16 Coming-of-Age Stories Set Around the World

16 Coming-of-Age Stories Set Around the World

Tuesday, 15 March, 2022

Ah, growing up is hard to do. Whether you’re 14, 34, 54, or more, there’s always room for personal growth. Painful, difficult, perplexing, character-building personal growth. Here’s to the oddballs and outcasts that suffer on the page so we can live vicariously through them.

These stores are set in cities and towns all over the world and are colored by the cultures in which they’re set, but the themes are universal. The characters wrestle with similar issues, no matter where they find themselves. There are complex family dynamics, unrequited love, embarrassing situations, scary circumstances, identity crises — basically the life stuff that bedevils all of us in the various seasons of our lives.

The strong thread that connects these disparate people in far-flung locations is their growing awareness of who they are, where they belong, and how to forge their paths forward.

rule

Mexico

Gods of Jade and Shadow - Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Gods of Jade and Shadow
> Silvia Moreno-Garcia

What would you do if your daydreams suddenly came true, but not at all in the way you imagined? That’s just what happens to our heroine — 18-year-old Casiopea Tun — when the Mayan god of death appears to her unexpectedly and, in exchange for a favor, promises her everything her heart desires.

Casiopea, a Cinderella-esque poor relation, is doomed to fetch, carry, and clean for her domineering grandfather; meanwhile, her useless, weaselly, fawning older cousin Martin subjects her to daily abuse and waits to inherit the family estate. One afternoon, left at home alone as punishment while the rest of the household enjoys a family outing, she accidentally awakens the spirit of Hun-Kamé, the Mayan god of death. Before she quite understands what’s happening, she’s agreed to help him on his quest to reclaim his throne from his villainous brother.

Their Jazz Age odyssey takes them from the jungles of the Yucatán Peninsula to the city of Merída, and then on to Veracruz, Mexico City, Tijuana, the beaches of Baja California, and finally, into the gloom of the Mayan underworld. Although Casiopea does eventually cool her heels in the Pacific Ocean, her dreams don’t come true in the way she expected. And this perilous undertaking not only has consequences for her — it could doom or save the entire world. {more}

Somewhere, far from the bothersome grandfather and impertinent coterie of relatives, there would be sleek automobiles (she wished to drive one), daring pretty dresses (which she’d spotted in newspapers), dances (the faster, the better), and a view of the Pacific sea at night (she knew it courtesy of a stolen postcard). She had cut out photos of all these items and placed them under her pillow, and when she dreamed, she dreamed of night swimming, of dresses with sequins, and of a clear, starlit sky. — Silvia Moreno-Garcia

 

Iran & Oregon

Darius the Great Is Not Okay - Adib Khorram

Our hero Darius may be named for Darius I, the third Persian King of Kings. But our Darius feels anything but mighty. He’s nerdy, overweight, really (really) into tea, lonely, and depressed. Now his parents have announced that the family will soon travel to Iran to visit his dying grandfather.

Darius knows way more about The Hobbit and Star Trek: The Next Generation than he does about his Persian heritage. He doesn’t fit in at home, so how can he possibly feel a sense of belonging in Iran?

His anxiety about the trip slowly increases, and he’s understandably apprehensive about meeting his extended family. There’s his intimidating grandfather, the unexpected surprise of his very loving grandmother, assorted aunts, uncles, and cousins — and the boy next door who just might become Darius’ first real friend and ally.

The story unfolds through Darius’ affectingly honest and vulnerable voice. He’s kind, good-natured, insecure — all the things that make being a teenager so challenging. But his experiences in Iran, both sweet and bitter, help Darius slowly find peace with himself and his family, especially his father. {more}

Qottab are these little pastries filled with crushed almonds and sugar and cardamom, then deep-fried and coated with powdered sugar. They are my favorite sweet. According to Mom, Yazd is pretty much the dessert capital of Iran, and had been for thousands of years. All the best desserts originated there: qottab, and noon-e panjereh (these crispy rosette things dusted in powdered sugar), and lavoshak (the Iranian version of Fruit Roll-Ups, but made with fruits popular in Iran, like pomegranate or kiwi). Yazdis had even invented cotton candy, which was called pashmak. — Adib Khorram

 

Edinburgh

City of Ghosts - Victoria Schwab

City of Ghosts
> Victoria Schwab

Cassidy Blake is a fairly normal 12-year-old — except for the fact that she can move through the Veil between this world and the next, and her best friend Jacob is a ghost.

