15 Essential Coming-of-Age Novels for Tweens
by Liz Lesnick
Is there anything harder than being a tween? Sometimes you want nothing more than to be independent; sometimes all you want is to be a kid. Your body’s changing, your friends seem like strangers, it’s like you’re on a roller coaster that you didn’t want to ride.
And while the last thing a kid this age wants is advice from their parent, try suggesting one of these powerful coming-of-age books (or leaving it on their bed). You just may be rewarded with a hug!
Over a sleepy summer in a sleepier Florida town, an unlikely friendship forms between four very different girls as they team up to protest an outdated — and environmentally unfriendly — tradition carried out by the Floras, the local Scout group. At turns moving and funny, and always relatable, Strange Birds mixes themes of friendship and small, everyday rebellions that make a huge difference.
Growing up means learning uncomfortable things about history, your family, or society. In Clean Getaway, an 11-year-old boy named Scoob goes on a spontaneous road trip with his G’ma. As they make their way across the American South, Scoob faces upsetting information about the area’s history and his family’s heritage.
The Cat Ate My Gymsuit
Paula Danziger penned many coming-of-age gems, but this is her masterpiece. The story of Marcy, a chubby middle school student whose parents don’t get her, but whose favorite teacher, Ms. Finney, does, will resonate with anyone who’s ever felt like an outsider. When Ms. Finney gets fired, Marcy finds the strength she didn’t know she had to fight the decision. Readers will despair and rejoice along with Marcy.
Merci Suárez Changes Gears
First crushes, mean girls, and an aging grandparent combine into a heartfelt coming-of-age novel about a young Latina girl. From complicated friendships to new romance and family secrets, readers will love every part of this Newbery Medal-winning novel. The story continues in Merci Suárez Can’t Dance and Merci Suárez Plays it Cool.
Meet Stargirl. She’s the new girl at Mica High who captures the most popular boy’s heart with her bright smile and colorful, individual style. But when her classmates have enough of her unique ways, they turn on her, and even her boyfriend urges her to be “normal.” Jerry Spinelli weaves a tense, touching story about the perils of popularity and the thrill of first love that’s a must-read for tweens and their parents.
When Raymie’s dad abandons her family for another woman, she comes up with a plan to get him back—winning a beauty pageant. As the competition heats up, Raymie meets Louisiana and Beverly, who challenge her in unexpected ways and become her best friends. Kids who enjoy this award-winning book will also want to read the companion novels Louisiana’s Way Home and Beverly, Right Here.
When I asked my husband if he had any suggestions for this list, he immediately replied, “The Outsiders.” S. E. Hinton’s classic story of Ponyboy, a teenager on the outskirts of regular society, is as striking today as it was when it was first written. Once you’ve met Ponyboy, Sodapop, and the rest of the Greasers and Socs, you’ll never forget them.
The Season of Styx Malone
Caleb and his brother Bobby are excited to spend their summer having adventures in the woods behind their house, even if they secretly wish for something bigger. Then the boys meet their neighbor, Styx Malone. Styx comes up with a plan where they will trade one small thing for something better until they achieve their wildest dream. But will the boys find themselves in over their heads?
Are you noticing a theme of ensemble casts? That’s because coming-of-age is rarely (if ever) a solo journey. The six kids in Harbor Me can attest to that fact: they meet up every week to talk privately about the very real, very pressing issues going on with their families and personal lives. It’s a poignant read that praises vulnerability among friends and offers diverse perspectives.
In this beautiful novel about family and belonging, 12-year-old Addie goes on a mission to find her biological father. She finds her roots in a family of luchadores, professional wrestlers. Addie gets swept away by this exciting part of her history but soon learns that being a family means showing up, taking off your mask, and working through challenges together.
“I feel far away from where I should be. It might sound silly, but I feel far away from who I am.” So confesses Bryan, a comics-loving kid growing up in Brooklyn who’s falling a little too far into the orbit of his risk-taking friend, Mike. Between peer pressure, parental pressure, and the cultural scripts that try to tell Bryan who he’s allowed to be, he’s feeling less sure of himself every day. But with the help of the superheroes in his comics, Bryan writes a new script.
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants
Ask my daughter if she liked The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, and she’ll exclaim, “I loooooooooove that book.” Ann Brashares’s tale about four best friends and a pair of jeans that miraculously fits each girl perfectly is utterly enchanting and moving. Readers will see parts of themselves in each character as she faces the challenges of first love, changing family dynamics, and shifting friendships.
Twelve-year-old Piper refers to herself as a “blender” — someone meant to blend into the crowd rather than stand out. Still, Piper tries to be supportive of her dad when he lands a big job that takes them both to Chumley Prep, a school bursting with star-like students. Charming and full of heart, Shine! reminds readers that kindness is their greatest talent of all.
Full of Beans
It’s the middle of the Great Depression in Key West, Florida, and headstrong Beans isn’t buying any of the grown-up’s nonsense — especially not President Roosevelt’s, who’s pretending like things are going to be on the up-and-up any day now. When Beans decides to take matters into his own hands and earn some money to help his mom, everything spirals to a head.
Middle grade readers will fall in love with Fonda, Drew, and Ruthie — three best friends who find navigating seventh grade a lot harder than they thought it would be. As each girl deals with issues around friendship, crushes, and new experiences, they’ll learn that there is nothing as special as the support of friends!
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2014 and updated in 2022.