Mirrors and windows in Young Adult fiction

Leedham, Maria; Hunt, Sally and Mukherjee, Sarah Jane (2023). Mirrors and windows in Young Adult fiction. In: The twelfth international Corpus Linguistics conference (CL2023), 3-6 Jul 2023, Lancaster, UK.


Children’s literature offers ‘windows and mirrors’ onto the world (Bishop 1990); that is, books for children and young adults provide other world views and experiences (windows) and also self-reflections (mirrors). This paper describes a corpus-assisted discourse studies investigation of the ‘windows and mirrors’ on ill health within a corpus of the 50 most commercially-successful books for young adults (11-18 years) sold in the UK over a 5-year period (2017-2022).

The mental health of many young people has been substantially impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic (UK Gov), in addition to the difficulties presented by physical illness. Books act as resources for young adults, allowing readers to build conceptions of illness and ways of coping. This paper reports on patterns found in the representations of illness and in characters’ responses. The language of illness and resilience in young people’s reading repertoires is likely to have an impact on their understandings of their own lives and the ways in which they construct their own responses to ill health.

Our analysis involves the comparison of a sub-corpus of books dealing with health issues (both mental and physical) to the whole corpus of c.5 million words. It reveals interesting correlations between character gender and process type, with mental processes, i.e. those relating to thinking and feeling, being especially pertinent. Our understanding of the patterns and their meanings is enriched by the insights of secondary school students with whom we have shared our findings in focus groups.

Key findings from the study will be disseminated to stakeholders including young people, English teachers and school librarians. We aim to provide them with the ‘windows and mirrors’ - or constructions - of ill health that young people encounter in their reading and so to recognise and understand relevant coping strategies they may adopt.

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