Her parents are on a quest to visit the world’s most haunted places for their reality TV show Inspectres. When they visit Edinburgh, Cass and Jacob experience strange happenings — even stranger than usual — and are soon face to face with an evil spirit known as the Raven in Red.

From Greyfriars Kirkyard to the White Hart Inn, and up the Royal Mile to Mary King’s Close and Edinburgh Castle, Cass, Jacob, and the TV crew tour all of the best historical sights — and confront the supernatural and bloody history of the Scottish capital. {more}

People think that ghosts only come out at night, or on Halloween, when the world is dark and the walls are thin. But the truth is, ghosts are everywhere. In the bread aisle at your grocery store, in the middle of you grandmother’s garden, in the front seat on your bus. Just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they aren’t there. — Victoria Schwab

 

Prague

Daughter of Smoke and Bone - Laini Taylor

Daughter of Smoke & Bone
> Laini Taylor

This fantasy adventure story will take you from Prague to Marrakech, and some magical places found in the unknown in-between.

Our heroine Karou is 17 and multi-lingual, though not all of the languages she speaks are human. She has blue hair — it grows out of her head that way — and she fills her sketchbook with drawings of monsters that may or may not be real. Much to the chagrin of her best friend Zuzana, Karou also has a very unusual job that requires her to take off on mysterious errands through magical portals to other countries.

When the story begins, mysterious winged creatures are scorching their palm prints into doorways in cities around the world. On a mission in Marrakech, Karou becomes entangled with Akiva, an angel-demon. Once he turns his fire-colored eyes on her, nothing will ever be the same. This novel deftly weaves elements we love: suspense and danger, atmospheric settings, a touch of romance, and a gut-punch ending. As Kerou goes on her mystical quest, she’s also on the hunt to understand her past and know herself. {more}

The streets of Prague were a fantasia scarcely touched by the twenty-first century… It was a city of alchemists and dreamers, its medieval cobbles once trod by golems, mystics, invading armies. Tall houses glowed goldenrod and carmine and eggshell blue, embellished with Rococo plasterwork and capped in roofs of uniform red. Baroque cupolas were the soft green of antique copper, and Gothic steeples stood ready to impale fallen angels. The wind carried the memory of magic, revolution, violins, and the cobbled lanes meandered like creeks. — Laini Taylor

 

Croatia

Girl at War - Sara Nović

Girl at War
> Sara Nović

This affecting novel — set in the near and distant past of Croatia — is a gripping look at the fallout of war and the lasting bonds of love, friendship, and loyalty.

We meet our heroine Ana when she’s 10 years old. She adores her father, her baby sister Rahela, and her best friend Luka. Ana and Luka, Luka and Ana, always together, running around the capital city of Zagreb with the singular abandon of children with lots of energy and no worries.

But that all changes when war comes to Yugoslavia.

Daily life becomes untenable: air raid drills, friends gone missing, sniper fire, a new feeling of us versus them. Ana eventually escapes to the U.S., where her tragic past becomes her biggest secret. She avoids the truth of her history, hiding it from everyone that’s important to her until it demands that she face it.

She returns to Croatia to reconnect with her heritage, her family, her old friends, and, ultimately, herself. {more}

I was gradually recalling those mundane moments — the ones that had until now given way to more traumatic memories — of a childhood governed by collective superstition: Never open two windows across from each other — the draft will give you pneumonia. Don’t sit at the corner of the table; you’ll never get married. Lighting a cigarette straight off a candle kills a sailor. Don’t cut your nails on a Sunday. If it hurts, put some rakija on it. — Sarah Nović

 

Chicago & Mexico

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter - Erika L. Sánchez

Julia is not your perfect Mexican daughter. That was her sister Olga’s role — but Olga is dead. And now, Julia is left to grapple with her own grief and the role she plays in her newly fractured family.

This coming-of-age story plunges us deep into Mexican family culture, with action taking place in the United States and Mexico. In the wake of her sister’s death, Julia also experiences her first romance, a changing relationship with her grief-stricken — and in her grief, hyper-critical — mother, and her desire to see the exciting places beyond her life of tortillas and tias.

The prose is poignant and laugh-out-loud funny as Julia struggles to prove who she’s not, and ends up going around the back way to find out who she is. Along the way, she uncovers family secrets — some heart-breaking, some illuminating — that help her understand her place in the world. {more}

I smile and say, thank you, because the rudest thing you can do to a Mexican lady is refuse her food—might as well spit on a picture of La Virgen de Guadalupe or turn the TV off during Sábado Gigante. — Erika L. Sánchez

 

Russia & Louisiana

Lights All Night Long - Lydia Fitzpatrick

Lights All Night Long
> Lydia Fitzpatrick

A coming-of-age character study and a legit murder mystery, this novel is as entertaining as it is emotionally charged. It will leave you feeling bruised and a bit breathless.

