Camille DeAngelis's Bones & All is a wonderful coming-of-age novel about a girl...who's also a cannibal. DeAngelis picks her favorite coming-of-age novels that you probably haven't read.
I like to say that I write supernatural stories because I get enough real life in real life, although the titles on this list aren't exclusively fantasy. Good fiction of any genre offers us a psychological boost: for when we see fictional people growing into themselves to meet the seemingly-impossible challenges thrust upon them (whether by magic or ordinary circumstance), we feel better prepared to handle our own. This process is particularly critical during adolescence, though even in my thirties I'm still learning from and feeling inspired by my favorite protagonists, and I imagine I always will be. In fiction and in real life, self actualization is a continual process: we “come of age” more than once, if we're doing it right.
1. The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter — I read Angela Carter the way I savor a gourmet meal: slowly and with gratitude, because pretty much every line is exquisite. When fifteen-year-old Melanie and her siblings lose their parents in a plane crash, they go to live with their boorish uncle Philip, an unnervingly talented puppetmaker; his kindly, beautiful, speechless Irish wife Margaret; and her two brothers Finn (Philip's apprentice) and Francie (a gifted musician). The novel follows Melanie's sexual awakening and her relationship with Finn, re-casting what might seem like familiar terrain with the delicious gothic strangeness that is Carter's trademark. I reread this novel and wished all over again that she were still alive and writing.
2. The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper — I love the spiritual underpinnings of this cozy middle-grade fantasy. On the surface, we see eleven-year-old Will Stanton's sprawling and affectionate family gathering in their rambling old home for a Christmas celebration; but Will has been tasked with collecting a series of Signs to aid the Light in one last battle with the powers of the Dark. Each day he slips out of ordinary life to continue his quest, and his family have no idea what he's up to. The boy's willingness to accept this unseen state of things, how he matures to be able to shoulder his burden even if no one else notices the change in him: this right here is what it feels like to grow up. The prose, characterization, and evocative descriptions of dark horsemen galloping down snowy country lanes are absolutely beautiful, but it's the emphasis on a hidden and profoundly magical reality that secures The Dark is Rising's place on my shelf of children's classics.
3. Into the Grey by Celine Kiernan — This gorgeously creepy ghost story offers two of the most loving depictions of brotherhood I've ever come across. Set in Dublin, the novel opens with a house fire, forcing the fifteen-year-old Patrick and his family back to the shabby seaside cottage they usually rent over summer holidays. “It was like walking through a door,” Kiernan writes. “On one side was the warm, cosy sitting room of our childhood; on the other, a burnt-out shell of ash and char.” The ghost in the cottage has been there all along, but it's the losses of the house fire that render Pat and his twin brother Dom vulnerable enough to see him.
4. Salt & Storm by Kendall Kulper — This atmospheric novel about a family of sea witches in 1860s New England offers a crucial message about inherited destinies and recharting the course someone else has laid out for you. Sixteen-year-old Avery Roe wants nothing more than to take over from her grandmother as the witch of Prince Island, but Avery's mother is determined to give her a safe and normal life. Avery is a dream-teller, though, and her nightmares are prophetic: she knows beyond all doubt that her life will end in murder. Through her relationship with Tane, a young Polynesian sailor, Avery gathers the courage to defy her own fate. Tane giving Avery an apotropaic tattoo at midnight at the top of an abandoned lighthouse is one of my favorite scenes of recent reading.
5. The Dark by John McGahern — Like much of the best Irish literature, this novel is beautifully bleak. A young man is desperate to study his way out of his dead-end rural upbringing, and while his widower father (whom the son thinks of not as “Dad,” but by their surname, Mahoney) seems to support the boy's ambitions, his manipulations leave the protagonist entirely confused as to whether he wants to leave forever or stay forever. While some critics have taken McGahern's point to be that there is no escaping one's upbringing or culture, I take this novel as a cautionary tale: if we cling to what is safe and familiar, we will wither into the sort of people we used to loathe.
6. The White Forest by Adam McOmber — Full disclosure: I loved this novel so much I blurbed it. Parallel worlds? Secret societies? Love triangle? Yes please! In this novel and his previous story collection, This New & Poisonous Air, McOmber channels the Victorian gothic tradition to such superlative effect that I'm not entirely convinced he doesn't have supernatural abilities himself. Jane Silverlake can read the souls of man-made objects, and her longstanding friendships with Madeline and Nathan are the only normal elements in her strange and isolated existence. Jane is in love with Nathan, who has fallen under the influence of the cult leader Ariston Day (a much handsomer version of Aleister Crowley, perhaps), and when Nathan disappears Jane will go anywhere and do anything to save him. Where Salt & Storm advocates bucking your destiny, The White Forest strongly suggests you embrace it. Jane embraces hers, coming into her full power in a horrifying and unforgettable way.
7. Emily's Quest by L. M. Montgomery — Much as I've always adored Anne of Green Gables, I have to concede that Emily Starr is the real writer of the two. Anne Shirley is often too busy daydreaming to get around to actually writing anything, and when she and Gilbert start a family she gives it up altogether. But Emily has the heart and the follow through. She pours her loss into her art, and her love affairs are even more dramatic. You'll want to give the Emily of New Moon trilogy to any daughter, niece, or friend who dreams of growing into a creative adulthood.
8. The Bread Sister of Sinking Creek by Robin Moore — I have very happy memories of my fourth-grade teacher reading this pioneer novel and its sequel to our class each day after recess, and I still remember how disappointed I was when she told us the third book in the trilogy hadn't been published yet. The Bread Sister of Sinking Creek captivated me in a way the Little House on the Prairie series never did, probably because fourteen-year-old Maggie is completely alone in the world: parents dead of a fever, she travels for weeks to reach her aunt's cabin in the Pennsylvania backwoods only to find that her remaining family have left for parts unknown. Maggie's courage and resourcefulness render her one of the most memorable heroines of my childhood.
9. Prim Improper by Deirdre Sullivan — This Irish coming-of-age trilogy is alternately hilarious and poignant. When Primrose O'Leary's mother dies in a bike accident involving a drunk driver, she has to move in with her dad Fintan—the quintessential Celtic fat cat—who's been pretty much an absentee father up to this point. Written in diary format, the Prim Improper books are witty and tender without ever straying into sentimentality, emphasizing the value of compromise and of looking for the good in people who aren't remotely like you—especially when you're stuck with them because they're family. The third novel, Primperfect, sees Fintan giving Prim her mother's diaries, even though he knows he won't come off at all sympathetically in her descriptions of his younger self.
10. The Glass Casket by McCormick Templeman — If you like fairy tales and zombies, this novel is for you: Templeman draws on “Snow White” to create a horror story with well drawn characters and a rich medieval flavor. Rowan Rose has enjoyed a contented and bookish upbringing in her quiet mountain village until the day when five royal guards thunder through on horseback only to be found dead on the mountaintop with no apparent cause. A cousin her own age, Fiona Eira, has recently moved back to the village with her sleazy stepfather, but Rowan's hopes of getting to know the girl are disappointed when Fiona is found lying in the snow with her heart torn out of her chest. Needless to say, the gruesomeness is just getting started. Horror aside, the novel has important points to make about following through on our ambitions despite the expectations of society, expressing our sexuality in a non-destructive way, and coming to terms with the faults and frailties of our parents and mentors.