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Coming of Age: 10 classic novels that chart the joy and jeopardy of youth

From Harry Potter finding his feet and fulfilling his destiny in the wizarding world, to newly-orphaned Emily Moon standing up to her snobbish relatives and malicious classmates, the ten Coming of Age novels explore characters growing up and finding their way in the world.

The panel have chosen these novels on the theme of Coming of Age:

Emily of New Moon by L. M. Montgomery; Golden Child by Claire Adam; Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood; So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell; Swami and Friends by R. K. Narayan; The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien; The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling; The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton; The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾ by Sue Townsend; The Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer.

The Novels Survey

Emily of New Moon by L. M. Montgomery, 1923

Written by the same author as the arguably more famous Anne of Green Gables, this novel follows the life of the newly orphaned Emily Moon, raised by her long-lost relatives after her father passes away from tuberculosis. A strong-willed, and independent-minded girl who doted on her father, we follow Emily as she navigates her new circumstances, butting up against her elderly aunts and uncles, and forging her new path in life.

Book Club Questions

1. We primarily find out about Emily's internal thoughts through her writing to her deceased family. Do you feel this literary device works well?

2. What do you think of Emily's relatives? Are you encouraged to sympathise with them as Emily disrupts their ordinary pace of life, or are they too set in their ways?

3. What was your overall opinion of Emily, and are we called to champion her, or do you view her as naïve? Does she remind you of any other classic leads in other novels?

Golden Child by Claire Adam, 2019

In a poor family trying to get by in rural Trinidad, Peter and Paul are 13-year-old identical twins who are different in every way. When Paul doesn’t return home one day, his family do everything they can to find him, leaving their father Clyde with a decision that no parent should ever have to make.

Book Club Questions

1. Violence is shown as commonplace in Trinidad. Did you find the horrors described, and the characters’ attitudes towards them, surprising?

2. The novel shows the different sides of life on the island, including the different cultural backgrounds of its inhabitants. How do they intersect, in particular looking at the opportunities for young people?

3. Clyde faces an impossible choice to make. If you were in his position, what do you think you would do?

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The title could actually be interpreted in different ways... it could ask what is the value of any child's life?
Claire Adam on Open Book, 2019

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, 2003

The first novel in Atwood’s dystopian trilogy, Oryx & Crake is set in a nation divided into ‘Compounds’, where animal, plant and human DNA are the playthings of the scientific elite, and the riff-raff of ‘the Pleeblands’. Best friends Jimmy and Crake meet at a Compound school where they spend their adolescence exploring the labyrinthine dark web. It is on one of these illicit websites that they first see eight-year-old Oryx, who in later years changes the course of both their lives when Crake becomes involved in a corrupt scientific project with devastating repercussions.

Book Club Questions

1. In Atwood’s dystopia, how closely does society mirror our current world?

2. Throughout her life Oryx is exploited by men, including Jimmy and Crake. What do you think her role in the novel is and how would you describe her relationship with each of the male protagonists?

3. Crake’s mission is to create a new, ‘perfect’ type of human being and society. What are the main flaws of his vision? Are there any positives?

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So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell, 1979

This deeply moving novella packs out its few pages with the emotional extent of human love, friendship, jealousy, regret and mourning. Our narrator recalls the long-past events of his childhood: his own grief, his unlikely friendship with another boy, Cletus, and the jealous murder of one of two tenant farmers that shatters the lives of this rural Illinois town. Touching and sincere, So Long, See You Tomorrow creates what all great short fiction creates: a microcosm of the heart-breaking breadth of humanity.

Book Club Questions

1. What is the significance of the title of the book?

2. Why is the narrator recounting this story from his old age? What impact does this have on your understanding of what the book is about?

3. The murder central to the novel happens on the first page. How does this affect your reading of the slowly unfolding events that lead to it?

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Swami and Friends by R. K. Narayan

Swami and his friends are growing up in an India that is fighting for independence from the British Empire. We see this struggle through his eyes as he watches the changes and even joins in a protest addressed by Gandhi, but he’s also a curious ten-year-old boy getting into scrapes and playing a lot of cricket.

Book Club Questions

1. Do you think that Swami and Friends should be read as a children’s book?

2. The novel looks at India’s struggle for independence through the eyes of a ten-year-old child. How much do you think Swami understands and what did you learn?

3. Friendship is a theme that runs through this book – do you think that friendships change as you age?

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He is a new voice in English literature... representing an Indian sensibility, which no Englishman could possibly represent with the same inwardness and 'trembling' kind of accuracy.
Professor William Walsh, Leeds University, 1982

The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien

The Country Girls follows the interconnected lives of Caithleen (Cait) Brady and Bridget (Baba) Brennan in 1950’s Ireland. We meet them as children in a small rural village and follow them through life at convent school until their eventual entry into Dublin society. Causing outrage upon its publication in 1960, the novel explores community and class, the complexities of friendship and the sexual awakening of young women, all set against a backdrop of repression and religious fervour.

