Coming of Age in Chicago

Growing up in Chicago seems to provide a lot of material for coming-of-age novels. These take place mostly in the 20th century and throughout the various neighborhoods. If you ever doubted that a particular place could have an effect on someone's growth, wonder no more.

South Side Chicago in the Civil Rights period is the setting for April Sinclair's Coffee Will Make You Black.  As social change roils the country, Jean "Stevie" Stevenson, a bright, independent-minded adolescent, has to wrestle with her own questions of being good vs. being popular, her sexuality, and what to take and what to leave from older generations. The dialog is spot-on, and even the situations where issues of the day are front and center are believable.One cannot wait to see who Stevie will become.

The Our Lady of the Angels fire traumatized a community and its aftermath is the subject of Where My Body Ends and the World Begins by Tony Romano. Anthony Lazzeri is a survivor of the fire, and works to piece together his life after he learns that a detective still suspects Anthony's involvement in igniting the blaze nearly a decade later. This is an introspective novel about survivor's guilt and grief, both personal and communal.

In Sandra Cisnero's Caramelo, Or, Puro Cuento, Lala learns of her family history, in part from Awful Grandmother, the last of a family of shawl makers. As her family heads from Chicago to Mexico to visit said abuela, Lala ruminates on her family's stories, which span the border and the history of two countries. Awful Grandmother also teaches Lala that if she is going to tell stories, she'd best be careful with her own.  

Hunger and Thirst by Daniela Kuper takes place in the 1950's as Jewish teen Joan Trout struggles to keep her family from falling apart. Joan's hoity-toity mother has a taste for high fashion that clashes with the practical, economical frocks in Joan's father's store, as well as his finances. Kuper does a wonderful job of painting a world not all that far removed from the Old Country, where gossip is just one part of the tradition.

Karen has plenty of things she hates, like the cool kids at school, and a few things she loves, like her older brother, but she would tell you, My Favorite Thing Is Monsters. Emil Ferris has created an engrossing graphic novel set in the 1960's where, if she can't be a monster, Karen will settle for being a detective when a Holocaust survivor in her building is murdered. Framed as a visual diary with plenty of B-movie imagery, there is also plenty of wordplay, surprises, and downright luminous artwork.

Empathy is the order of the day in Jane Hamilton's Disobedience. Henry, a high school senior, discovers by accident that his passionate, artistic mother is having an affair, to which his father seems oblivious. Henry narrates the story in an authentically adolescent voice as he deals with his feelings for his parents, gender-nonconforming sister, and first love. There are many kinds of love, Henry discovers, and many ways it can manifest.

What are your favorite books of coming of age in Chicago? Tell us in the comments.

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