Bildungsroman Novels for Young Adults
Compiled by Melanie Kinchen, Paul Major, Summer Prejean and Collins Phillips III
Bildungsroman is one of the most important genres of literature for young adults. Bildungsroman, in German, literally means novel of education. Within these novels, a character, usually the protagonist, learns an important lesson and shows social, spiritual, or psychological maturity. The growth of the individual is of the utmost importance. All-around self development betters the character and leaves him more knowledgeable than when we met him. We are defining a Bildungsroman novel by three criteria: it is a story of a single individual’s growth, the process of maturity is long and tough, and the protagonist is accommodated into society by the lesson he has learned.
This particular vein of literature is popular and fundamental because it exemplifies struggles that everyone must face. Within life, there are few wholly accepted truths, life and death being the two most predominant; but within everyone’s life there is the time of facing the fear of growing up, “coming of age.” Bildungsroman is this coming of age manifested within literature. Though it is sometimes viewed as a pedantic attempt to break free from the social barriers set around the main character, it is more of the involvement of the character’s views of these barriers. In the end, the character is wiser, whether or not they chose to eventually conform to the societal norms; and within that wisdom, identity is found.
Young adults enjoy these types of novels because they can learn from the experiences of the characters. They can see that they are not the only people with certain problems and they can see how the characters react and learn from their experiences. Important themes, such as friendship and love, are reoccurring in Bildungsroman novels for young adults.
Anderson, Laurie Halse. Prom. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2005
Meet Ashley Hannigan, your average, ordinary senior high school student. She is barely passing her classes, she has a ridiculously large amount of detentions, and unexplainable library fees (she hasn’t been to the library since she started school). When her school’s prom is in danger of being canceled and her friends start to panic, Ashley steps forward to save the day. Thanks to her family she gets donations from stores, she convinces people to volunteer and help out for the dance. Ashley goes from being completely against the prom to sneaking in and getting arrested for being there. She learns that she can do much more than she thought she could. This is a story of her journey and how she discovers what she is truly capable of. In the end she realizes that she doesn’t have to settle in her life, that she can make things happen. Prom is essentially a story about an ordinary teen, who goes the distance to make sure that her classmates have a truly memorable extra-ordinary life.
2) I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings
Angelou, Maya. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. Random House: New York. 1969
Since humanity has been writing, women have not received full respect for their contribution to literature. Maya Angelo’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings displays common characteristics in her youth that many young women experience. Young women today need to hear stories of extreme struggle caused by the people who are the closest to them.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings should be used as a tool not only for young women but men also, to aid them in understanding that you can escape struggle. Not only does this novel explore the importance of perseverance, but it proves that through personal adversities one can discover or develop hidden talents; such as writing.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is truly about expressing your heart spoken views no matter the circumstances. Young boys and girls would be able to view this book as a clear example of determination and the will that will allow you to reach your goal. The novel examines the courage of a woman. A contribution from a black woman is something that is greatly needed in our high schools across the country.
3) Catcher in the Rye
Salinger, J.D. Catcher in the Rye. Little, Brown: Boston. 1951.
J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye is a standard in the genre of Bildungsroman. The protagonist, Holden Caulfield, is a young boy who feels lost in a “phony” world. The book starts with his expulsion from boarding school, and deals with the dreaded role of returning home to face his parents, who are ignorant of his expulsion. In the process, Holden refuses to grow up. He sees adulthood as one step closer to death, lacking the enjoyment and innocence of youth. By the final page, he stumbles in his immaturity and learns he must face his world as an adult. Even though his parents and society might still view him as a child, he now knows the horrible truth, the responsibility of adulthood is inevitable, and he must lay in the grave he dug for himself.
This novel is already incorporated into most educational canons, but not all. It is a powerful story, one that everyone can relate with, the cold, hard reality of growing up. As a story, it is an important tale of the passage from childhood to adulthood, and it has been perceived as fundamental for the formation of adolescents. High School students can embrace this novel as they must face their own maturation, growing up and out of their parents control.
4) The Outsiders
Hinton, S.E. The Outsiders. Dell: New York. 1967.
