to grow up: Susie Salmon tells her story from beyond the grave. She was raped and murdered by a neighbor and now waits for her grieving family to find her body. One of the most unusual narrators in recent fiction offers a subtle and memorably different perspective on what adolescence means.
Winter, the daughter of a wealthy drug dealer, has all the clothes, money, and men a girl could want—until her father falls from power. Winter’s fierce determination to regain what she has lost leads her to make some criminally foolish decisions. This cautionary tale is told in raw and readable style by the popular music star, who shows up in the novel herself.
Sixteen-year-old Alice Daggett has run her family’s store on Snow Island (a tiny islet off the coast of New England) since her father’s death. But the coming of World War II brings changes to the island and to Alice herself. She falls in love for the first time and goes beyond the island to find her own place in the world. A charming coming-of-age tale.
Adults Look Back
Dol was the youngest of an impoverished, Maltese immigrant family in Cardiff, Wales, in the early 1960s. Fostered away from the family at an early age, she is only now reconstructing her childhood memories. It's a heartbreaking process, as she now understands the terrible family secrets she didn't as a child.
Anna Crane is about to be married, and the trip back to her childhood home in Ohio for the wedding brings memories rushing back: her father’s early death, which left her young mother bereft and desperate to remarry; the three daughters left stranded by their mother’s frantic preoccupation; and Anna’s own fragile—and disastrous—first love.
The rank smell of privet hedge sends elderly Englishman Stephen Wheatley on a sudden journey into childhood memory. He and a friend, Keith, spied on Keith’s mother one wartime summer, pretending she was a German spy. But what they learned spying on the adult world was more complicated, as the reader of this elegant novel about the loss of innocence will guess.
Seventeen years after a series of unsolved child murders rocked Detroit and profoundly affected Mattie’s own childhood, he returns to track down the two friends who abruptly disappeared from his life during that long year. The past isn’t quite as he remembered. This stunning novel of psychological suspense explores the haunting power of childhood friendships.
The death of one of their members brings a midlife regathering of the Justus Girls, a self-taught drill team of nine-and ten-year-old girls formed in the 1960s. These African-American girls allied to overcome hardships growing up, and they must do so again after their friend's death.
Harry, a white boy whose father is town barber and constable in east Texas in the 1930s, finds the body of a black woman in the river bottoms. Neither the town's white nor black community can risk the truth coming to light in this tragic tale of prejudice and good intentions. The novel is told in an authentic, beautifully cadenced voice by Harry in his old age.
The unnamed narrator relates his adolescent infatuation with Madame, the lovely, enigmatic headmistress of his school in 1960s Warsaw. In his quest to know everything about her, the boy learned a great deal about life, politics, history, art, and culture—though it isn’t till years later that he realized quite how much. A sophisticated and charming tale of obsession.
Sagesse LaBasse’s journey out of childhood was also a journey of exile—from southern France, where her French-Algerian family were already exiles, to the United States. She traces her own part of that long family exile back to a crucial summer night when she was fifteen and her grandfather, annoyed by her rowdy group of friends, fired a rifle at them.
In 1947, the British were occupying Palestine. Twelve-year-old Proffy, a lonely, intelligent boy, passionately believed that the British should get out. But when a scholarly British soldier befriended him, he was faced with a conflict of loyalty—one he still cannot solve, looking back in old age. A powerful story of a child grappling with difficult adult issues.
Locating additional library materials in the Library Catalog:
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