The Collage Effect: Form and Participatory Reading in Contemporary Children’s and Young Adult Literature

Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Dr. Gwen Athene Tarbox

Second Advisor

Dr. Meghann Meeusen

Third Advisor

Dr. Mike Cadden

Fourth Advisor

Dr. Elizabeth Bradburn


Children's literature, young adult literature, participatory, adolescent literature, collage, form


This project focuses on the ways in which recent formal innovations in children’s and young adult literature suggest a specific attention to how a narrative is constructed in experimental ways that privilege voice and foreground the creative act. Many authors writing for young people make formal and structural choices that address both personal and cultural traumas, invite reader interaction and involvement, and suggest a metaphor for the increasingly fragmented experience of childhood in twenty-first-century North American culture. This study examines the ways that contemporary authors and illustrators for young people use innovations in visual and textual form to incite activism in young readers and to represent marginalized groups who have experienced trauma or had their voices silenced.

My research is unique in that it both builds upon scholarship that explores participatory culture and connects to experiments in literary form. I have developed the term “the collage effect” to describe this compiling, layering, and piecing together of visual and textual fragments and its impact upon young readers. In children’s and young adult literature, collage aesthetics in a variety of media—including picture books, verse novels, diary narratives, and polyvocal and companion novels—work in distinct ways in order to destabilize traditional narrative modes and invite active reader participation. The collage aesthetic is present in multiple works published since the late 1990s within children’s and young adult literature that interrogate themes of identity construction, creative voice, and cultural trauma.

Authors such as Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, Jacqueline Woodson, Walter Dean Myers, Isabel Quintero, and John Green and David Levithan use not just traditional collage techniques, but also metaphorical representations of collage aesthetics, in order to suggest creativity as an avenue for character growth. The texts featured in this study each focus their attention on characters who are themselves writers, creators, and storytellers and whose fragmented revelations about personal crises and cultural traumas facilitate growth and identify formation. Through formal collage techniques, these authors encourage an active readership and intimacy between young readers and the focalizing characters, while simultaneously urging readers to question ideologies, their own as well as those put forth by their culture about race, sex, gender, and class. These authors posit writing, drawing, and other creative work as a way in which their young characters (and young readers by extension) might understand, cope with, and move beyond the individual and cultural traumas they experience. Not only do these writers model collage aesthetics, but they also encourage readers to take up the role of the collagist as well. By demonstrating how innovative formal structures contribute to young people’s understanding of cultural politics, history, and identity construction, this study adds to the critical conversations within the field of children’s literature and childhood studies about adolescent and preadolescent subjectivity, the representation of creative voice, and the role of participatory culture.


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