Book Club Questions

1. How would you describe Caithleen and Baba’s relationship over the course of the novel? Ultimately, are they friends or enemies?

2. The Country Girls was original banned by the Irish censor and deemed to be hugely inflammatory. Do you think elements of it are still controversial or has time wholly diminished its shocking nature?

3. What does O’Brien have to say about the role of women in 1950s Ireland? Do Caithleen and Baba exhibit different qualities to their mothers

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When I first read it at 16, what really chimed with me was their adventurousness, their defiant spirit. Female friendship had not been written about in that way in an Irish context until she came along.
Author Anne Enright on The Country Girls

The Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling

The series that has taken the world by storm, these novels follow Harry Potter, an ordinary boy living an unhappy life in a normal town in England, until he discovers that he’s a wizard on his eleventh birthday. At Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, he makes friends and enemies, learns how to play Quidditch and begins a journey to destroy the his parents’ killer, the most powerful, evil wizard of all times: Lord Voldemort.

Book Club Questions

1. How do you think the series reflects aspects of our modern society? What possible solutions does it propose to some of its issues?

2. The Harry Potter series has been a cultural phenomenon, with films, spin-offs and even a theme park. Why do you think it has been so successful?

3. Children, teenagers and adults alike all enjoy the reading the series. Do you think that people of varying ages read and experience the books differently?

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The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton

Hinton wrote The Outsiders as a teenager as a result of her anger over a disparity and rivalry in her own school. Set in 1960s Oklahoma, the novel is told from the perspective of fourteen-year-old Ponyboy, who, together which his two older brothers are part of a gang of working-class boys called the Greasers. One night he is attacked by a group of Socs, the Greasers’ upper-class rivals. This is the catalyst for changing all their lives.

Book Club Questions

1. Is it just the differences in class and socio-economic status between the Greasers and Socs that have made them rivals, or are there other reasons?

2. Ponyboy, Soda and Darrell have a strained relationship throughout the novel. After everything that happens, do you think their relationship will improve?

3. Why do you think the title ‘The Outsiders’ fits the story well? Who is, or are, the outsiders?

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I was surrounded by teens and I couldn’t see anything going on in those books that had anything to do with real life.
SE Hinton interview in The New Yorker, 2014

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾ by Sue Townsend

This comic classic has certainly stood the test of time. It tracks the rise of mid-teen angst, loves and losses, and friendship and family dramas in 1980s mid-England. Written as a diary, Adrian lays his heart bear to the reader with candid and hilarious honesty, relaying the minutiae of teenage woes and melodrama.

Book Club Questions

1. Despite being an overt comedy the novel contains some very serious and hard issues, including politics, unemployment and divorce. Do you think the comedy alleviates this, or can it feel trite?

2. Why do you think this book was such a success, and led to other spin-offs? After reading it, do you want to read more about Adrian's world?

3. The diary is set in the 1980s, with a very specific Thatcherite backdrop. Does this make it hard to relate to, or are Adrian's concerns universal across the years?

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As Adrian is the character he is, he seethes and rails against the world. And often he's right, but he does it in a pompous, or daft, or ineffective way. And he becomes this figure, howling into the wind.
Stephen Mangan

The Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer

The Twilight Saga follows the teenager Isabella Swan as she moves to a new town and meets a mysterious and alluring vampire named Edward Cullen. The books follow their journey through teenage life, love, friendships and family in both the human world and the mythical world, where vampires and werewolves threaten their relationship and their lives. The series has been hugely successful across the world over the last decade.

Book Club Questions

1. Why do you think The Twilight Saga has had so much success with young readers?

2. How does the author use settings, particularly Seattle in Twilight, to impact the plot?

3. Fans of the series often divide themselves in Team Edward and Team Jacob. Which team are you in? Do you think Bella makes the right choice?

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Book club questions of Coming of Age

To round off our 10 novels in the Adventure theme, here are five stimulating questions to ponder. And below, to continue exploring, try our further reading suggestions.

1. What do we mean when we talk about ‘coming of age’ in literature?

2. What are the shared features of these novels?

3. Why do you think that many coming of age novels stand the test of time and remain popular with new generations, years after publication?

4. Coming of age stories are often enjoyed by both children and adults. Why do you think they are universally enjoyed?

5. As well as following the story of a main character, coming of age novels often feature strong friendships and influential supporting characters. Can you think of any characters whose stories you would like to know more about?

The Novels Survey

More novels exploring Coming of Age

Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Normal People by Sally Rooney

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

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