Coming-of-Age the Literary Way: UCWR Professors Give Book Recommendations to First-Year Students

In the spirit of the trial-by-fire introduction to university life, The Phoenix asked University Core Writing Requirement professors to share their knowledge and recommend books they feel speak to the intricacies of adolescence.

In the first week of college, a first-year’s life is infiltrated by new locations, new classes and new faces, all in an attempt to answer the ever-looming question, “Who do I want to be?” 

In the spirit of the trial-by-fire introduction to university life, The Phoenix asked University Core Writing Requirement professors to share their knowledge and recommend books they feel speak to the intricacies of adolescence.

Dr. Virginia Bell: “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” by Ocean Vuong 

Dr. Virginia Bell has been an adjunct faculty member at Loyola since 2009. She has a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Maryland but now works primarily in poetry and creative writing as an editor for RHINO Poetry magazine.

Bell said her experience editing RHINO Poetry magazine introduced her to Ocean Vuong’s work in 2012. She said she has followed Vuong ever since and had been waiting for “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” when it came out in 2019. 

The book retrospectively narrates the story of a Vietnamese-American scholar as he looks back on his childhood and attempts to reconcile his struggles with sexual identity, violence and generational trauma as a result of the Vietnam War. Framed as a letter to the narrator’s mother, this lyrical novel explores themes of individuality, transformation and resilience. 

Bell said she recommends this novel with the intent to reach students across a wide range of identities and encourages first-years to embrace their selfhood. 

“You can try on other ways of being while still loving and appreciating what your family gave you and what they went through,” she said. 

To Bell, the novel is an exploration of individual journeys in relation to communal origin. 

“We all migrate in small ways throughout our lives,” Bell said.  

Daniel Buckman: “In Our Time” by Ernest Hemingway

Professor Dan Buckman has been teaching at Loyola since 2017 and said he self-identifies as a “writer who teaches.” Prior to his teaching career, he published four novels and worked as a courthouse reporter for the Associated Press. 

Buckman said he discovered the book “In Our Time” at 18 years old while serving as a paratrooper and has revisited the work multiple times throughout his life.

“It follows me,” Buckman said. “It allowed me to say, ‘OK, my stories are worth telling. They’re worth hearing.’” 

Published in 1924, “In Our Time” is a collection of short stories about a variety of characters, but it primarily describes the life of Nick Adams from adolescence to adulthood. Its dedication to difficult, real-world situations and emphasis on the necessity of individuality amidst conflict set this work apart for Buckman, he said. 

“How are you going to use this idealism in a pragmatic way, in a practical way, in a way that’s going to be true to you and will still help out others when everyone around you doesn’t really seem to care?” Buckman said. 

Buckman said he hopes this novel will inspire students to pair their idealism with individual thought and action in the world and help them think critically about the difficulties of everyday life. 

Philip Sorenson: “The Summer Book” by Tove Jansson 

Although Philip Sorenson has been a professor at Loyola for 12 years, he said his primary academic vocation is contemporary American poetry — he has published three full-length collections and a chapbook. 

Sorenson encountered “The Summer Book” while exploring a reprint collection from The New York Book Review. 

“It was, for me, the experience of having my own melancholy told back to me,”  Sorenson said. “And that I found to be really reassuring.” 

“The Summer Book” follows a young girl named Sophie as she navigates the passage of summer with her father and grandmother. Notable for its themes of wistfulness, longing and loss, Sophie’s journey towards awareness of the world around her parallels the transition of summer into fall. 

Sorenson said he feels this book will prompt students to notice the passage of time and embrace its inevitable melancholy. He also said that one of the principal functions of literature is to bring together people with similar feelings or ideas. 

“In that moment, sort of reading it and also feeling the passage of summer — its fading away — I could, like I said, have my own sadness at the passage of time confirmed for me,” Sorenson said. 

Dr. Colleen English: “Snowflake” by Louise Nealon

Dr. Colleen English has been a professor at Loyola for the last six years. She has a PhD in British and Irish literature from University College Dublin and an MFA in creative writing from The City College of New York. 

English’s background in Irish literature introduced her to Nealon’s work. She said she was recommended the novel from a professor she had during her PhD candidacy in Ireland. 

“It reminded me a lot of what it was like to be in my early 20s and that experience of being really, like, not knowing — not feeling like you know anything,” English said.  

“Snowflake” was published in 2021 and follows the story of Irish teenager Debbie as she leaves her small hometown to attend Trinity College. This comical and lighthearted novel explores the wide variety of struggles undergone by the modern undergraduate — everything from mental illness to social media to fear of speaking in class.

Dr. English said she hopes this book’s comical yet thoughtful consideration of mental health resonates with students.

“The novel is beautiful. It deals with the stigmas of mental illness, suicide, low self-esteem, disordered eating — so a lot of things that many people are dealing but, you know, particularly college students with being away from home for the first time,” English said. 

English said she felt Nealon’s respectful depiction of her characters’ struggles with mental health underscores a core theme of the novel — that it’s OK to ask for help when needed.

Laura Goldstein: “I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men and What I Had On” by Kadijah Queen

Laura Goldstein is a senior lecturer in the English program, specifically the writing program. They said they are primarily a long-form poet and view extensive research into different facets of language as an integral part of their writing process.

Goldstein said they discovered Kadijah Queen’s work while researching contemporary queer, female and BIPOC poets.

“I think it’s really important that as many young people as possible read this book,” they said. “It opens up a space, really, in the author’s mind and the subject being a Black woman I think is a really important internal space to hear.” 

Written as a long-form lyric essay, “I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men and What I Had On,” remains within its titular constraint: Queen recalls moments from her adolescence in Los Angeles and describes the clothes she wore when meeting certain male celebrities. 

Goldstein said they hope this book’s vivid detail and genre-defying prose inspires students to pursue their own voice.

“Even though you don’t always think you have space to consider what happened or have control over what you become, through writing — especially through using language in a way that empowers you in particular — that becomes more and more possible,” Goldstein said. 

“Coming of age is that process of review.”

Hailey Gates

Hailey Gates