Our hero is 15-year-old Ilya, a gifted student whose aptitude for the English language is about to change his life. His perpetual companion is his brother Vladimir, a few years older and a troubled young man whose love for his brother is as damaging as it is pure.

The brothers divide their time between going online at the Internet Kebab and watching bootleg VHS tapes of American films. Their (fictional) hometown of Berlozhniki in northwestern Russia would be unremarkable were it not for two factors: the shocking, brutal murders of three young women and the oil refinery that dominates the landscape and the lives of the townspeople.

When Ilya is chosen for an exchange program in Louisiana, it seems that the boys’ American dream will come true. But then Vladimir confesses to the girls’ murders and is thrown in jail. Convinced of his brother’s innocence, Ilya commits himself to finding the real murderer. {more}

Ilya had never had faith in anything except that knowledge could be gained. Numbers in a column added up to something. If you stared at a word, if you sounded out the letters and visualized its meaning, it could be learned. And there was Vladimir. Vladimir, who could not be counted on for anything, who was untrustworthy in a million little ways, but who had still managed to inspire Ilya’s faith. — Lydia Fitzpatrick

 

Vietnam & California

Listen, Slowly - Thanhha Lai

Listen, Slowly
> Thanhha Lai

Our heroine Mai — a 12-year-old, no-lip gloss, no-short shorts, 4.0 GPA California girl — was supposed to have the best summer of her life. At the beach. With her BFF Montana. Instead, she’s flying to Vietnam with her grandmother on a lost-cause mission.

Mai adores Bà, her grandmother, but that doesn’t mean she wants to spend the next however-many days (weeks? months?) in Vietnam. That’s her family’s heritage, not hers. She barely speaks the language, and she has zero context or connection to the bustling cities and colorful villages that are supposed to feel like her long-lost home. And there are so many strangers who all seem to have a tenuous familial connection to her and Bà.

But as her grandmother digs deeper into the mystery surrounding her husband’s disappearance during the war, Mai’s resistance to her new-found family begins to dissolve. The knots tying her to California loosen enough to give her room to grow, and she’s forced to question her definitions of home, family, and herself. {more}

You’d think a little village in North Vietnam couldn’t help but be tranquil and quiet, full of banana groves and bamboo forests, but everything here has a big mouth. Dogs fighting, crickets blasting, frogs screaming, chickens clucking, birds screeching, mice scurrying… all this before the humans, the many many humans, add to the cacophony. — Thanhha Lai

 

Urban American Neighborhood

Long Way Down - Jason Reynolds

Long Way Down
> Jason Reynolds

This remarkable novel — told in verse — is like a mashup of A Christmas Carol and Boyz N the Hood, a gripping story of the things that haunt us, the weight of doing what’s right, and how a whole life can change in an instant.

Will is 15 years old, and his beloved brother Shawn was just murdered. Will knows the rules all too well: No crying. No snitching. Get revenge. So he tucks a gun into his waistband, leaves his seventh-floor apartment to get on the elevator, and rallies his resignation to what’s about to happen.

But what’s about to happen is not anything he could have anticipated. On the one-minute ride to the ground floor, he’s joined by ghosts who talk to him about what’s come before and what might come next.

The verse leaps off the page and into your heart, and/but we loved the audiobook narrated by the author. We recommend listening to the audiobook while you read along for a fully immersive, multimedia experience. {more}

I FELT LIKE CRYING

which felt like another person

trapped behind my face

tiny fists punching the backs of my eyes

feet kicking my throat at the spot where the swallow starts.

Stay put, I whispered to him,

Stay strong, I whispered to me.

Because crying is against

The Rules. — Jason Reynolds

 

Japan

Sunny - Taiyo Matsumoto

Sunny
> Taiyo Matsumoto

Beautifully rendered and poignantly told, this is the involving story of a group of discarded children at the Star Kids children’s home and their absent parents.

When new kid Sei is dropped off at the home, he believes his parents will come back for him soon. It’s not long before he realizes that his hope is in vain — and that this same false optimism was once shared by just about everyone there. The characters are the motley mix of troubled kids you might expect: a kleptomaniac, a soft-hearted rebel, a girl trying to grow up too fast, and brothers desperately hoping for the recovery of their hospitalized mother. The one thing they all have in common is their deep need for love and security.

