{random+challenge} an aspect or two of growing-up


Alongside the group read-along of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, Carl V. at Stainless Steel Droppings came up with a few writing activities. This second and final prompt follows:

“Coming of Age” can be defined a few different ways and I know my definition is certainly more broad and would probably more accurately be called “tales about growing up”. At any rate, I’ve been wanting to post about why these stories, be they in book or film form, still hold such great meaning to me as I sit here nearing my mid-40′s and I thought it might be fun to open this one up to everyone too. If you want to participate, simply post about the “growing up/coming of age” theme in whatever way you want, on Wednesday, October 17th. It could be essay thoughts on this theme or a list of favorite books/films that fit the broad definition of ‘growing up/coming of age’ that you would like to write about, or a particular favorite book or film or again anything that you are inspired to write.


I had intended to spend more time on this post before I began ailing of something, so I left it as a sketch, edited once. My apologies. But I am curious on your thoughts and I want to make the date…

The aspect of the coming-of-age story that interests me since becoming a mother of a daughter is not the sexualization of the protagonist, though that is certainly on my mind, but the orphaning of them. Either the protagonist’s same sex parent (son/father, daughter/mother) dies when they are born or too young to clearly remember them or they are absented in that they are not the model we are looking for; they are absent, abusive, and/or incompetent in some form. We went from board books about the center-of-all-things-nurturing-or-otherwise-Mommy to how many animated adaptations by Barbie that feature a motherless daughter? A distressing idea began to form a bit separate from my literary-critical understanding of the coming-of-age story.

I mention the avoidance of same-sex pairings because of the competition inherent, and not solely for sexual reasons but gender as well. I had a professor that argued that any coming-of-age male story must involve some model of masculinity which the protagonist will at first follow but then must eventually surpass—usually in the form of killing or witnessing the death/absolute destruction of the model male. And what of the female coming-of-age protagonist? It seems they would go from home to marriage (or currently: “a monogamous romantic relationship”) having lost the “female model” a long time before. And if there is a female she is an obstacle to be overcome, an anti-model, if you will; thus, if there is no female model then whom is the model? One can ask just whom the replacement model is in any of these stories, really.

It is as if with female protagonists we seem uncomfortable with portraying the competiveness (which is a masculine trait) that marks the final breaking-away in a male scenario. We might use the mean girls or the evil stepmother, or some combination of both (Cinderella), but that isn’t competition with the model female; that is not cooperating; which is acceptable because “cooperative” is in the feminine trait lexicon. If there is competition, whom is it with and who is the actual victor? {yeah, feminist reading seeping in here.}

I read plenty of juvenile fiction and there is a “growing-up” tale that is within the conversation on “coming of age” as Carl mentions. It is not necessarily concerned with the sexualization of the character, but rather is exists in the before or the after. It is often concerned with a particular life encounter, like death, or bullies, or middle-age, or moving to a new town.

A key notion in the “growing-up” tale (as it is with coming-of-age) is that to become an individual one must come about it individually; the externalization of the internal formation seems to require this depiction of going it alone because the individual is the only personhood inhabiting their body.

It is a nice rarity to come across a growing-up tale where a parent is a character without being a haunting one, e.g. the ghostly memory of the girl’s mother she never had time to know, the one she is not sure she should be like, or the father of a son who cannot provide the details but only the ideal (or non-ideal) destination because he isn’t there. The Amulet Series by Kazu Kibuishi is endearing to me because the mother is still figuring out how to give care for her children (male and female) and yet not stand in the way of their destiny. That she is allowed to be present is wondermous. And it doesn’t hurt that she provides some comedy and sweetness where needed.

I really like the kind of complication Rudyard Kipling creates in The Jungle Book and Neil Gaiman does in The Graveyard Book. There are parental figures. There are father figures who are present and caring. The trouble is that they are not of the protagonist’s kind. There is a divergence that adds a fresh twist to the usual growing up tale. Despite being of a different specie or time or whatever, there are commonalities that become of value to their relationship. Yet they are still upon their own path because they cannot cross certain lines that mark them as individual. To be influenced, to be informed, is allowed without endangering the image of autonomy. Except, the points of disconnect are more keenly felt and becoming something else is part of the conflict. It isn’t Peter Pan, but something other. It is where the shift in a parent/child (this other/me) relationship is given a place in the story of growing up. The relationship doesn’t have to be something to overcome; it isn’t threatening.

I like the growing-up story, because like Carl mentions, I am still growing-up, too. I like seeing the conflicts to their resolutions in the relative safety of a book or film. I adore the inevitable adventures no matter how sometimes painful they are. And I especially like not being alone. I would hardly wish to deny Natalya those venues and experiences any more than I would deny her her own real-life “becoming” of her real self. I remind myself that neither she nor I or Sean is a device in some literary or cinematic construct; not until she publishes her memoir anyway. And those read differently don’t they? Someone? Anyone?

Even still, I would like some growing-up tales to have living and relevant and involved mothers of daughters and fathers of sons. Perhaps I am just missing them. I can think of barely a handful, more with father/son than mother/daughter…how about you?

8 Comments Add yours

  1. So intriguing–the parental aspect is one I didn’t consider at all in writing about this topic. Thanks for examining it so thoroughly (“sketch” or not!) and for giving me new things to think about.

    1. L says:

      I’m glad to be thought-provoking; I am still working through different treks and ideas, trying to figure out which lens to read the growing-up and the coming-of-age…am figuring in the examples of the living parents and others’ perspectives which I love reading about. 🙂

  2. Carl V. says:

    Quite the ‘sketch’! 😉 I’m trying to think of coming of age stories with good, or even present, parents and I’m mostly drawing a blank. In the ‘growing up’ stories of my definition Dead End in Norvelt comes to mind as the protagonists parents are very much a part of the story and are only villains in the sense that most kids consider their parents a force to be overcome at some points in their lives. Anne Shirley has no biological parents but she has Marilla and Matthew who love her in their own ways and provide a safe and structured environment from which she can let her rather fanciful imagination run wild and in which she grows up and becomes a strong, willful and independent adult while still embracing romance. In Labyrinth, my other example, you have the brief viewing of the “wicked” step mother and more prominently the hints of an absent mother whose theatrical career informs the imaginary world that Sarah occupies. Its been awhile since I read Dandelion Wine but I do remember the main character having parents and extended family as part of the story.

    Though I can’t remember many examples, I can say that I always appreciate it when an author or a film maker (or television writer) can create character types: parents, spouses, kids, who are less like cliches and more like real life, and who are in turn not exaggerated versions of real life. I long ago grew weary of the inept husband/father, the overly bossy wife/mother, the “I’m always pulling the wool over my dumb parents” child. I’d much rather experience stories in which the characters had all the facets that real people have. In terms of coming of age, or growing up, tales it makes their impact that much more profound.

    1. L says:

      I agree that I do find the best [growing-up/coming-of-age] story to be cast with true characterization rather than the cliche–especially the awful token cast-members–ugh. there are just too many books with these themes to not even try and compete…
      I am so with you on the family types you list.. While one person might find the scenario true to their situation, I find it some weird fantasy to play out. even when I was at the stage of thinking my parents were not as smart as they really are, I don’t recall exaggerating it to the extent I find in the stories. which is part of what I was thinking about what these tales do–in a psychoanalytical sense: when is it reflecting the internal change of becoming self, and when is it reflecting external factors?

      thanks for the example. when you mention Anne I’m like–yes! and the others. Pixar’s Brave just came to mind, a growing-up story that takes on the mother head-on. there are a few adult books like Girl Child and that lovely Korean graphic novel The Color Trilogy. of course, I think all three are also interested in doing a comparative generationally, as well as showing we are still growing up –or growing back down (like Shel Silverstein would have it sometimes).

  3. lynnsbooks says:

    I must admit that I’ve just written a little piece about 5 coming of age stories and it crossed my mind that the first three stories were all about orphans. One book that I didn’t write about but read a few years ago was called I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith which is more about an eccentric family, it has some very funny moments and some almost cringe-worthy ones. It’s a good book, definitely a coming of age and with the whole family alive and kicking!
    Lynn 😀

    1. L says:

      I think orphaning works on many levels. in some ways it automatically ups the stakes; there is no underlying sense of a potential intervention. it isolates the protagonist and launches them into new spheres of influence where conflict and growth the most often happens. one can address parental angst/legacy unfettered. it makes psychoanalytic or cultural criticism a lot more fun.

      I am thinking that there may be a non-traditional trend to the families who are all alive and kicking; like the authors are ready to play with the norms/cultural expectations, and one way to do so is keep them living and keep them odd in some engaging way. Going to have to think on this some more…

  4. Deb Atwood says:

    The orphan is also a symbol of death/rebirth, a theme many authors like to explore.

    Like Carl, I was thinking of Anne Shirley with her de facto parents. In that book, Marilla has to come of age as much as Anne does. Interestingly, Matthew is the one who encourages Anne to explore her world in all its glory.

    Have you read A Single Shard? Though more middle grade than young adult, it explores an orphan protagonist with not one but two male parental figures. And then there’s Mother in LIttle Women–definitely a strong, guiding force in the lives of the March girls.

    1. L says:

      so death of any expectation of the past repeating itself (familial legacies) and rebirth in a new creation, new possibility, a divergent future…?.

      Yes, Little Women is a significant one to consider because it is a Mother modeling the raising her daughters who are very much individuals. …and it is one that I have been trying to get my Natalya to read–she’s even done a project presenting Louisa May Alcott and has yet to read it. And Anne of Green Gables–think I may be falling down on the job.

      A Single Shard sounds lovely (looked it up) and will make a note to read it.

thoughts? would love to hear them...

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