Recommended reading for Middle School
The "Coming of Age" Part 2
Each week, the English Department here at AKS Lytham will recommend some reading which we hope teenage readers might enjoy.
Last week, we looked at ‘coming-of-age’ novels of modern times. These sorts of books focus on the life of teenagers or younger children, and their perceptions of the world. Often these books are bildungsroman: stories in which the hero/heroine grows in experience and understanding as well as ageing physically.
This week, we’re looking at classic older texts written from a young person’s perspective.
Oranges are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson (1985)
Although relatively modern, this novel is a classic and appears on many A=level English literature reading lists. This an autobiographical novel. Winterson is a Lancashire lass, and grew up in Accrington.
A bookish child with an eccentric adoptive mother who had a strict Christian outlook on life, Jeanette finds herself in adult company a lot of the time, and is considered weird by children her own age.
As the novel opens, we begin to get a sense of Jeanette’s world and the dominant role her adoptive mother plays in her life – there is a father, but he is largely absent from the story. This atypical matriarchal working-class society in which women gossip and judge. In the eyes of Jeanette’s mother, everything is either black or white, either good or evil: ‘there were no shades of grey: she had never heard of mixed feelings. There were friends and there were enemies.’
Jeanette’s mother is heavily involved, obsessed even, with the local Pentecostal church and is grooming young Jeanette for a future as a church missionary. The novel contains some brilliant observations on the mother’s determination to take every opportunity to do the Lord’s work, converting the heathen in the ‘Great Struggle between good and evil’, and how family life revolves around this quest.
When as an older teen, Jeanette finds herself attracted to girls, her mother angrily throws her out of the house (after first trying to exorcise the spirits out of her) and she is forced to lodge with friends. Her love of reading sustains her in these times, and she imagines herself out of the closed-in world of Accrington. Eventually, she escapes…to the dreaming spires of Oxford.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
Every American schoolchild has probably read or been read to from this novel, and it should be part of everyone’s reading list. Another semi-autobiographical novel, this book is narrated by six-year girl in the 1930s living in racially-segregated Alabama in the ‘South’ of the USA. The girl (nicknamed Scout) is very much based on Harper Lee herself whose father was also a lawyer like the great hero of this book – Atticus Finch. Atticus bravely defends an African-American, who has been falsely accused of assaulting a white teenager, and the book charts his relationship with his two children, the neighbours and the tension between the Black and White communities.
The narrator is Scout (now grown-up) and although the vocabulary is adult, Scout’s childlike view of the world is skillfully narrated. She and her brother Jem have a reclusive neighbour, Boo Radley, who they think of as a monstrous ghost. Their absurd fantasies are shattered when they meet him.
This novel is in the classic Bildungsroman style – our child narrator undergoes a journey from an unthinking acceptance of the values of her dysfunctional society to a much sharper awareness of its cruel judgmental racism.
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (1861)
This was Charles Dickens's thirteenth novel. It was his second novel, after ‘David Copperfield’, to be fully narrated in the first person. Another Bildungsroman, or a coming-of-age novel, it is a classic work of Victorian literature and depicts the growth and personal development of an orphan named Pip.
Because Pip is narrating his story many years after the events of the novel take place, there are really two Pips in ‘Great Expectations’ (very like ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’): Pip the narrator and Pip the character—the voice telling the story and the person acting it out.
Dickens takes great care to distinguish the two Pips, imbuing the voice of Pip the narrator with perspective and maturity while also imparting how Pip the character feels about what is happening to him as it actually happens.
Pip, as seen in the picture, takes a trip to his parents’ grave whereupon he encounters an escaped convict, Magwitch, who forces Pip to steal food for him from his adult sister and her husband (the blacksmith, Joe). Pip does so, although his convict is recaptured out on the marshes. Magwitch eventually makes money and anonymously sponsors Pip with an allowance to make him ‘a gentleman’.
Pip is grateful for the chance to improve himself and he leaves behind his apprenticeship with the honest humble Joe to seek his fortune in London. He is hoping to be refined and win the heart of the upper-class Estella, the wealthy Miss Havisham’s adoptive daughter (yes, orphans do appear a lot in Victorian stories). Things do not go to plan, and our hero (now a man) realises that the unconditional love of the people in his humble Kent village is worth so much more than the brittle snobberies of High Society life.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë ( 1847)
Charlotte Brontë's ‘Jane Eyre’ opens with Jane (an orphaned, isolated ten-year-old), living with a family that dislikes her. Her aunt, Mrs Reed, locks the unfortunate Jane in the Red Room, where Jane suffers great psychological torment. Her cousins bully her, but she gives back as good as she gets, despite her aunt’s punishments. Eventually, Mrs Reed sends her to Lowood, a school for ‘charity girls’ run like a prison by the tendentious Mr Brocklehurst. There she meets her best friend, Helen Burns.
