This was one of the bimonthly themes that generated quite a bit of discussion among us ladies here in GatheringBooks. While my picture book offering focused more on death and bereavement and dealing with loss, I have also been reading quite a bit on coming of age in YA literature, both classics and contemporary.
And since we are social scientists by training, we can not help but tease out recurrent themes and parallels with the books we read and a few striking divergences as well. Iphigene has touched on that in her post about Coming of Age as an Experience of Love in Literature and her Death and the Coming of Age in Literature.
I have been deliberately postponing this write-up as I had every intention of reading all of the novels I am sharing here, but alas, I only have 24 hours in a day, and could only do so much. While I have read most of the novels in my modest compilation here, I would also touch a bit on some of my yet-unread books that have been touted as a good representation of coming of age in YA literature.
Coming of Age in Classic YA Lit
I do not know how literature majors define classic literature, but here are a few that I believe have stood the test of time and are pretty much assigned readings in most middle/high schools if I am not mistaken.
The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger
I read The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger when I was a college freshman. And like most of the books I read then, it went over my head. I knew that it was an important book and that I should be moved by it, but I didn’t quite understand the angst of the protagonist and much of what I’ve read, I have completely forgotten. I only know that Holden Caulfield has become the posterboy for any adolescent who may be going through some kind of existential crisis.
And so, I asked Iphigene and Fats about their recollections of this book.
Fats: The one thing that comes to mind when I hear The Catcher in the Rye is “phonies,” and how there are so many of that in this world.
Iphigene: Discovering that it isn’t the world that has it all wrong, that it is you who has the world all wrong.
For teachers who wish to use this in the classroom, here is a comprehensive teaching unit created by Audrey Michelle Farrugia for Eastern Michigan University. It includes printable discussion questions across each of the significant themes in the book and possible activities that can be done in class.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
I was asked by my college professor to write a reflection paper on the movie adaptation of William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies. While I haven’t yet read the book (I own a copy of it, still lying unread in my bookshelf), I can remember the movie vividly. For those unfamiliar with both the book and the novel, it has something to do with a group of young British boys who were trapped in an island when their airplane crashed. Since there was no adult around to lead the boys and provide them guidance, they had to fend for themselves in order to survive.
The reader/viewer would initially marvel at the boys’ increasing amounts of resourcefulness as they made use of their environment to feed themselves and how they built makeshift dwellings to protect their sheltered-schoolboy bodies from the elements. There were default leaders (possibly prefects from the school), the inevitable bullies, and the usual ‘victims’ – boys with eyeglasses or weight problems.
I was especially fascinated by the social hierarchy and political structure that seemed to organically emerge out of necessity and perhaps brought about as well by pre-existing factions and cliques – and how lawlessness can prevail in the name of newly-formed, rudimentary, and primal justice systems – stripping away anything and everything that defines humanity as defined by so-called ‘civilized society.’ This makes for a great philosophical discussion among older readers.
For teachers who wish to make use of this in the classroom, William Golding’s official website indicates that the author has specially commissioned a downloadable pdf teacher resource from Robin Haward, a teacher with vast experience.
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
A Separate Peace was one of the novels that came highly recommended by my good friend and travel buddy Tuting Hernandez when he learned that we were doing a coming-of-age theme. As I was reading the novel, it reminded me distinctly of Dead Poets Society with the all-boys boarding school in New England, then a little bit of The Ocean at the End of the Lane since the entire narrative is based on a nostalgic recollection of Gene Forrester who is returning to his old prep school fifteen years after he graduated, then it also reminded me of The Lord of the Flies with the sense of collective justice that young boys tend to assume amongst themselves in their tight little circle where boundaries are redefined as well as notions of right and wrong. The novel was also set during the early years of World War II which offers a different kind of perspective with a backdrop of uncertainty, bleak humor, scant resources, and youth being shed off like a second skin.
Two boys. Phineas and Gene. Best of friends. Phineas, or Finny as he is called, is an all-around athlete, devilishly handsome, playful with borderline irreverence that remains unerringly charming, with an effervescence that was fully captured by his roommate and best bud, Gene. The latter is a geek, blessed with a sharp mouth and quick wit, and fairly well-developed athletic skills – rightfully called Finny’s wingman. Then of course, there was the accident. I read the novel with my heart in my mouth, just knowing in my gut that something tragic is about to happen, and it did.
The tree was not only stripped by the cold season, it seemed weary from age, enfeebled, dry. I was thankful, very thankful that I had seen it. So the more things remain the same, the more they change after all - plus c’est la même chose, plus ça change. Nothing endures, not a tree, not love, not even a death by violence.
Until now, I am not sure whether it was truly an accident, or a playful shove, or a deliberate testing of boundaries just to see how far one can go before breaking, or an unthinking act brought about by unarticulated affection that may have been pushed and jerked from one’s gut – as it may be deemed unacceptable. This is a novel that would stay with the reader even after the initial reading – making one wonder about the nature of friendship – the darknesses and harrowing truths that are the underside of the carefree laughter and casual meandering conversations that seem to go everywhere but there; the physical realization that one is growing up and the many sordid implications and heartaches of what it means.
For teachers who wish to make use of this in the classroom, here is an amazingly-detailed 47 page downloadable pdf file created by Milliken Publishing Company that is meant to be the ultimate Teachers’ Companion, teasing out each of the chapters in minute detail as well as a list of discussion questions that can be explored in class. And here is a downloadable pdf link created by Teacher’s Pet Publications that includes crossword puzzles, word search, flash cards, juggle letters that can be used as an additional resource.
The Giver by Lois Lowry
And we can’t possibly talk about coming of age without discussing Lois Lowry’s The Giver, winner of the 1994 Newbery Medal.
I reread this book with my eleven year old daughter during the summer and we did have quite a lot of conversations about life, growing up, what colours signify, the notion of freedom as opposed to rigid rules and inflexible societal structures – among others.
Even before there were dystopian novels, there was The Giver providing a bleak monochromatic picture of what life can be reduced to, without memories both painful and glorious that would provide us with guidance and direction for future things to come; without authentic emotions that provide the colour to one’s cheeks, the glow in one’s eye, the joyful bounce in one’s step.
I believe this to be the epitome of coming-of-age because there is that distinct sense of having one’s eyes gradually open to events previously unseen, emotions heretofore perceived as irrelevant, and the role one has to play in the larger scheme of things. Along with knowledge comes the burden of responsibility – the comforting rug being literally dragged out from underneath, exposing all the ugly shards of uncertainty and fragments of collective failure and regret swept away, leaving indelible aches and pains that the young reader is now forced to endure and make sense of. It is about taking a stand, no matter how difficult or seemingly-hopeless everything is. It is being transformed into the person one would eventually become; a turning of the leaf, one’s teeny-tiny choices bearing the weight of the world as one selects the ‘right’ path amongst a multitude of near-rights, and would-be-wrongs. Such a timeless book.
For teachers who wish to introduce Jonas to their students, here is a downloadable PDF guide created by Portland Ovations that includes Lowry’s Newbery Acceptance Speech, study guide connections to common core standards, and a 52-paged document including printable identity web charts, story organiser tables and so much more.
Other Classics You Should Check Out: Rebels and Outsiders
While I have not had the chance to read through these two novels, I would still encourage you to check them out as their themes also deal with coming of age: The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton; and a novel that I bought from Budapest: The Rebels by Sandor Marai.
If there are more classic novels you would like to recommend that deal with coming-of-age, we’d love to hear about them.
A Separate Peace and The Giver
Read-a-Latte Challenge: 178, 179 (150)