Coming-of-age stories have been told for centuries, but what is it that draws us in over and over? Is it every young adult’s shared aspiration to become a better person, or a wish to live vicariously through characters whose struggles we can work through, too?
Coming-of-age stories can be found in literature, television, and film, spanning across genres and cultures. From angst-filled romances to thrilling adventures, these beloved stories featuring young adult protagonists are often realistic, relatable, and impactful ways of exploring growing pains, identity, social issues, and more.
Here, we take a closer look at some of the most inspiring classic coming-of-age stories and modern teen dramas, great and small, that have left an indelible mark and influenced generations.
Classic Coming-of-Age Stories
One of the earliest examples of a coming-of-age story is the now-classic adventure novel Tom Sawyer, written by Mark Twain and published in 1876. Following the tale of Tom, a young boy living on the Mississippi River, the novel incorporates themes of youthful innocence, friendship, and romance and is considered the first in a series of novels called the Tom Sawyer-Huckleberry Finn Cycle.
Other iconic classics of the genre include J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868-1869).
Movies and TV Make Magical Memories
Of course, movies and television have their own share of coming-of-age stories that have become beloved classics to fans of all ages. The coming-of-age movie genre—made popular in the 1980s and ‘90s—is filled with unforgettable tales of teenage life and growing pains, perhaps none more iconic than John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985), and Pretty in Pink (1986).
Notable hits of the last decade include the Diary of a Wimpy Kid movies (2010-2017), The Fault in Our Stars (2014), and the teen vampire romance Twilight (2008-2012).
Modern Teen Dramas That Deserve to be Discovered
Young adult dramas have come a long way from the ‘80s and ‘90s, with modern stories deep-diving into issues of identity, the complexities of relationships, and serious themes like depression and addiction. Smart, heartfelt, and often painfully relevant, 2018’s Eighth Grade and its star Elsie Fisher are the perfect examples of contemporary coming-of-age films to enjoy.
Here are some modern teen dramas that deserve to be discovered:
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012): Starring Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, and Ezra Miller, this potent film adaptation of the beloved Stephen Chbosky novel follows teenage introvert Charlie as he navigates growing pains, first love, and difficult friendships.
Love, Simon (2018): One of the first of its kind, this heartfelt teen comedy-drama follows a closeted high school student struggling to come out of the closet and accept themselves for who they are.
Big Mouth (2017): Need a laugh? This Emmy-nominated animated series follows seventh graders Nick and Andrew as they navigate the confusing and hilarious time that is puberty with the help of their “hormone monsters.”
The Spectacular Now (2013): High school senior Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) falls hard for the “nice girl” Aimee (Shailene Woodley) and learns to accept himself, take responsibility, and recognize the beauty of living “in the moment.”
On My Block (2018): Set in a predominantly Latino, inner-city Los Angeles neighborhood, this Netflix original follows four teenage friends as they try to survive the challenges of high school and the streets.
The much-loved coming-of-age story will always thrive, as there is something inherently identifiable about the struggles of growing up, finding oneself, and learning to cope and move through difficult times and emotions.
Whether it’s through classic books and films featuring iconic characters, or modern takes that tackle serious themes and issues, these stories are sure to continue inspiring young adults for generations to come.