Brilliant Coming-of-Age Novels for fans of Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
by Abbe Wright
I remember exactly how old I was when I read Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. for the first time. I was in fourth grade and was wholly awed by the education I received in the novel. It was my first peek into what was ahead: menstruation, training bras, and my first kiss. It also gave me permission to question bigger topics, like family and religion, things that, up until then, I’d accepted as fact. I’ve revisited Judy Blume’s 1970 novel several times since then, most recently, in honor of the movie adaptation, released in April of 2023.
Afterward, I found myself craving other coming-of-age books that touch on all of the themes of young adulthood. Between first loves, first heartbreak, and the serious work of fine-tuning one’s identity — intertwined with unavoidable issues like class divides, tragedy, and inherited family secrets — these stories of self-discovery are packed with emotional heft and nostalgic highs and lows. Here, I’ve rounded up a few of my favorite coming-of-age books that feel similar to Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. While they span identities, eras, and circumstances, each protagonist can agree on one thing: growing up is hard to do.
If you’re working through Colson Whitehead’s backlist, move this nostalgic novel-in-stories to the top of your list. During the summer of 1985, 15-year-old Benji Cooper leaves his mostly white Manhattan prep school behind for the familiar haven of Sag Harbor, a Hamptons community of Black families. With three months to reinvent himself, Benji does his utmost — getting a job scooping ice cream, attempting to change his name to Ben, ditching his bicycle for his older friend’s car — and generally dwelling in the consciousness of a bright, irreverent teen.
Prepare to be won over by the young sisters of Naomi Jackson’s debut. When their mother can no longer care for them, 10-year-old Phaedra and 16-year-old Dionne are sent from Brooklyn to Barbados to live with their grandmother. While Dionne experiences first love and pines for home, Phaedra familiarizes herself with Bird Hill, where her family has lived for generations, and learns more about her mother every day. When their absentee father appears to take them home, Phaedra and Dionne will have to reconsider what home means to them.
If you haven’t read Rita Mae Brown’s groundbreaking coming-of-age novel that’s been changing lives since it published in 1973 (Gloria Steinem’s words!), it’s time to treat yourself. It centers on the singular Molly Bolt, a spirited and uncompromising girl who grows up in a poor adoptive family in the South. As Molly discovers her love of women and rejects the repressive norms of heteronormativity, she carves a path for herself in the world and finds her own happy ending.
Inspired by the author’s own childhood during Escobar-era Colombia, Fruit of the Drunken Tree follows 7-year-old Chula — who’s only known life in Bogota behind her gated community — and a young woman named Petrona, brought from the guerilla slums to serve as a live-in maid for Chula’s family. As Chula observes the mysterious maid, Petrona struggles between the pull of first love and her family’s needs — while simultaneously, the country-wide conflict rapidly escalates. A dazzling force of a novel that rewrites history from marginalized perspectives.
This tender novel opens when Sam is seven years old. Her father isn’t around much, her mother struggles to make ends meet, and she doesn’t fit in with the other girls at school. Sam doesn’t care about popularity. All she wants to do is climb — trees, buildings, anything. By high school, she’s channeled this passion into rock climbing, metaphorically trying and failing to lift herself up out of the low-wage muck of the working class that keeps trying to suck her back in. It’s an honest and raw look at the evolution from girl to young woman — in turns heartbreaking and hopeful.
Álvarez’s poignant novel tells the story of a young girl named Anita de la Torre, eleven years old at the book’s outset, and growing up during the political unrest of the Dominican Republic in 1960. Anita’s concerns are both natural for a girl that age (puberty, boys, planning her 12th birthday party with excited anticipation) and much more mature (assassination plots for dictator El Jefe, code words, and missing family members). Anita is on the cusp of adulthood and the events swirling around her force her to grow up overnight.
Most kids in middle school think they’re freaks, but the kids of the Binewski family actually are. Told from the point of view of Olympia Binewski, we learn that her mother and father have bred their children to be human oddities: there’s Arturo the Aquaboy, who has flippers for limbs, Iphy and Elly, the uber-flexible Siamese twins, Olympia, or Oly, is an albino hunchback, and Chick has telekinetic abilities. Together, they travel the country in a van, creating their own circus of sorts and sibling rivalry of the highest order ensues.
Fatima Farheen Mirza’s debut novel details the three children of an Indian American Muslim family — Amar, Hadia, and Huda — jumping back and forth in time between their childhood and present day. These once-tight-knit siblings are having a reunion at Hadia’s wedding; Amar hasn’t seen his family in three years after battling addiction. It’s a beautiful story of the way family evolves and grows together despite bumps in the road.
James Baldwin’s semi-autobiographical novel tells the story of one day in the life of fourteen-year-old John Grimes, the stepson of a fire-breathing and abusive Pentecostal preacher in Harlem during the Depression. Despite its confines of a 24-hour period, the novel is expansive in its detailing of racism, identity, religion, and sexuality.
Midwesterner Lee Fiora gets a big wake-up call when she arrives at Ault, a prestigious private boarding school in Massachusetts. Being a scholarship student unaccustomed to the preppy handbook the other students seem to live by, Lee instantly feels that she doesn’t measure up — in athletics, academics, or extracurricular activities. Her insecurities dictate her actions as she tries and fails to blend in with all the other students. A critique of the classism and privilege at Ault elevates this novel to more than just a fish-out-of-water story.
The House on Mango Street details a year in the life of Esperanza Cordero, a young Chicana girl in Chicago, as she enters adolescence and deals with events that shape her formative years in untold ways. From struggling with her family’s poverty to feeling “othered” due to her Mexican American background to being sexually assaulted, Esperanza is confronted by all the ways life is unfair to women and especially to women of color.
Written by a former Obama campaign staffer, we meet David Greenfield, growing up as an outcast in his public school in Boston in 1992. David is shocked when Marlon Wellings sticks up for him in the cafeteria and the two form a fast friendship, bonding over their love of the Celtics. Mar teaches David about Black culture and the two begin to plot their hustle to Harvard but will the gap between Marlon’s housing project upbringing and David’s white privilege become too much to overcome?
Seventeen-year-old Nadia, raised in a tight-knit Black community in Southern California is grieving the death of her mother by suicide. She dreams of college as a means to escape her town and her pain, but instead, she starts sleeping with Luke, the son of a pastor and an injured football star, and becomes pregnant. The scandal rocks the town and ignites the gossip and Nadia must find a way to deal with her impending motherhood while adjusting to being motherless.