Bildungsroman or Coming of Age Novels

A character grows mentally and emotionally in these narratives. Often, the character is a teenager trying to figure out how life should be lived.

See also Identity and Belonging

Theme: Coming of Age or Bildungsroman

David Copperfield | Charles Dickens

David, now an adult, narrates his life story from boyhood in Blunderstone, England. His father dies before his birth. His mother begins keeping company with Edward Murdstone, a cold, autocratic man. After they marry, David is sent away to boarding school where he is mistreated further, although a friendship with an influential boy, Steerforth, improves things somewhat. David’s troubles continue when he gets sad news from home, and he has to find somewhere to live.

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

Read “David Copperfield”

When the Legends Die |Hal Borland

Thomas, a Native American, is orphaned at a young age. Blue Elk befriends Thomas and tricks him into attending school where he learns the ways of white men. He struggles with his identity. Eventually he shows some ability as a rodeo performer, and learns the trade.

The Red Pony | John Steinbeck

Jodi Tiflin is the son of Carl, boss of a ranch. While growing up, Jodi is given a pony, an old man who wants to die at the ranch stays overnight, and he sees the circle of life. His grandfather visits, and talks about his experience leading people across the plains.

The Death of the Heart | Elizabeth Bowen

Portia is a sixteen-years-old who goes to live with her older half-brother, Thomas, and his wife, Anna, after her parents die. She meets Anna’s friend Eddie, who flirts with both of them. She tries to adjust to her new home, school, and acquaintances, and learns about love.

Great Expectations | Charles Dickens

Miss Havisham, a wealthy and eccentric spinster, asks for a young boy to be sent to her house to talk. Pip is sent and falls in love with her young ward, Estella. He continues to visit until it’s time for him to be apprenticed as a blacksmith, the trade of his guardian, Joe. Exposure to Estella and the world of wealth has left Pip dissatisfied with his life. He gets some news that could change his fortunes.

“Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.”

Read “Great Expectations”

The House on Mango Street | Sandra Cisneros

Esperanza Cordero, the narrator, is a young, Mexican-American girl living in the United States. The Cordero family is poor and lives in a small, run down house on Mango Street. Esperanza is growing up, learning what it is to be a woman. This isn’t a traditionally structured novel; it’s made up of forty-four vignettes.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings | Maya Angelou

Three-year-old Marguerite and her brother Bailey, a year older, arrive at their grandmother’s to live. Their grandmother owns a general store, a hub in the black community. One day, their father arrives and takes the children back to their mother and her boyfriend Mr. Freeman. Marguerite has a traumatic experience that makes her stop speaking for years.

Ellen Foster | Kaye Gibbons

Ellen remembers her past with her abusive, alcoholic father and overwhelmed mother. She also describes some scenes with her present foster family. Her living arrangements changed several times in a few years.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man | James Joyce

This novel has episodes from the life of Stephen Dedalus, mainly from his time at boarding school to his university years. Stephen is perceptive and his awareness of the world increases as he grows.

Read “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”

Tex | S. E. Hinton

When Tex returns home from school he finds his horse missing; his older brother, Mason has sold it because the family is low on funds. Their father is away with a rodeo. Mason wants to leave Oklahoma for the city. Tex learns about love, being a man, and who he really is.

Cat’s Eye | Margaret Atwood

Elaine Risley is a successful painter returning to Toronto for a retrospective of her work. She walks around the city preparing for the opening. She has many flashbacks to her schooldays and early adulthood, especially her interactions with three friends, Cordelia, Grace, and Carol. They mistreat Elaine, often criticizing her and physically punishing her for supposed offenses. As she gets older, Elaine returns some of the bad treatment.

That Was Then, This is Now | S. E. Hinton

Bryon Douglas is a sixteen-year-old troublemaker who starts to reconsider the way he lives. His foster brother, Mark, joins him in his reckless behaviour, but he has no interest in going straight.

My Antonia | Willa Cather

Jim Burden recollects the life story of Antonia Shimerda. As children, their families moved to rural Nebraska where they became neighbors. They become friends, being close in age, and with Antonia eager to learn English. An upset in the Shimerda family creates some distance between the two. Years later, the Burden’s move in to town and Antonia takes a job nearby.

Read “My Antonia”

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie | Muriel Spark

Miss Brodie is a teacher at a school for girls in Scotland. She has a strong personality and influences her students, especially “the Brodie set”, a group of six girls she hand-picked to groom. She talks to them about fascism, men, art, her vacations, and tries to direct them down certain paths. Some of the faculty want her removed. The story traces the development of her pupils.