Their only release from the daily grind? The ‘Sunny’ of the title — a rusted-out Nissan Datsun Sunny 1200 abandoned ear the foster home where the kids hide out, escape their everyday lives, imagine fantasy worlds, and stash taboo magazines.

Packed with evocative details — kids’ flights of fancy, the heartbreak of a drunken father, the dialects of rural Japanese, ’70s pop culture — it authentically recreates what it was like to be a certain kind of child in Japan. {more}

comics panels of children in a vintage car

 

Oklahoma & Iran

Everything Sad is Untrue - Daniel Nayeri

Everything Sad Is Untrue
> Daniel Nayeri

The hero of our story is Khosrou, but everyone calls him Daniel. He’s got dark skin, he’s hairy, and his butt is big. He’s Iranian but now finds himself living in Oklahoma. This is his unforgettable story, told in his inimitable voice.

The story opens with Daniel telling a story to his middle school class in his new hometown. As he replies to prompts from his teacher, Daniel tells the story of his life so far. His narrative swoops and swirls through time and place as he tries to help his classmates — and himself — makes sense of who he is and where he comes from.

He recalls his scant, precious memories of his grandparents in Iran, and we learn why he, his mom, and sister ended up in Oklahoma — and his father did not. We also get snapshots of Daniel’s troubling new life in the United States. With a knowing wink at the storytelling tradition of One Thousand and One Nights, Daniel’s personal recollections are embellished with events from Persian history and traditional folk tales. {more}

The quick version of this story is useless. Let’s agree to have a complicated conversation. If you give me your attention — I know it’s valuable — I promise I won’t waste it with some “poor me” tale of immigrant woe. I don’t want your pity. If we can just rise to the challenge of communication — here in the parlor of your mind — we can maybe reach across time and space and every ordinary thing to see so deep into the heart of each other that you might agree that I am like you. I am ugly and I speak funny. I am poor. My clothes are used and my food smells bad. I pick my nose. I don’t know the jokes and stories you like, or the rules to the games. I don’t know what anybody wants from me. But like you, I was made carefully, by a God who loved what He saw. Like you, I want a friend. — Daniel Nayeri

 

Alaska

The Alaskan Laundry - Brendan Jones

The Alaskan Laundry
> Brendan Jones

It’s a long way from the Italian neighborhood streets of Philadelphia to a fishing boat in the icy waters of the Bering Sea. And that’s just the way Tara Marconi wants it.

She’s adrift in her formerly secure life: Her mother has died, and she’s at odds with her father. The physical strength and discipline she’s built up at the boxing gym can’t help her weather her emotional storms. So she takes off for ‘the Rock,’ a remote island in Alaska, leaving a broken-hearted boyfriend and angry father in her wake.

Her new home is entirely foreign, a land of staggering beauty, people more than happy to live on the fringes of society, and the pervasive smell of dead fish. More determined than skilled at first, Tara works her way up: from the drudgery of being a hatchery assistant — constantly cold, constantly wet, constantly moving — to a respected position on a crabbing boat. And she’s able, for a while, to stave off her feelings with the uncomplicated exhaustion of her work. But eventually, as it’s wont to do, her past demands attention — and that’s when her experience in Alaska gets really interesting. {more}

Maybe people who made it in Alaska were just built of tougher stuff. Some Nordic ancestry better suited to the cold and wet and scream of machinery. Philly hadn’t prepared her for this… At break, her ears, despite being covered in fleece, throbbed. Her feet felt like concrete blocks. She filled a Styrofoam cup with steaming coffee and stood by the humming machine to absorb what scant warmth she could. It was hopeless. She had never taken a knee in the ring, but another six hours in that freezer wasn’t physically possible. — Brendan Jones

 

Restaurant in Montreal

The Dishwasher - Stéphane Larue

The Dishwasher
> Stéphane Larue

In this lyrical, insightful ode to making mistakes, our would-be hero Stéphane is up to his elbows in dirty dishes and kitchen drama at a high-end restaurant in Montreal. What’s a kid with a penchant for Iron Maiden, Dungeons & Dragons, and video gambling to do?

Stéphane is a talented graphic designer with fresh ideas and a legit heavy metal band for a client. But before he can stop himself, he’s gambled away his first commission and blown the deadline. He’s also lying to his friends, his parents, and himself. Hiding out from the angry band members and desperate to stop his downward spiral, he takes the first job he can find: washing dishes at La Trattoria.

He quickly makes enemies and allies in the greasy kitchen, and Larue’s prose vividly conveys the unrelenting noise and aromas, as well as the repetitive, grinding physical effort required to churn out — and clean up from — hundreds of meals a day.