The Outsiders is about the personal struggle of Ponyboy Curtis as he deals with issues like identity, image, adulthood, and death. Ponyboy is a greaser, born on the wrong side of tracks. He likes school because it’s the only thing he’s good at, and it takes his mind off the social pressures that surround him. “The Socs” are the social elite, they are the antithesis of Ponyboy and his gang, and he stands as somewhat of a middle man between these two opposed factions. When he and his best friend, Johnny, get caught up in the murder or a Soc, they bring juvenile delinquent Dallas into the mix. They run away, per Dallas’ advice, and escape to an old church in the country until things have calmed down at home. The real climax of the story is two-fold, Johnny is on his deathbed, proving no good deed goes unpunished, and the greasers fight the Socs for closure on the murder.
The novel deals with very real issues, through the eyes of Ponyboy, as he watches Johnny die, and has to deal with growing up in a world that doesn’t love him. Adolescents can view this story as a comparison to their personal struggles, and know that in the end things may change, but they always have the ability to “stay gold.”
5) Ender’s Game
Card, Orson Scott. Ender’s Game. Tor: New York. 1977.
Andrew Wiggin is Ender. He is the third child in a world that only allows two. He doesn’t fit in with anyone, he hates his older brother, and he is the savior to mankind against an alien race sent to destroy them. This novel deals with the social abandonment that many teens face, while also highlighting the pressure that adults place upon children to better themselves. Not merely a story of science fiction, Ender’s Game is also a psychological struggle inside the mind of a child who is forced to grow up too fast. Within the subtext of the novel, Card shows the cruelty that defines adulthood, as Ender has to come to terms with his very adult responsibilities while still be treated like a child.
This novel can be used to show adolescents that they aren’t alone in their struggles. As high school kids they are straddling the line between youth and adulthood. Given more responsibilities while still being rebuked for their youth, most adolescents can easily relate with Ender as he is called to save a world that is so cruel to him. I feel this story should be incorporated into more classrooms, because it transcends the barriers of literature and reaches a different group of students that deal with the same issues as everyone else their age.
6) On The Road
Kerouac, Jack. On The Road. Penguin: New York. 1955.
Though the main characters are much older than the intended audience, this novel has been cherished and adored by adolescents for years. Jack Kerouac is often referred to as the “Father of the Beatniks,” a movement that was filled with people trying to make the big step from adolescence to adulthood. On the Road is considered “the Bible of Beatitude” to many of its followers; telling the tale of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty as they escape the rules that society has given them. Sal and Dean take to the road on a monumental road trip through the United States, it is there that they find themselves. This novel is a perfect example that adolescence is merely a title, as with adulthood. Adults don’t wake up on their eighteenth birthday with a sense of responsibility, the idea is flawed.
Many teens can relate with this book because they themselves are searching for their own genuine identity, as Kerouac himself did. What qualifies adulthood is personal, it is a sense of satisfaction with who you are in contrast with who you could have been. Kerouac idealizes this sense of eternal youth as his adulthood, being thirty-something and carousing with the likes of teens and young adults. This is a novel that I have never heard of being taught in a high school setting, but it is a classic work of American literature, and embodies the ideals of true independence within society, something most teens are desperately searching for. So, though it isn’t about coming of age at fourteen it is about coming of age and deciding for yourself what age really means anyway.
7) The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Chbosky, Stephen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. New York: MTV Books/Pocket Books, 1999.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower follows the life of Charlie, a high school freshman who is learning about adolescent life. Charlie, through his letters to an anonymous person, tells about his friendship with Sam and Patrick, his relationship with Mary Elizabeth, his longing for Sam, his involvement in the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and his experimentation with drugs. He learns what it feels like to be depended on when his sister discovers that she is pregnant and relies on Charlie’s help to take her to the abortion clinic. He yearns for a voice and a place in society. We grow and learn with Charlie as we see his first sexual experience and his first time being high. Through the novel, he grows and learns that friends are of the utmost importance and being true to yourself is necessary if happiness is to be achieved. This is a school story and the majority of the novel is set in high school, but the valuable lessons are the ones that are learned outside of class.