Lord Jim | Joseph Conrad

Jim is standing trial for his dishonorable actions aboard the Patna, an endangered ship with eight hundred passengers. He eventually ends up on Patusan, an island. Jim gets involved in the local hostilities, and becomes important to the natives.

Read “Lord Jim”

To Kill a Mockingbird | Harper Lee

Scout and Jem Finch are growing up in small-town Alabama. They have a reclusive neighbour, Boo Radley, who is the subject of rumor and speculation in the town. Their father, a lawyer named Atticus, agrees to represent a black man, Tom Robinson, accused of raping a white woman.

“People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.”

Read “To Kill a Mockingbird”

A Separate Peace | John Knowles

Gene Forrester recalls his school days with his roommate Phineas. Gene is an intellectual and good athlete; Phineas is charismatic and the best athlete at school. Phineas wanted to form a secret society with the initiation being to jump from a tree into a river. During one visit to the tree, an accident occurs that Gene feels guilty over.

Annie John | Jamaica Kincaid

Annie, the narrator, grows up in Antigua. She has her first experience with death at age ten. During adolescence, her relationship with her mother becomes strained. The interwoven stories show the mental growth of Annie.

The Chosen | Chaim Potok

During a baseball game Rueven gets hit in the face with the ball and gets glass in his eye. He becomes friends with the boy who accidentally hit him, Danny. Reuven’s father is a scholar of the Talmud who encourages his son to study secular things and analyze them. Danny’s father is a Hasidic rabbi who expects his son to follow in his footsteps, but Danny is interested in psychology.

Summer | Edith Wharton

Charity Royall works in the library of her small New England town, North Dormer. She wants to earn enough money to leave the home of her guardian and the town. She meets a young architect from the city, Lucius Harney, and she becomes his guide. She becomes infatuated with him.

Read “Summer”

The Outsiders | S. E. Hinton

Ponyboy Curtis is fourteen and an orphan. He’s a member of the “Greasers”, a gang made up of poor people from the East Side. They have confrontations with the “Socs”, a rival gang with upper-class members.

The Dead of the House | Hannah Green

Vanessa Nye remembers her life from childhood to adulthood, including the history of her family. She got a lot of her information from conversations with her grandfather. He told her stories of his family, his canoe trips across Canada, and his friendship with an Indian guide.

Empire of the Sun | J. G. Ballard

Eleven-year-old Jim lives with his parents in Shanghai, in a wealthy European part of the city. When Pearl Harbor is attacked, many Europeans are evacuated, but Jim’s family stays. In the chaos following a Japanese attack, he gets separated from his parents. Jim is sent to a detention camp where survival is the main concern.

Summer of My German Soldier | Bette Greene

A group of German POWs on their way to a prison camp are brought into the store of Patty’s parents to buy hats. One prisoner, Anton, buys on behalf of everyone because he speaks English. Later, news spreads that a prisoner has escaped. Patty finds Anton lurking outside one night and offers to hide him.

Bless Me, Ultima | Rudolfo Anaya

Tony’s narrates his life from age six to twenty-two. He lives in a New Mexico village in the 1940s. He witnesses a killing, deals with being an outcast at school, and encounters different religious beliefs.

Little Women | Louisa May Alcott

The March family is poor, and their father is away fighting in the Civil War. The daughters – Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy – carry out their work responsibilities, pursue their artistic interests, and navigate the social scene.

“I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.”

Read “Little Women”

The World According to Garp | John Irving

Jenny Fields is an independent nurse who wants a child but not a husband. She is impregnated by a brain damaged soldier and names the child T. S. Garp. Jenny becomes a feminist celebrity while Garp struggles with his writing, marriage, and children.

The Painted Bird | Jerzy Kosinski

World War II begins and Eastern European Jews are being killed or sent to concentration camps. A six-year-old boy goes into hiding, bouncing around from village to village and home to home, experiencing varying degrees of mistreatment and help and witnessing acts of violence and sexuality.

I Am the Cheese | Robert Cormier

Adam is a teenage boy riding his bike from Massachusetts to Vermont to bring a gift to his father. Another narrative is a transcript of an interview of Adam, as well as his thoughts. The interviewer is trying to get Adam to remember his past. He remembers some unusual things about his family.