Stéphane makes some bad choices, and it’s almost physically painful to read the passages in which he rides the waves and troughs of his gambling addiction. But you also can’t help but root for him to triumph. {more}

… it made me think of everything I was burning, one twenty-dollar bill at a time. It wasn’t my life that was being burnt; it wasn’t just my body that was subjected to the ravages of my own stupidity. I was burning everything I touched: money, friendships, girls, plans. Deep down, I knew I wouldn’t stop until everything was gone. But I kept right on gambling anyway. — Stéphane Larue

 

Nigeria

The Girl with the Louding Voice - Abi Daré

Adunni is the remarkable heroine of this coming-of-age story set in a Nigerian village called Ikati and a mansion in Lagos. More than anything, Adunni wants to read, to think, to get an education so she can become a teacher. To help other girls. To save all their lives.

When we meet her, she’s just 14 years old and has been promised in marriage — to a taxi driver three times her age with two wives already — by her good-for-nothing father. In exchange for sacrificing his daughter, her father gets a bride price — to pay his rent, buy a better couch, treat himself to a new TV.

Adunni falls victim to a series of unfortunate circumstances and soon finds herself in indentured servitude. The Lagos mansion with tile floors, mirrored walls, and a tall fence to keep out the world may be posh, but rot and corruption are rampant in this outwardly pristine estate. Observant and curious beyond good sense, Adunni learns more about how the world works than a teenager should know. But she also finds allies who help forge a path toward the future she deserves.

Author Abi Daré possesses a masterful and magical gift for conveying awful events and simultaneously making us believe it will be OK. That’s in no small part due to the character of Adunni, a small girl with backbone, faith in herself, and a fire in her heart. {more}

I rub my chest, where the too many questions is causing a sore, climb to my feets with a sigh, and walk to the window. Outside, the moon is red, hanging too low the sky, be as if God pluck out His angry eye and throw it inside our compound. — Abi Daré

 

Paris

The Invention of Hugo Cabret - Brian Selznick

The Invention of Hugo Cabret
> Brian Selznick

Another Hugo! This one is a charming scamp of a little boy. He’s an orphan and a thief who spends most of his time alone in a Paris train station, fixing the clocks and hiding from the rest of the world to ensure his survival.

One day, while helping himself to parts he needs for a project, he crosses paths with the old man who runs the toy booth in the train station — and a little girl who might be as much of an outsider as Hugo himself. He’s soon caught up in a mystery that involves an automaton, a stolen key, secret messages, family secrets — and, perhaps most dangerous of all — tender feelings.

This is a magical story without magic — a grand adventure tale with the shimmer of fantasy, grounded in the real world. When real-life events enter the story, the stakes for Hugo and his friends are higher than anyone could have predicted. {more}

I like to imagine that the world is one big machine. You know, machines never have any extra parts. They have the exact number and type of parts they need. So I figure if the entire world is a big machine, I have to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason, too. — Brian Selznick

 

Texas, Chicago & Mexico

Caramelo - Sandra Cisneros

Caramelo
> Sandra Cisneros

This is a sweeping, multi-generational story that vividly recreates family life in Mexico City, Chicago, and San Antonio, Texas. Its tale of one eventful summer — and the ripple effects of the aftermath — explores how family mythology is created from love and loss and lies and secrets.

This tale is carefully woven together to tell stories within stories that spiral and twist into intricate patterns as a web does — and as families do. Its focus is on our heroine and narrator Lala Reyes and the members of her extended family.

When we meet Lala, she’s gearing up for the boisterous family’s annual road trip from Chicago to Mexico City. She is a sharp observer, and we see the places she visits — Mexico City, Chicago, San Antonio — with precise and delighted attention to detail.

There’s a touch of magical realism — and the characters often have a loose relationship with the truth — so the individual stories within the narrative take on the sheen of fairy tales. As Lala matures, she comes to see how the women in her life cling to their past hurts and resentments like heirlooms. To break out of this family curse, Lala must understand how the people she loves became the people that they are. {more}

The Circus Garibaldi consisted of a zebra-striped mule hauling an ancient oxcart overloaded with canvas backdrops of airplanes, madonnas, and invented Tibetan landscapes. The company included a lady photographer, a Mayan family of acrobatic clowns, a gypsy accordionist/percussionist, a dancing raccoon that told fortunes, and the singer Pánfila Palafox. The day they arrived you could not speak without the melodramatic accompaniment of the wind. — Sandra Cisneros

Top image courtesy of Gaelle Marcel/Unsplash.

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