His experiences with drugs, girls, friends, sexuality, and life help the reader cope with their own problems by seeing the way Charlie reacts to these situations. Everyone has problems and usually seeing someone else get through a tough time allows us to feel as though we can as well. Charlie realizes that he must do what makes him happy opposed to what makes everyone else happy. The reader can relate to his problems because they are frequent among all teenagers. Young adults should embrace such a novel because it shows the strength that teenagers can accomplish and the necessity of being a good friend. Real life problems are explored and the education that Charlie receives is priceless.
Spinelli, Jerry. Stargirl. New York: Laurel Leaf, 2000.
Stargirl is the story of a regular high school student, Leo, and his love, Stargirl. Stargirl shows up at Leo’s high school as a new student. She is completely different than anyone else in school. She dresses in vintage clothing, plays a ukulele, and brings flowers to school to decorate her desk. She is extremely friendly, but no one really befriends her. That is, until she somehow becomes the most popular girl in school. She begins to date Leo, but then her popularity suddenly falls away and Leo is left being ostracized along with Stargirl. He talks her into conforming to the rest of the school, which she does for him. When she realizes that she is not happy, she goes back to the way she always was and Leo is left embarrassed again. He must choose whose opinion he cares about more, Stargirl’s or everyone else’s?
The main theme of this story is being true to yourself. It is important to not judge others because they are different. Leo learns this lesson along with the reader. He realizes that he has to accept people for who they are instead of trying to change them. This story is a school story, mostly set in a high school in Arizona, but the important lessons are learned outside of the classroom. The importance of friends, relationships, trust, and individuality are learned while on walks through the desert with Stargirl or while sitting on the old neighbor’s porch. Young adults embrace this book because individuality is something that every teenager struggles with and they can struggle along with Leo.
9) A Separate Peace
Knowles, John. A Separate Peace. New York: Scribner, 1959.
A Separate Peace takes place at a small private school in New Hampshire. Two friends, Phineas (Finny) and Gene decide to start a secret society, “the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session,” based on their ritual of dangerously jumping out of a tree. Gene is envious of Finny’s athletic abilities and in turn thinks that Finny is jealous of Gene’s academic achievements. He secretly resents Finny for trying to hold him back academically. One day while on the tree branch, Gene accidentally shakes the tree branch and Finny falls and breaks his leg. A large investigation by the other boys questions whether or not Gene did it on purpose. Finny breaks his leg a second time when hurrying away from the accusations and dies of marrow in his bloodstream. Finny was never jealous of Gene and never tried to hold him back. Gene realizes that Finny is the only one who is not consumed in himself.
Many young adults can relate to Gene’s internal struggle. Everyday we are faced with jealousy, either by us or towards us. Gene’s ability to suppress his jealousy at the end of the novel and face his guilt shows that anyone can do so. The lesson that Gene learns is of friendship, guilt, and love. Finny’s death can be seen as a result of Gene’s hatred towards him and Gene does not cry for him. He knows that a piece of him has died along with Finny. Gene grows to know more about his own life as well as the human condition. Adolescent readers learn Gene’s lesson along with him and can apply it to their own friendships.
Prose, Francine. After. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2003.
After is a chilling tale of the repercussion of other’s actions. When a nearby school shooting sends a community in a state of panic, the Administration of Central High School decides to take drastic measures in insuring that this does not happen in their territory. They bring in a new guidance counselor and students start disappearing. The main character, Todd, must learn to live in a world with silly rules and individuals interested in controlling the masses. When Todd’s friends and teachers start mysteriously disappearing, he starts asking more and more questions. Todd, along with his friends Becky and Brian, finally have enough. Becky starts rebelling against the administration by writing messages on school property such as “Where is Avery? Where is Stephanie?” naming students who have gone missing. When Becky convinces Brian to help her one evening and they get caught, the only chance they have is to leave the only home they have all known.
The adolescents in After learn not to take everything at face value. They learn to appreciate the things around them. They never realized what they would be missing until it was taken away. In this case it is the simple privileges such as reading Catcher in the Rye on ones own time, or listening to rap music. The administration in After goes far and beyond the bounds of school and home life, they give all the students a curfew of 10 o’clock and ban them from the mall. Todd, as an individual, learns that he needs to pick what battles to fight and that he cannot always win. This is a novel of power and control. Todd learns to ask questions, the right questions to get his answers. He grows and learns who to trust and who he should have trusted all along.