The Tree of the Red Stars | Tessa Bridal

Magda returns to Uruguay after an exile. We’re taken back to her childhood; she grows up in a male-dominated society, and with building political unrest. The revolution gets closer to her when she finds out some neighbors are involved, and Che Guevara comes to speak at a local event.

Donald Duk | Frank Chin

Donald Duk, the twelve-year-old narrator, hates his name and is embarrassed by his Chinese heritage. His uncle is going to give a presentation at his school, and Donald dreads it. Chinese New Year is approaching, so Donald’s father has been making paper airplanes to burn on the last day. Donald takes one of the planes thinking it won’t be missed, but his uncle tells him each plane has a story, so his father will notice. Donald starts to have dreams about building the transcontinental railroad, which one of his ancestors participated in.

Pelle the Conquerer | Martin Andersen Nexo

Lasse Karlsson and his eight-year-old son Pelle go to a Danish island looking for work as laborers. Lasse gets hired on Stone Farm. It is an oppressive, harsh place with lots of rough people. When he gets older, Pelle is apprenticed to a shoemaker. He later gets involved in union activities and social equality.

Read “Pelle the Conquerer”

The Human Comedy | William Saroyan

Homer Macauley, fourteen, delivers telegraph messages to help support his mother and younger brother Ulysses. His father is dead, and his older brother is serving in World War II. Homer has to deliver death messages, which begins to wear on him, making him question the world.

The Adventures of Augie March | Saul Bellow

Augie March tells his story of maturation beginning with his time in a poor area of Chicago as a teenager. He lives with his simple-minded mother; his brother, Georgie, who has a mental problem; his older brother Simon, who develops a desire for wealth and status; and Grandma Lausch, not his real grandmother but a boarder with a strong personality. Augie has a series of jobs thru his teens, eventually becoming the assistant to William Einhorn, a wealthy, disabled man who becomes his mentor. Augie has many jobs and pastimes as well as romantic entanglements.

A Day No Pigs Would Die |Robert Newton Peck

The Peck family lives in the 1920s on a farm in Vermont. They belong to an austere religious group, the Shakers. When the son,twelve-year-old Rob, does a good deed for a neighbor, he is rewarded with a piglet, Pinky. They become very close. Rob matures while balancing schoolwork with the practical work of the farm.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn | Betty Smith

The Nolan family lives in poverty in Brooklyn. The father, Johnny, works inconsistently as a singing waiter. He uses a lot of his earnings for alcohol. The mother, Katie, does janitorial work. The children, Francie and Neely, find metal scraps to sell to the junk dealer. Aunt Sissy is free-spirited and wants to be a mother, but all her babies have died. The narrative covers the life of Francie from childhood until she leaves home.

Read “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”

Bread Givers | Anzia Yezierska

It is the 1890s in a Jewish ghetto in Manhattan. The family is poor. The father, according to tradition, doesn’t work as he is a Rabbi. His daughters earn whatever money they can and hand it over to him. He rejects his daughter’s suitors if they cannot pay a sufficient dowry. He also interferes as a matchmaker. His youngest daughter, Sara, is independent-minded and resists her father’s direction. She makes plans to change her life.

How Green Was My Valley | Richard Llewellyn

Huw tells the story of his life in his Wales valley with his parents and siblings. His father and older brothers worked in the coal mine. Huw’s brother Davy led the workers in two strikes for higher wages. Some of the workers favoured unionizing and Socialism, which divided the family somewhat. The slag, a by-product of the mining operations, turned the valley black.

Read “How Green Was My Valley”

April Morning | Howard Fast

It is 1775 in Massachusetts where Adam Cooper, fifteen, feels he is still treated as a child. One night, word spreads that British soldiers are marching thru their town to destroy military supplies. Adam’s father, Moses, gives a rousing speech to the gathered crowd, encouraging them to fight. Adam is among those who sign up for the battle, although they are badly outnumbered.

Of Human Bondage | W. Somerset Maugham

Philip Carey is a young orphan raised by his uncle William, a vicar. Philip develops a love for books. He vacillates on religion. He suffers a lot of bullying at school due to his club foot. When he gets older, he develops interest in art and philosophy. He goes into medicine, and seeks contentment with various romances.

Read “Of Human Bondage”

Sweetgrass | Jan Hudson

It is late 1837 in Alberta and Montana where Sweetgrass, a fifteen-year-old girl, wants to marry Eagle Sun. She worries that a marriage will be arranged with someone else. She tries to balance her own wishes with her Blackfoot culture.

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