Because nearly half of the stories in my debut collection, By Light We Knew Our Names (Dzanc Books, $14.95), are told from the perspective of adolescent narrators, I spent a lot of time thinking about how childhood is represented in literary fiction and how young protagonists can engage adult readers. I'm not of the mind that we leave coming-of-age novels behind when we leave high school. The liminal space between childhood and adulthood is a rich landscape for young adult and adult readers alike, and not solely because growing up is an experience every reader shares.
The transitional space of adolescence can be a powerful backdrop for other experiences of liminality as well: the experience of being between cultures, between geographies, between sexual identities and genders, between social classes and political spheres, and even between magic and realism. In researching models for my adolescent narrators, I looked toward contemporary novels that didn't dismiss or whitewash the experience of growing up: books that let their young protagonists feel the pain and wonder of teenhood. Books brave enough to dig deep into the heartache and immediacy of adolescence. Books filled with empathy for embodying the very real emotions of youth without trivializing the perspectives of the young.
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros (1984)
In this novel-in-vignettes, readers experience growing up in Chicago through the eyes of Esperanza Cordero, a Mexican-American girl who as she grows contemplates her place in the world. Esperanza watches the women in her community and neighborhood, wondering if she will grow up to be like them. Through Esperanza's perspective, Cisneros encapsulates the bright threshold of youth: "Everything is holding its breath inside me. Everything is waiting to explode like Christmas."
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides (1993)
Told in the collective perspective of a group of grown men looking back on their adolescent obsession with five sisters, Eugenides' watershed novel perfectly captures the pain and longing of first love, and of growing old. The boys' recollections strive to grasp the mystery of adolescence, and the need to connect with a group of girls as beyond their reach as the recapturing of youth.
Foxfire by Joyce Carol Oates (1993)
Through the perspective of Maddy Wirtz, the appointed historian of an all-girl gang, Oates pulls us into the raging energy and supernova light of girls beating back against a community and patriarchy that has failed them. Maddy's meditations on the fleeting nature of youth and anger are as devastating as they are lovely, as are her observations on female pain: "A three-quarter moon, glowering bone, with a hint of something bruised, battered, scarred. The moon has endured more than anybody can know."
Please Don't Come Back From the Moon by Dean Bakopoulos (2005)
In this magical realist novel where Detroit fathers disappear to the moon amid the Rust Belt's decline, readers follow Michael Smolij as he grows up fatherless and navigates what paths are available to the youth of Detroit's working class. Mikey's perspective allows readers access not only to his own journey, but to the concerns of an entire community facing the transition from factory to mall jobs in the decline of the automotive industry. As Mikey begins to feel the pull of the moon himself: "What could I say about the way my feet felt ready to drift off the earth, carry me away?"
Towelhead by Alicia Erian (2005)
Thirteen-year-old Jasira moves from Syracuse, where her Irish mother resides, to live with her Lebanese father in Houston. Caught between cultures and within the claustrophobic streets of her new suburban neighborhood, Jasira comes into girlhood in an environment where blandness conceals danger and abuse. Erian draws readers into the world of a teenage girl trying to understand her body, her identity, and her sense of home and belonging.
A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore (2009)
This novel follows Tassie Keltjin through college in a Midwestern town just after 9/11 where she navigates first love, nannying for a wealthy family, and watching her brother leave for war. Through Tassie's perspective, which fluctuates between laugh-out-loud funny and tenderly meditative, Moore expertly examines power and bureaucracy, socioeconomic divides and racism, and the inscrutability of time and mortality.
We the Animals by Justin Torres (2011)
In this fiercely narrated, slim novel of three brothers growing up in a volatile household, Torres allows readers into the wild-hearted heat and ferocious love of a family struggling to survive. Told in dense, vignette-like chapters, the novel follows one of the brothers as he begins to form his own identity apart from his siblings, an elegiac coming-of-age marked by pain and luminous prose.
The Virgins by Pamela Erens (2013)
Set in 1979 at a prestigious boarding school, Auburn Academy,
tracks the mythic love affair between students Aviva Rossner and Seung Jung through the eyes of Bruce Bennett-Jones, a voyeuristic point-of-view that lends the novel an ominous tone. Danger lurks beneath the surface of a relationship marked by lust and teenaged urgency. Erens treats her characters with empathy and nuance, and treats readers to a narrative of stark and lyrical prose.
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo (2013)
Told in impressionistic chapters,
We Need New Names
follows ten-year-old Darling from Zimbabwe under Mugabe's regime to her aunt's house in Detroit, where she comes to live when her options in Zimbabwe grow slim. Bulawayo's vivid language reveals the contrast between landscapes, as well as Darling's sense of displacement and search for her own identity across continents.
The Last Days of California by Mary Miller (2014)
Fifteen-year-old Jess Metcalf, her sister and her parents road-trip from Alabama to California in anticipation of the Second Coming and the end of days. Faced with the rapture, Jess finds herself on an accelerated timeline to come of age, to know herself, and to experience sex and drugs and everything else expected of a teenager. Miller skillfully crafts the novel's sense of time, a compressed stretch of days shuttling toward a clear end that forces Jess to contemplate mortality, faith, identity, and love.