Wards of state: complicating agency and identity for youth in foster care as portrayed in young adult literature
Stephens, Shauna Mae
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Young adult literature has become popular amongst a wider audience, and accordingly has developed significant influence on youth and adults alike. Because of this, it is important for scholars and educators to critically consider what messages the literature is passing on to and about adolescents. Texts that feature youth in foster care break from the tradition in some important ways, giving greater influence and visibility to the institutional authorities that operate in the lives of youth. Critically examining these texts allows insight into the messages inherent in the literature about adolescent agency and authority, and the way such messages reinforce the cultural construct around youth in general, and foster youth specifically. This project begins with an examination of the theoretical background around the cultural construct of youth, the critical merit of young adult literature, and the institutional authorities at work in both. Then, these ideas are applied to the critical textual analysis of four recent, popular young adult novels that feature youth in foster care. Looking across the text set from this position demonstrates the power of the institutions over individual agency. Additionally, the web of authority created by the muddying of any defining lines within and between institutions and the lack of stability in their lives makes coming to any single sense of self nearly impossible. At the end of each text, the only option they have to find any stability is to give up their agency and submit to the institutions that operate in their lives. The analysis shows that the literature that is available fails to show the complicated life of foster youth for what it is, instead reinforcing the stereotypes while continuing to support the status quo. Studies like this one may be able to help break from the tradition and allow for a more critical reading of young adult literature, giving agency back to the very youth targeted by the texts.