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Why We Always Come Back to the Coming-of-Age Story

The world as we know it is ever-changing. One can get lost in the news cycle and find a jaw-dropping headline every few minutes. Trends in popular culture change before many people even come to understand them in the first place. Technological advancements change how we make, watch, and listen to movies, TV shows, and music every few years, contributing to the constantly evolving media landscape. Yet, there’s one story, one narrative, that we as a society always seem to return to fondly: the coming-of-age story. 

In film, we see it constantly— from American Graffiti (1973), to The Breakfast Club (1985), to Ladybird (2017), and beyond. Television is no exception, with shows like One Tree Hill, Stranger Things, and Sex Education consistently keeping audiences captivated. In literature, this type of story is called a bildungsroman, defined by Merriam-Webster as “a novel about the moral and psychological growth of the main character.” This literary genre is everywhere, including timeless novels like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Steven Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and more. But what exactly is a coming-of-age story? And why are we all — regardless of age, race, gender, political affiliation — so entranced by these types of stories?

In short, a coming-of-age story is exactly what it sounds like: a young person coming into their own and finding their way into adulthood. This usually involves some sort of challenge, conflict, or obstacle to overcome along the way. These stories capture a pivotal moment in time: that critical juncture between childhood and adulthood during which one explores who they are, who they have been, and who they want to become.

The obsession with the coming-of-age tale is nothing new, nor do I think it is going anywhere anytime soon. Take a look at the New York Times bestsellers, the movies currently in theaters, or what is trending on Netflix and you’re sure to find a few coming-of-age stories. What I believe is at the heart of these stories and why they always find their way into our popular culture and consciousness, is the distinct way in which they capture the universal human experience. 

Don’t get me wrong— I don’t believe that the ‘coming-of-age years,’ or when a person is around 12-26 years old is the most interesting or important time in their life. However, this critical time period is the entrance into being, the first steps in the long journey of finding who we really are as individuals. This journey is lined with challenges, self-doubt, and heartbreak, but also produces some of the best lessons, relationships, and memories of our lives. 

Furthermore, there is no hard cutoff to this time period; one doesn’t wake up one day and say “I have come of age.” In a way, we are always coming of age. The propensity to continually grow and develop is a cornerstone of the human experience, which is why I think the fascination with novels, TV shows, films, etc. of this genre does not subside as we grow older. 

So, if you, like me, find yourself drawn to this particular type of story, embrace it. Storytelling is one of the most important mechanisms through which we engage with the topics that matter, and reflect on our own stories along the way. 

Check out some of my favorite coming-of-age stories below.

Film:

  1. The Breakfast Club (1985)
  2. Pretty in Pink (1986)
  3. Dead Poets Society (1989)
  4. Good Will Hunting (1997)
  5. Easy A (2010)
  6. The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)
  7. The Spectacular Now (2013)
  8. The Way Way Back (2013)
  9. Paper Towns (2015)
  10. The Edge of Seventeen (2016)
  11. Call Me by Your Name (2017)
  12. Lady Bird (2017)
  13. Booksmart (2019)

Television:

  1. Euphoria
  2. Sex Education
  3. Outer Banks
  4. Gilmore Girls
  5. One Tree Hill
  6. Stranger Things
  7. 13 Reasons Why
  8. I Am Not Okay With This

Literature:

  1. The Alchemist (Paulo Coelho)
  2. The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt)
  3. A Tale for the Time Being (Ruth Ozeki)
  4. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (Jonathan Safran Foer)
  5. To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
  6. The Secret History (Donna Tartt)
  7. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain)
  8. Little Women (Louisa May Alcott)
  9. The Hate U Give (Angie Thomas)
  10. Looking for Alaska (John Green)
  11. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith)
  12. Their Eyes Were Watching God (Zora Neale Hurston)
Molly is the President and Editor-in-Chief for Her Campus UConn. A senior at the University of Connecticut, she is currently studying Communication with minors in English and Political Science. She enjoys writing, film, coffee, art, dogs, and anything fall-related.