Children’s literature is broken down into genres, just as adults’ stories are. But critics of children’s literature differ in how they prefer to categorise the main types of stories for children.
I’ve observed that children’s editors and similar often avoid talking about ‘genre’ when discussing children’s stories. ‘Genre’ is one of those words that needs quote marks around it. Instead, they use different terminology.
REALISM VS FANTASY
John Stephens has said that the distinction between fantasy and realism is ‘the single most important generic distinction in children’s fiction‘. On the other hand, children’s literature academic Maria Nikolajeva doesn’t make that particular distinction, treating ‘all children’s literature as essentially “mythic” or at least non-mimetic‘. [Non-mimetic means not even trying to emulate reality.]
Nikolajeva describes children’s stories as ‘a symbolic depiction of a maturation process (initiation, rite of passage) rather than a strictly mimetic reflection of a concrete “reality”.’
Arguably the most pervasive theme in children’s fiction is the transition within the individual from infantile solipsism to maturing social awareness’.John Stephens
See my post on Coming-of-age Stories. (In which there are subcategories and related categories.)
MYTH VS ROMANCE, MIMETIC VS NON-MIMETIC
Northrop Frye writes in terms of ‘myth-to-romance—romance to high mimetic—low mimetic to ironic’.
Peter Hunt wrote of ‘closed—semi-closed—unresolved’ stories forming the backbone of children’s literature.
The QuesT OR MYTHIC Story
Maria Nikolajeva writes about children’s stories in terms of ‘utopia–carnival-collapse’. Nikolajeva is also careful to provide the disclaimer that whatever may be true for Western stories is not necessarily true when it comes to the structure of stories in other cultures.
Quest stories have a mythic structure. Nikolajeva writes of the Quest Story as a category of its own, if not a genre. Quest stories are stories of growth and maturation (and this is true whether the audience is adult or child).
Maria Nikolajeva notes that ‘a psychological quest for self can be found in many contemporary YA novels, for instance Gary Paulsen’s The Island, a modern Robinsonnade. Examples of a children’s Robinsonnade would be Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea and Sailor Dog.
When applied to children’s literature, Nikolajeva prefers the term ‘picnic‘ in place of ‘quest’ because in children’s stories there is often no character development once the children come back to the primary world. For instance, the Pevensie children in the Narnia Chronicles live entire lives, then presumably live again as children when they arrive back in the real world.
GENRE OR CHRONOTOPE?
Academic Maria Nikolajeva does not make a distinction between:
what is normally described as ‘genres’ or ‘kinds’ of children’s fiction: historical fiction, fantasy, adventure, realistic everyday story, or “nonsense” (which I do not believe to be a generic category anyway, but rather a stylistic device). The difference is in setting, or more specifically in chronotope, the organisation of space and time. In my typology, all these texts belong to the same narrative pattern: “semiclosed” in Peter Hunt’s taxonomy, “Odyssean” in Lucy Waddey’s. In Frye’s mythical cycle, the closest description is romance.
(Chronotope is Bakhtin’s terminology.)
QUEST VS PICARESQUE
Rather than genre, Nikolajeva thinks of children’s literature in terms of ‘quest’ and ‘picaresque’.
Quest has a goal; picaresque is a goal in itself. The protagonist of a picaresque work is by definition not affected by his journey; the quest (or Bildungsroman) is supposed to initiate a change. There is, indeed, sometimes a very subtle boundary between ‘there-and-back’ and a definite, linear journey ‘there’, which is best seen in the last volume of the Narnia Chronicles.
Picaresque: relating to an episodic style of fiction dealing with the adventures of a rough and dishonest but appealing hero. An example of a modern picaresque film for adults is Thelma & Louise.
Nikolajeva further categorises children’s fiction into three general forms:
- Prelapsarian (when the main characters are unspoiled by ‘The Fall of Man’. The setting tends to be pastoral, secluded, autonomous. The main characters tend to be ensembles. The narrative voice tends to be didactic and omniscient. Time is circular, with much use made of the ‘iterative’ rather than the ‘singulative’. Utopian fiction introduces readers to the sacred e.g. The Secret Garden.)
