As we get older, we slowly learn that there is no template for growing up. And often times the only examples we have of traditional bildungsroman are stories about the male experience. These inspiring female coming of age stories—both from fiction and real life—can help with the unpredictable and ongoing experience of becoming an adult, no matter your background or gender.
I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith
Dodie Smith produced this gem of a novel a few years before she wrote 101 Dalmatians, the story for which she’s most famous today. Set in 1930s England, I Capture the Castle is narrated by the charming 17 year-old Cassandra Mortmain, an aspiring writer who lives in barely genteel poverty with her eccentric family in a decaying castle. The handsome owner of the castle (along with his brother) appear on the scene, throwing the Mortmains’ lives (and Cassandra’s feelings) into disarray. While there are countless stories about first loves and first heartbreaks, I Capture the Castle captures the highs and lows of growing up with intelligence, wit, and just the right amount of angst.
My Life in France, by Julia Child
The trouble with coming-of-age stories is that they tend to focus on teenagers or people in their 20s, at the oldest. Julia Child was a triumphant late bloomer who took a bit longer than some to figure out her path in life. My Life in France is the story of how she discovered her love of French food and her talent for making it—as well as her talent for explaining French cuisine to unsophisticated 1960s American audiences. If you liked Julie and Julia, but wanted more Julia and less (or no) Julie, then My Life in France is the book for you. You can also watch a Julia-only version of the movie.
Aurora Leigh, by Elizabeth Barrett-Browning
Did you finish Jane Eyre and want … more Jane Eyre, except this time with a protagonist who aspires to (and achieves) poetic greatness? Then you need to check out Elizabeth Barrett-Browning’s masterpiece, Aurora Leigh. Its eponymous heroine knows she’s destined to be a poet, and she pursues her artistic dreams with single-minded determination. There’s also a exquisitely protracted romance, muddled attempts at social reform, and a fallen woman who doesn’t have to die. Barrett-Browning’s “novel poem” helped make her one of the most famous writers in Victorian-era England (during their lifetime she was better known and more successful than her husband, Robert Browning).
Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay
Who says coming-of-age stories only have to be novels? Gay’s brilliant, witty, and sometimes heart-breaking collection of essays explores the complexities and paradoxes of what it means to be a woman, a person of color, a writer, and a bad feminist navigating life and media in twenty-first century America.
Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen
Although it was Austen’s last published novel, Northanger Abbey was (mostly) written at least 15 years prior to its 1818 publication date. Austen’s younger, more madcap sense of humor (which is on full and glorious display in her juvenilia) shines through in this parody/celebration of gothic novels. Sure, it’s debatable how much heroine Catherine Morland actually comes of age. But Northanger Abbey is perhaps more about Austen coming of age as a writer, as her splendidly irate apologia for women novelists (you can find it in Chapter 5) suggests.
Evelina, or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World, by Frances Burney
If you love Jane Austen but hate how few novels she wrote, then you need to check out Evelina. You can clearly see Burney’s influence on Austen (Evelina came out a few decades before Austen began publishing). Burney is a beautiful writer, capable of creating characters you love—and some you want to punch in the face. Evelina was a literary sensation in its day, and it holds up well almost 250 years later. You can read it for the romance between Evelina and Lord Orville, which unfolds with a deliciously excruciating number of awkward encounters and misunderstandings, or for the fascinating depiction/satire of London society.
Like Water for Chocolate, by Laura Esquival
Although this magical realist saga might not seem like your traditional coming-of-age tale, Tita de la Garza’s story is one of empowerment, as she fights for love, for the ability to express herself, and for independence from her tyrannical mother (both living and in ghost form). Like many stories on this list, Like Water for Chocolate is also about a protagonist expressing herself and nurturing others through art, specifically the art of cooking.
The Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling
Sure they’re named after Harry Potter, but we all know the real protagonist of the series is Hermione Granger. Smart, determined, hard-working, and big-hearted, Hermione is the sort of girl who gets labeled as “bossy,” when she’s really a kick-ass witch who’s unashamed of being intelligent and loving books. While her male counterparts perhaps become less immature over the course of the series, Hermione is arguably the only character who truly ends the series as an adult.
Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, by Gabrielle Hamilton
The chef/owner of the acclaimed NYC restaurant Prune, Hamilton has led a fascinating life. Her memoir is more than just a queer, female-authored rejoinder to bad-boy chef autobiographies like Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, but it does a damn good job of being that, too. Hamilton writes with the clarity of hindsight, but is honest about the many twists and turns on the far-from-inevitable path that led her to Prune, and culinary fame.