Growing Pains: Why Coming of Age Stories Are for Everyone

From Writer Unboxed:

My second novel, which was released last March, is a coming-of-age story. The book’s protagonist is a sixteen-year-old boy. A few months before the publication date, I had a conversation with my publisher about whether the book should be marketed as a young adult novel or as adult literary fiction.

“It really could be either,” my publisher said. “I think there’s something in it for everyone.”

After weighing the pros and cons of each, we decided to go with adult literary fiction, partly because the novel contains mature content that some parents might find unsuitable for teenagers, and also because we felt that the book would have an opportunity to reach a wider audience as an adult novel.

I was happy with this decision until the book came out and one of its early readers, who also happened to be my father, sent me an email. “It’s a good book, but I don’t think it’s for the over-seventy crowd,” he wrote. “It’s hard to identify with a teenager at my age.” (For the record, he also gave the book a four on Goodreads 😐.)

I was considering asking my publisher if we could revise the book’s metadata when positive reviews started to come in, all of them from adult readers.

“I’m not a teenager,” one woman told me, “but I could really relate to the book’s main character. I’ve had some similar struggles in my life recently. I was rooting for him to succeed the whole time.”

By definition, coming-of-age stories portray a time in a character’s life when they’re undergoing a metamorphosis—in the process of becoming a better, more evolved version of themselves. For most of us, this development takes place when we’re in our late teens or early twenties. But life, especially over the past few years, doesn’t always stick to the rules. Big changes can take place in anyone’s life at any time whether we want them to or not.

If you asked someone to give you a list of their favorite books, it’s likely that at least one coming-of-age story would make the cut. Classic novels like A Catcher in the RyeThe Chocolate War, and The Outsiders occupy an eternal place in people’s hearts because we all know what it’s like when the phonies won’t get off our backs and the rich kids cheat to win.

One of my favorite novels is Peace Like a River by Leif Enger. Set in 1950s Minnesota, it’s the coming-of-age story of eleven-year-old Reuben Lands. The story is full of adventure, tragedy, poverty, hope, love, and miracles that feel true-to-life. I’ve read it a dozen times. Every time I read it, I’m reminded that it’s not just our circumstances that define our characters but the ways in which we choose to handle them. I’m also reminded that, if we’re open to it, it’s possible to grow and change as a person no matter our age.

Although it’s been widely read in high school English classes since it was published, Peace Like A River was intended for an adult audience.

Coming-of-age stories are universal. They occupy their own special niche in the world of storytelling. By showing us humanity at its very worst and at its finest, these stories bring to light the limitations and awesome potential that human beings possess. And because coming-of-age stories deal with themes like self-discovery, injustice, sexuality, class, and race they can also sometimes help us make sense of events that happened in our lives decades ago and the ways in which those things have become woven into our cores.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed