From Kid to Post-Kid

Many novels telescope their stories into a few years, a few days, or even a few hours. But other books take the protagonists from childhood well into adulthood, and it can be quite compelling.

Following characters from kid to post-kid can help us see what makes them “tick.” How were their personalities shaped by parents, siblings, and other people they encountered when babies, toddlers, tykes, and teens? How did factors such as household income, school, first love, etc., turn them into adults who were happy or sad, optimistic or pessimistic, nice or nasty, leaders or followers, and so on? Meanwhile, we compare our own remembered childhoods with the characters’ fictional upbringings.

Also, we’re hopefully impressed with an author’s skill in depicting the formative years — a skill that includes getting inside the head of a kid and then inside the head of that kid as a grown-up, with all the dialogue differences and other nuances necessary to show those respective stages of life.

Lots of novels chronicle the child-to-adult transition in a chronological way, but there are of course many books that look at a protagonist’s youthful years in flashbacks. Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye is among countless examples of the latter.

W. Somerset Maugham’s riveting Of Human Bondage devotes many pages to showing the orphaned Philip Carey as a kid and teen: getting raised by his narrow-minded/religious uncle and meek aunt, living a sheltered life that includes little contact with girls, dealing with ridicule for having a clubfoot, etc. Philip is a kind person, but those trying formative years also make him an insecure person with low self-esteem — and thus have a major impact on how he behaves as an adult. Most notably, he falls for a shallow woman totally wrong for him, and behaves embarrassingly.

Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield is also semi-autobiographical (note how CD’s initials are reversed to DC) as the protagonist goes from boy to man. David’s difficult upbringing is undoubtedly a big reason why he makes some questionable life choices as he grows older, but, as is often the case with Dickens novels, things tend to work out well in the end (at least for some characters).

Charlotte Bronte’s Villette opens with protagonist Lucy Snowe as a girl, during an extended stay at her godmother’s home. The scenes there are crucial in giving readers insight into Lucy’s personality — she’s a (mostly) self-reliant loner — and we meet several people she’ll encounter again as an adult.

There are also kid-to-adult novels starring siblings, with much of the drama created by those characters being mismatched. For instance, George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss features the appealing Maggie and her unappealing brother Tom, who often treats Maggie badly when they’re kids and when they’re adults in a 19th-century England that’s depressingly patriarchal. Their tragic “reconciliation” is made even more intense by how we’ve known the siblings since their childhood.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland starts with the boyhood years of brothers who are timid (Subhash) and daring (Udayan). We figure those traits will remain when both grow up, but are still fascinated with how that manifests itself in later chapters. Udayan becomes a revolutionary, and Subhash picks up the pieces of Udayan’s life.

Where a kid resides also has a major impact on her or his development. In Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Lacuna, Harrison spends part of his childhood with his mother in Mexico. That leads to eventual employment with Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and the exiled Leon Trotsky (though Harrison is not particularly political) and then to getting hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Harrison’s life is ruined — or is it?

Among the many other novels with memorable kid-to-adult segues are Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (in the persons of Celie and Nettie), Toni Morrison’s Sula (Sula and Nel), Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (Clyde), Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex (gender-confused kid who finds some clarity over the years), and Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner (from Afghanistan to the U.S. back to Afghanistan back to the U.S.).

Of course, the kid-to-adult transition can play out over several novels, not just one. A memorable example of that is L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables and its many sequels that take Anne from preadolescence to teenhood to young adulthood to middle age.

What are your favorite novels in which the protagonist ages from child to grown-up?

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone else.)

I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.

64 thoughts on “From Kid to Post-Kid

  1. As soon as I read your post, Dave, I thought of Betty Smith’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”. I love this story of the Irish Nolan family in the early 1900s. The narrator is Francie Nolan; the book starts when she is 11 and ends when she is about to start college. It also chronicles her siblings.

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  2. Dave so many books your readers have already mentioned like Jane Eyre, David Copperfield.

    You have mentioned one of my favorite book ” The Lowland” by Jhumpa Lahiri of two brothers Subhash and Udayan growing up in Calcutta and how they turned out to be by the life they chose.

    Two books by John Irving. “Cider House Rules” story of Homer Wells growing up in a orphanage he spends his childhood as a medical assistant to the director, Dr. Wilbur Larch. Wilber helped women with unwanted pregnancies give birth and then keeping the babies in an orphanage. But Wilbur trains the orphan Homer as an Obstetrician and then comes to love him like a son.

    Another by Irving ” In One Person”, what it means for Billy Abbott to grow up as a child realizing he is Bisexual. The book was written when Billy was 70 a famous writer during Aids epidemic in 80`s .

    Both the books shows John who is also in his 70`s to be a compassionate writer.

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  3. Hi Dave, I’m very late getting into this conversation, but it’s been a very busy week, although a good one. I don’t have much to offer other than those already mentioned, but I did think of “Little Women,” especially the way that Amy matured from being a spoiled child to an accomplished young woman. I’m probably the only one whose favorite sister is Amy. I was telling someone this, and she said, but Amy burnt Jo’s writings! I know, but she paid the price, when she had to go live with Aunt March. This however turned out rather well, as Aunt March chose Amy to be her companion on her European tour, which finally led her to marry Laurie. I read somewhere that Amy was the true artist for art’s sake, while Jo wrote to make money. I’m not entirely sure of that, but it sounds somewhat true.

    From a standpoint of Jane Austen’s novels, the only one that seems relevant to this article is “Mansfield Park,” in which poor Fanny Price is sent to live with her relation, Sir Thomas Bertram. I know we’ve talked before about how odious Aunt Norris was, and how Fanny was treated poorly by most of the family, except for Edmund until she was indispensable to most of the entire family

    I mentioned before how I had a reunion with the “girls” I had grown up with in elementary and junior high school. not too long ago. We were talking at some point how comfortable we were together after 50 or some years, and we decided that it was mainly due to having grown up together and we knew each other’s families and history. We agreed that it was somehow very important to have known each other as “kids” rather than make friends now with people who don’t have that same shared background. Does that make sense to you?

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    • Thanks, Kat Lib, for the comment ranging from classic 19th-century novels to a great 21st-century reunion! 🙂 Having a shared history is a wonderful thing that can make people very companionable when they get together many years later.

      You’re right that Jane Austen novels tend to not span a huge amount of years, and thus don’t have the decades-long transition from childhood to adulthood. (Though there be a bit of decades-before backstory at times.) The absorbing “Mansfield Park” (which you recommended to me back in the Huffington Post days!) may indeed be the most relevant Austen book to discuss here. Excellent thoughts about “Little Women,” too.

      Glad you’ve had a good week! Life “owes” you many of them.

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  4. I read so many of the books you mention in this column and thank you for giving me the names of more books. I enjoy Margaret Atwood, her book, The Blind Assassin has the theme of childhood to adulthood and a book that I’m reading now by Julian Fellowes, Past Imperfect would fit in also.

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    • You’re welcome, Claire, and thanks for your excellent comment! I’m also a big fan of Margaret Atwood’s novels, and “The Blind Assassin” does indeed have a childhood-to-adulthood theme (not told chronologically) focusing on those two sisters — as you know, one surviving and one dead.

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      • I was fond enough of the fantasy story within a story that I tried to interest an artist friend to do a series of illustrations based on it. She demurred, but I still think I’d like to see it as a separate publication, heavily illustrated– something like a graphic novel, only more wordy than pictured.

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  5. I really do read other authors, no really, but:

    Stendahl’s The Red and the Black is the story of the son of a carpenter, who suffers a cruel fate without flinching at the hands of a treacherous society by book’s end, which of course one can easily distinguish from another, more popular work, The New Testament, by the simple act of reading.

    it opens at the closing of his boyhood, a time often spent in the company of a romanticizing veteran from the Napoleonic Wars, and books on the subject, the pupil Julian Sorel thus prepared by these for a life that cannot come into existence in the present grasping age. One of his father’s last acts of real attention to the boy came in the form of an inspired tossing of such a book into the stream of water running through his sawmill– an act, which if only taken to heart by the boy as an attempt at useful instruction, might have saved him from much that befell him in the flower of his manhood– later lopped.

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    • Ha, jhNY — I’m aware that you do read other authors, and plenty of them. 🙂 Thanks for the very evocative words about “The Red and the Black.”

      As you know, Stendhal also takes his protagonist from childhood to adulthood in the other of his two best-known work: “The Charterhouse of Parma.”

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    • Great addition to this conversation, jhNY!

      One of these days I’ll get to a James Joyce novel. So far, all I’ve read is his wonderful story “The Dead.” I’ll try to start a Joyce novel on June 16*, but not sure which year. 🙂

      * Bloomsday (as you know)

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      • I’d recommend reading the rest of Dubliners first– it’s the most accessible of all his stuff. Ulysses has suffered my attentions a few times over the years, but has not yet succumbed entirely. There is much to like about it, especially in parts, but I find the stink and slime and wear and tear that underlies all a bit much for my delicate nature. Also, I’m lazy.

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        • Not a bad idea, jhNY, though I will still try a Joyce novel one of these days. Thanks for the colorful warning about “Ulysses.” 🙂

          I read “The Dead” online, so it was separate from the rest of “Dubliners” in that format.

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    • Oops — not sure if I should say I’m glad about that reading pile or if I should apologize about that reading pile. 🙂

      And thanks for the kind words, Cathy! Glad you liked the column!

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  6. To move from one child growing up in a book to 1,000 years of children (many of them named George Mills) growing up, turn to Stanley Elkin’s phenomenal 1982 book, “George Mills.” And starting at the bottom of page 207 you will read the most compelling description of a man dying I have ever read. In fact, read all of Elkin, who died a few years ago. He taught at Washington University in St. Louis.

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    • Okay, Bill, you’ve got my interest. I just put “George Mills” on my to-read list — because of the many-children theme, the dying description, and your general take on that book and author. Thank you!

      (Given how many great death scenes there are in literature, Stanley Elkin’s page 207 and what follows must be pretty amazing.)

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    • Thanks for your comment, energywriter! Three great books and one great series. “Fried Green Tomatoes…” is a really extraordinary novel — the way it bounces around in time, addresses social issues, is funny, has very appealing characters (and an evil one or two), understatedly portrays a lesbian relationship in the pre-World War II South, etc.

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  7. Good morning, Dave.

    I’ve recently finished reading Colleen McCullough’s “Thorn Birds” which is a beautiful story about Meggie Cleary growing up. The story begins with Meggie’s fourth birthday and a brand new doll that she has received, despite there not being a lot of money for gifts. Unfortunately, her five brothers don’t quite adore little Agnes as much as Meggie does, and sadly the doll does not have a good time. McCullough brought so much emotion to her characters, that for me, it was impossible not to feel for Meggie. However, as she got older, I cared a lot less. By the time Meggie herself had children, I was pretty much sick of it.

    And I had a similar experience a few weeks ago with Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s “Shadow of the Wind”. The book opens with the unforgettable scene of ten year old Daniel being shown The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, and stumbling on the mystery of Julian Carax and The Shadow of the Wind. Again, being in Daniel’s head as a child was such a pleasure. And while I thoroughly enjoyed the entire book, there was a beauty in the opening chapter that is somehow lost as Daniel grows up.

    Like lulabelle, “Jane Eyre” was another one that I immediately thought of, but I’m pretty sure you already know all about that one 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Susan! A good evening to you in this part of the world. 🙂

      Because of your mentions of it, “The Shadow of the Wind” (great title!) is still prominently on my to-read list. Sorry that in Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s novel, like in “The Thorn Birds,” the growing up/grown-up part of the novel isn’t quite as compelling as the childhood section. I guess some authors are better at depicting one part of life over another. Plus there’s something about chronicling childhood that can make an author especially lyrical.

      And lyrical thoughts by you about the two above books!

      I also immediately thought of “Jane Eyre” when writing the column, but, as I told lulabelle, decided to not again mention that terrific novel in a column for at least one week. But I did include another Charlotte Bronte book. 🙂

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      • Susan, I finished “Of Human Bondage.” Thanks again for “convincing” me to read it. 🙂 It is a magnificent novel. Maugham’s writing is clear and beautiful, the protagonist is sympathetic and flawed and so human, his love life is compellingly appalling at times but a lot better at other times, and the book is pretty darn deep as it gets into life and death and religion and philosophy and more. It was also great to get a sense of the late-19th-century artistic life in Paris, and of the medical life of the time. A real masterpiece. The four other Maugham novels I read were excellent, but this is even better.

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  8. Howdy, Dave!

    — What are your favorite novels in which the protagonist ages from child to grown-up? —

    F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is not a coming-of-age novel but a going-of-age short story that I finally got around to reading this year, thanks to our droogies at Project Gutenberg (http://bit.ly/1GEqmQy). I do not believe this tale of the Jazz Age is a classic in the same sense as the author’s “Babylon Revisited,” but I do think its preposterosity is as compelling as that characterizing his “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” albeit with a significantly smaller body count.

    J.J. (Alias MugRuith1, My Halloween Secret Identity)

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  9. Dave, I remember reading a few of the “Anne of Green Gables” books and I read all but one of the “Little House on the Prairie” series. But I was much younger and don’t remember either of them very well. I do know I would rather read a book about a single event in most cases rather than a series that just keeps going and doesn’t end (see several Kindle series).

    Growing up in a book or series is very different than that short period of time when a youth comes of age. I know with “Harry Potter” him learning to be a leader of people rather than just doing it all himself was a slowly built and major character event. I really enjoyed that subtle change in the character over time rather than the movie style jumps of a couple of days to learn the lesson than years later I show I learned it in another film.

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    • Thanks, GL!

      I’ve read all the “Anne of Green Gables” books but none of the “Little House on the Prairie” ones. The “Anne” novels did vary in quality, and I think even the author (L.M. Montgomery) got sort of tired of them. Also, Anne herself ended up being a minor character in at least a couple of the later sequels — including “Rilla of Ingleside,” which focused on her teen daughter Rilla.

      And great point about Harry Potter gradually realizing he needed more help — as he especially received during the climactic “Battle of Hogwarts” in the seventh and last book. It was fascinating to see Harry and his peers grow and develop from being kids at age 11 to being on the verge of adulthood at 18. Of course, there was also that epilogue set a number of years later, but I thought it was a bit clunky.

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      • Of course, we could take this the other route and look at Jean Valjean, from “Les Miserable” and how he is pre-kid and post kid. Having only seen the musical I can’t say how the novel is but he is good parent and person his personality doesn’t change over much after being charged with Cosette’s care, just more focused on one person rather than helping as many as possible. Though he seems to get back to that as well.

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  10. Dickens, “A Christmas Carol” we see in flashback how Scrooge uses wealth to isolate himself from the world. He is unhappy despite his riches. Its only when he relives his life from boyhood,how he was sent away as a youth,felt abandoned, sister dying in childbirth to the only companion,money, more important than love. It was only when he relived both good and bad experiences of his past, present and most dismal future,what he was to become posthumously,how little his life mattered as he helped no one but himself,despite his riches,that the tables turned.

    In going back in time,knowing he had time left to make up for so many years of neglect, unhappiness, of regret,he can help so many and help himself,save himself. Its a beautiful story of recollection,rebirth and renewal.

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    • Michele, great example of a novel that has flashbacks to youth — and elegantly described by you! A deprived childhood (emotionally and/or financially) can really have a major effect on the adult the person becomes. Some characters overcome this (Harry Potter is one example) and some get their act together better late than never (Scrooge, as you note) but some are scarred for life.

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  11. Dave, you mentioned a lot of works we were assigned one semester for The Victorian Novel. We read Vilette, not a widely known work of Bronte’s. Altogether only eight novels because most quite lengthy. Dickens’ Great Expectations AND Bleak House. Trollope’s Barchester Towers.

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    • Thanks for your comment, Joe! That sounds like a semester filled with memorable literature!

      I found “Villette” to be not as compelling as the same author’s “Jane Eyre,” but it’s still darn good. More subtle in a way than Charlotte Bronte’s more famous work. And sadder — Bronte had lost her siblings by then, and the melancholy shows.

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  12. I was just about to mention Celie and Nettie, but you beat me to it! I can’t even imagine living through the hardships they faced as children and how they managed to survive and ultimately flourish!

    Let us not forget about Idgie Threadgoode from “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe”. The trauma of losing Buddy just about destroyed her, but she survived and turned into an absolutely amazing woman!

    Finally, the elephant in the room is our beloved Jane Eyre. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, lulabelle! I definitely thought of the fantastic “Jane Eyre,” but I include it so often in my posts that I decided to give it a break for at least a week. 🙂

      “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe” is a GREAT mention. The way Fannie Flagg depicts Idgie’s younger years is so skillful and memorable and poignant, and that highly individualistic character did turn out to be an amazing adult.

      And glad we both thought of “The Color Purple”! Yes, what Celie and Nettie went through and overcame is almost beyond comprehension.

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