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Liars, Lovers, and Thieves: Being Adolescent Readers and Writers in Young Adult Literature and Life


Books written for teenagers portray the lives of young people and frequently include depictions of teenagers as readers and writers. From brief mentions of writing to elaborate descriptions of reading, the representations of literacy practices contained in works of young adult literature (YAL) oftentimes bid readers to take notice. This dissertation examines representations of literacy practices in YAL and investigates the meanings that adolescent readers ascribe to them.

Through analyzing a set of forty-seven award-winning texts written specifically for adolescents and through convening a book group with high school students, this two-phase research study brings together literacy, literature, and adolescents. In the first phase of the study, each reference to print included in the set of YAL was coded and used to map the range of literacy practices represented in the books. Four types of representations emerged, each functioning differently in the narratives and each providing different information about reading and writing: (a) mentions are short references to literate activities; (b) descriptions are more elaborated and detailed depictions of literacy practices; (c) constitutive events are portrayals of reading and writing that serve as turning points in the narrative and that bring forth literacy as a part of life; and (d) extended articulations are representations of writing and reading that extend across and throughout texts, driving the stories and animating lives that include literacy.

With these types of representations forming an analytical framework, the study then explored the literate identities of the characters in the books in more depth, attending especially to connections between literacy practices and adolescence. At the transition from childhood to adulthood, the adolescent characters' many identities are in transition and their literate identities are likewise in flux. Further their identities as readers and writers intersect other identity work that they do. In the second phase of the study, eight teenagers read books from the set of YAL used in the first phase, explicitly focusing on the books' representations of literacy practices. Drawing from interviews, surveys, and discussions, the research reveals ways in which the participants understood the reading and writing depicted in the books. As the teenagers interpret the activities of represented readers and writers, they identify with the characters and negotiate and display their own literate identities.

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