- Carnivalesque (in which the characters temporarily take over from figures of authority and often make mischief, but control their own worlds for a time. See: The Hobbit, Narnia Chronicles, Harry The Dirty Dog. Carnivalesque texts take children out of Arcadia but ensure a sense of security by bringing them back. They allow an introduction to death, which inevitably follows the insight about the linearity of time.)
- Postlapsarian (in which a pastoral setting tends to be replaced by an urban one, and collective protagonists are exchanged for individuals. First person point of view is common. Time is linear. The main character knows that time is linear, so death becomes a central theme. Harmony gives way to chaos. The social, moral, political, and sexual innocence of the child is interrogated. These texts exist to introduce children to adulthood and death, and encourages them to grow up, or helps them out with it. In these stories, there is no going back.)
GENRE BREAKDOWN IN CHILDREN’S STORIES
With all that terminology out of the way, I’d like to go back to ‘genre’. Some genres are especially popular with kids.
Crime is amazingly popular worldwide, for children and adults alike.
Enid Blyton wrote a lot of detective stories (The Famous Five, Secret Seven). Detective stories continue to be popular, and below the upper-MG age group, it’s the subgenre of ‘cosy crime‘, in which the stakes are low. (See Alexander McCall Smith’s The Great Cake Mystery). In the world of children’s books, Nate the Great is known for his:
unflinching resolve in the face of stolen goldfish, absconded cookies, and M.I.A. pets.
A combination of drama and cozy crime is common in children’s literature. Timmy Failure by Stephan Pastis seems to have its main genre as drama, with a sub-genre of crime:
It doesn’t take much reading between the lines to discover that Timmy has real problems: his grades are poor, he’s not very popular, and his single mother is struggling to pay the bills while her new, thuggish boyfriend is making Timmy’s home life unbearable. Investigating a case of a missing Segway with his (imaginary) polar bear business partner makes for a good diversion.
See: The 15 Greatest Kid Detectives from Huffington Post
Sammy Keyes is described likewise as a:
skillful mix of mystery with a traditional coming-of-age narrative
Like the trend in stories for adults, children’s books now are often described as a blend between one type of story and another in the marketing copy:
Like The DaVinci Code meets From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Chasing Vermeer is chockablock with mind bending puzzles and tantalizing twists that readers will gobble up along with Petra and Calder.
Daniel Handler’s series All The Wrong Questions is described as…
a pitch-perfect update of the pulp fiction crime novels from the 1930s meant for young audiences.
“Everything’s a mash-up”, or builds on what has come before, sometimes with an ironic knowingness, at least, for older readers who have read the originals:
Mac Barnett’s playful riff on The Hardy Boys makes good fun of skewering the boy-detective genre while still offering a mystery that’s quick-witted and engaging.
Is it true for children’s literature, as it is for Hollywood scripts, that stories must nowadays be a blend of more than one genre?
The Girl Who Could Fly is blurbed as follows:
It’s the oddest mix of Little House On The Prairie and X-Men.
…in acknowledgment of the observation that historical fiction mixed with superhero plotting (which is really a type of myth) is quite unusual.
I’m not convinced that children’s books need to be more than a single genre, for the simple reason that a younger audience has not yet had the breadth of media exposure to have become sick of single genre stories. Picture books are often a single ‘genre’ most of the time, because they are so short.
It’s certainly true that in children’s literature, publishing goes through phases and evolutions. Everything builds upon what’s come before, and when a straight love story becomes so common that it’s hard to do something new with it, we get another spin.
The Middle Grade Buddy Story
The ‘buddy movie’ equivalent in MG literature is also pretty popular. The buddy movie is really a mixture of three genres (Action + Love + Comedy), or if it’s a buddy cop movie it’s Action + Love + Crime, and we’re seeing this first kind of genre mashup in series such as Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid, with Greg Heffley as the main character who has a more naive and light-hearted best friend.
The same combination is used in Monster House (the film). Usually, girls form the opponents, and are seen as a different species. This is supposed to result in humour, to a greater or lesser extent.
Though not really a kids’ story due to the advanced age of the narrator, The Wonder Years gives us Kevin Arnold and his best friend Paul. The comedy that results is of a melancholic kind.
Nowadays, the female buddy movie is starting to be made, perhaps because gender-swapping is one easy way to do something a bit different. For example, we have Bullock and McCarthy in It Takes Two. So it follows that we’ll start to see more buddy MG stories with female leads, though there are perhaps still too few stories about female friendship, especially when it comes to comedy. Female friendships and the problems within are almost always treated in dramatic/serious fashion.
