Boys on the Road: Mobilities and Childhood Geographies in Young Adult Road Trip Novels

Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Dr. Gwen Athene Tarbox

Second Advisor

Dr. Meghann Meeusen

Third Advisor

Dr. Philip Egan

Fourth Advisor

Dr. Kenneth Kidd


Children’s literature, young adult literature, road trips, automobile in literature, mobility, childhood geography


Contemporary authors of the young adult (YA) road trip narrative write in a tradition that relies on familiar motifs and structures that are found in the larger canon of U.S. highway literature, including texts such as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957). While the Twain tradition depicts the interaction between a young man and an adult who embark on a journey together, the Kerouac tradition depicts young men who, without adult supervision, join together to find adventure on the road. These models show a distinction in how the road narrative is represented in middle grade fiction, which more commonly employs Twain’s model, and in YA road fiction, which typically uses Kerouac’s model. In addition to considering the implications of these divergent structures, I trace how the American road has long been a privileged space for White, heterosexual, cisgender men who have the physical and financial ability to embark on road trips.

Using theories of mobility and childhood geography, interdisciplinary fields that examine how young people conceptualize and interact in various spaces, I analyze four contemporary road narratives for young adults that call into question the safety and educative potential of the road— one in the Twain tradition: Brian Meehl’s You Don’t Know about Me (2011); and three in the Kerouac tradition: Barbara Shoup’s Looking for Jack Kerouac (2014), Alex Sanchez’s Rainbow Road (2005), and Kristin Elizabeth Clark’s Jess, Chunk, and the Road Trip to Infinity (2016). These representative texts offer insight into how YA writers depict young men’s search for self as they traverse a national landscape that is frequently unwelcoming to marginalized identities. The dominant contemporary YA road narrative, as articulated in the Twain and Kerouac models, represents issues surrounding race, sexual orientation, gender, and class in a variety of ways, some more thoughtful and inclusive than others. In the texts that I feature in this dissertation, the road becomes a place where marginalized identities rebel against and resist systemic barriers that seek to keep them stigmatized, thus reflecting Katie Mills’s claim that “the road story will continue to be remapped by each new generation of storytellers as they grapple with the nature of rebellion, the mobility of identity, and life in a global economy during a time of media convergence” (223).

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