She grows in strength, excels at school, becomes a governess to a wealthy local landowner MR Edward Rochester. Rochester is gruff and self-loathing with a fascinating backstory. Eventually, Jane falls in love with Rochester, although, as a humble governess, she feels she lacks the necessary sophistication and good family.
After being deceived by him (he is exposed as a bigamist, and his mad wife is being cared for in the attic), Jane goes to Marsh End, where she meets Rochester’s opposite (the serious St John Rivers) regains her spirituality and discovers her own strength. By novel's end, Jane is a strong, independent woman, and forgives Edward.
Jane Eyre is a Gothic classic with lots of horror elements and mysterious secrets. Jane herself from girlhood to womanhood is a fascinating person. She is rebellious in a world demanding obedient women. In her own way, Jane rebels against Mrs. Reed, St. John Rivers, and even Mr. Rochester, the man she marries at the end of the book.
Jane's personality contains many qualities that would be considered desirable in an English woman; she's frank, sincere, and lacks personal vanity. But the rebel streak she has is targeted at "inequalities of society." Jane reacts strongly when she is discredited due to her class and/or gender.
The Catcher in the Rye by J D Salinger (1951)
Another American classic, this novel is narrated by Holden Caulfield a teenager from a privileged background who wanders New York after being expelled from his expensive prep school, ironically called Pencey High. Holden is a classic disillusioned teenager who never gives anyone the benefit of the doubt. When you read this book, the teenage voice is so authentic it is hard to believe that the novel is seventy years’ old.
Holden Caulfield feels a burning sense of isolation from his peers and his aimless journey around 1950's New York reinforces his ideas about the adult world’s capacity for constant disappointment (we might call this ‘teenage Angst’). Holden clumsily attempts to navigate through a new world of social mores and rituals, for which he has neither the skill nor the heart. Every teenager feels this way at some point in those tumultuous years.
Holden’s sad and desperate need to protect the innocence of childhood through his simple love for his little sister is very touching, and his fantasy role as protector of an idyllic childhood landscape gives the book its title.
Free of sentiment, subtly humorous, and achingly sad, this is a book for young people who think they want to be adults, and for adults who remember being young.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868)
‘Little Women’ is a coming-of-age story that begins in Civil War America. It follows the lives and growth from girlhood to womanhood of the four March girls: Meg, 17; Josephine (or Jo), 15; Beth, 14; and Amy, 12. Their father, a minister, is serving in the war, and the girls and their mother must keep the house running and work hard in their father's absence. When we first meet the girls, it is just before Christmas, and they are sad because their poverty and the current hard times won't really make things feel much like Christmas—especially since they can't afford presents. Realizing how fortunate they are to have their mother and each other, they resolve to work harder to be more selfless and good, as their father would want.
Without a doubt, ‘Little Women’ remains Louisa May Alcott's best-known work. Its charm and innocence continue to engage readers, despite the fact that it shows a world of horses and carriages, crinolines, and bonnets which is long since vanished. Jo March is regarded as one of the most complete, self-possessed, and best-loved characters in children's literature. The book is very life-affirming and extremely sad too. Because you get to know the girls so well, you root for them throughout, although there is tragedy along the way.
The main conflict of the story is simply growing up. Inside each of the girls are a desire to grow up and a desire to keep things the same. They know that when they grow up things will inevitably change and that scares them. The struggle is within each of them.
Although modern readers may find the March girls depicted in the book to be sweet and saccharine flawed and vulnerable. The author dared to give her characters' faults such as selfishness, vanity, temper, and bashfulness—qualities never seen before in such young characters. It is this realism that gives the book its power and resonance today.
The novel is as popular today as it was when first published in Victorian times, and there have been numerous film adaptations.
Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee (1959)
This is a memoir really, and arguably not fiction as such, but, like the James Herriot books, it can be read like a novel as it has so much descriptive literary merit and the characters are drawn in a fictive (possibly exaggerated) style with amusing commentary from the narrator.
Young Laurie Lee, just three years old, is brought to his new home, a cottage in a Gloucestershire village which he is to share with his mother, brothers, and sisters until he is almost twenty. The section is a ragbag of memories from his years there: his terror on first arrival when he was alone for the first time in his life; his discovery of the teeming abundance of nature all around him; the arrival of a soldier who had deserted from the war; the end of the First World War, with its attendant wildness and celebrations.
It depicts the world of a Cotswold village where Laurie grew up (a place without cars or electricity and where farming was done as it had been for generations with the horse and the plough). In his early years, the younger men of the village are drafted into the First World war, and the book deals with the ensuing grief very touchingly. Laurie describes the farmers, postmen, the squire, his family, the schoolchildren, and his evil teacher ‘Crabby B’ in a vivid and amusing style.