Picture books are often about the love between children and their families. In middle grade there is often the hint of a love subplot. In young adult stories, you get the entire range of love story, including sex.
We’re seeing more and more adult genre elements working their way into YA, perhaps because a large proportion of YA is read by adults:
This is not your parents’ Nancy Drew mystery. While there are elements of Nancy and her gang in all mysteries subsequent, the real inspiration I see in the current growing subgenre of what I have dubbed PG-13 Serial Killer Fiction, is the lead character of Veronica Mars, with a hint of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and just a dash of the adult serial killer chaser fiction like James Patterson’s Alex Cross series. Truly, the hunt for mass-murdering sociopaths does not sound like traditional young adult literature, however, I have noted the trend growing in recent years of bringing these tales to the new generation of readers by featuring empowered teenage females with unusual gifts as the foil for the killer. [In true Thriller fashion.]review of I CAN NOT TELL A LIE BY JOSH NEWHOUSE at Nerdy Book Club
David Beagley talks about hero fantasy in Lecture 9 of Genres In Children’s Literature, available on iTunes U. He defines fantasy in lecture 10 . In lecture 11 he talks about Harry Potter and defines ‘high fantasy’. In lecture 12 he talks about how teachers and other gatekeepers might go about sorting out the wheat from the chaff.
Maria Nikolajeva offers The 35th of May as an example of a story oft described as ‘nonsense’. ‘This funny, entertaining story has certainly been admired by many readers in many countries, but it has nothing to do with the idea of spiritual growth’. Is there an adult-analogue for the nonsense story? As explained above, nonsense is a stylistic device rather than a genre as such.
War-time stories are sometimes treated as a separate genre, in British children’s fiction especially, but Nikolajeva does not consider them separate.
Is dystopia a genre?
Dystopian novels become a genre of their own, in which adults, politicians and leaders are consistently portrayed as deceitful, greedy, vainglorious and wicked. Occasionally, as in Sally Gardner’s Maggot Moon, the dystopia portrays an alternative history – a Fascist 1950s Britain along the lines of 1984. More usually, they are set in the future, against the cataclysms produced by current trends.
Dystopia isn’t new: in my own childhood there were superb writers such as John Christopher, whose Prince in Waiting trilogy should be much better-known. But these futures were the product of natural catastrophe or alien invasion. Now, the darkness and violence of contemporary dystopias is highly politicised. The most famous is Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, in which teenagers are required to fight to death for the ultimate TV reality show. Or, you might say, the ultimate high-school show-down. Plenty of other terrific novels such as Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies, Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses, Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now and Moira Young’s Blood Red Road depict our future as ravaged by science, racism, war, genetic mutation or most credibly, exams.Amanda Craig, writing about the Third Golden Age of Children’s Literature
Until recently dystopia has been popular in YA. (Editors are recently saying they don’t want to read any more of it.) In the year 2000, Maria Nikolajeva wrote:
Dystopia has been by definition an impossible genre in children’s fiction. However, a recent trend in children’s fiction shows tangible traits of dystopia. We can see forerunners of this trend in post-disaster science-fiction novels, for instance. The Prince in Waiting trilogy, which combines high technology with medieval mysticism. In the trend I am referring to, the dystopian idea is central, the kernel of the story itself, and the interrogation of modern—adult—civilisation in these books is as strong as in Huxley or Orwell. It has taken children’s fiction more than half a century to catch up with adult literature in developing this genre, which contradicts the view of childhood as a vision of a hopeful future. It is amazing that the genre has become so prominent, indeed one of the most prominent genres in British, American, and Australian children’s fiction of the 1990s. An early representative of this trend may be seen in Robert Cormier’s I Am the Cheese, where a ruthless totalitarian society is reflected in a mentally disturbed boy’s mind. In Germany, Gudrun Puasewang has received much attention for her dystopian children’s novels, especially Fall-out, a gloomy post-Chernobyl depiction of a nuclear plant accident.
Dystopia might instead by considered a ‘category of ending‘ (grim rather than happy — the opposite of idyll) rather than a genre per se, with the most popular dystopian YA in 2015 being a blend of action, romance, myth and historical. For more on Dystopian fiction, see this post.