Malorie Blackman looks at the different genres of children’s books with a view to helping writers decide what kind of story they could write.
Take a trip to your local library or bookshop and peruse the children’s section. (Also check out the books for young adults.) The books will probably be sorted into age ranges, for example books for babies and toddlers, books for the 5+ age range, books for 7+, 9+, 11+ and books for young adults or 14+. Take a closer look. There will probably be a separate poetry section (but not always) and a separate non-fiction or reference section. Take an even closer look. Are the books in the fiction section divided by genre? Probably not. There are so many different genres (and sub-genres) and so many books which span more than one genre that it would be a thankless task to sort books in this way. But we all have views on the types of stories we like to read – and write.
Under this heading, I include the sub-genres of crime, ghost and horror stories. The key to thrillers is the battle between the protagonist or central character in your story and the antagonist or opponent. Your protagonist must have someone or something to battle against. Weak antagonists make for a weak story. Look at the Harry Potter stories for example (though they are not strictly speaking thrillers). Harry has to battle against the formidable Voldemort. Now if Voldemort was a weak enemy and easily vanquished, it would’ve made Harry’s fight against him far less interesting. An antagonist doesn’t have to be a person. It can be an organisation, the status quo, an object, but whatever it is, the reader should empathise with the protagonist’s struggle against it.
Always a favourite, action books are packed with incident. The most successful books in this genre certainly possess that page-turning quality which makes them incredibly hard to put down. Crime-busting spy thrillers are particularly popular. The protagonists are usually teenagers who invariably have to use their intelligence to get themselves out of myriad tricky situations.
Mystery and adventure
These kinds of books catapult their readers into rip-roaring adventures. Most children love a puzzle element in a story and love the challenge of solving it. The puzzle element also provides that essential page-turning quality required for a successful book. The reader should not just want but need to know what is going to happen next. These types of stories, as well as thrillers, need endings which provide some resolution and a sense of closure. The puzzle presented in the story needs to be solved to be truly satisfying.
Survival stories include stories where the protagonist finds himself or herself alone, with limited resources and having to rely on his/her wits to survive. These types of stories tend to involve a lot of interior monologue so that the reader can really get inside the head of the main character(s). The danger with this type of story is that the protagonist’s plight can become a bit monotonous, so new, believable challenges have to be employed throughout the story and there has to be a real sense of jeopardy should the protagonist fail. These are great stories for having the protagonist learn a lot about themselves in the process. Characters in these books have to make a real emotional journey for the reader to care about them.
Animals and nature
There are two basic types of animal story – where real animals act in a ‘realistic’ way and anthropomorphosised animals, i.e. animals who are in fact humans. The latter allows children to identify with the main character(s) and to share in their adventures. Animals can be used to portray complex emotions in a way that is instantly identifiable to children but also one step removed. In this way, animals can be used to write stories about a number of difficult topics for younger children, such as bereavement or loneliness.
This is a vast genre which covers any kind of contemporary circumstance. These books – which are more than thrillers or mysteries – live or die by the central character(s). The protagonists don’t necessarily need to be sympathetic, but we must empathise with them at least, otherwise readers won’t bother to finish the book. This genre includes school and family stories, stories that deal with disfigurement or disability – the list is endless. When I write one of these stories, I always write a short five-page biography of each of my major characters: their favourite foods, their favourite types of music, their likes and dislikes, loves and hates, what their friends love about them, what their friends find annoying, etc. I will never start writing any novel until I know my main characters inside out. That way I’ll know how they’ll react in any given situation. And my characters become real people to me, and sometimes when I’m writing they’ll behave in ways that surprise me. I take that as a good sign. It means my characters have really taken on a life of their own.
Unfortunately a genre which is always relevant. This genre allows the writer to examine the best and the worst of human nature.
Romance and love stories
This is a popular genre for exploring relationships, and stories tend to be aimed at young adults.
This genre uses sport to illustrate and illuminate the major character(s) or society as a whole.
Hugely popular, this genre seems to have taken over from traditional myths and legends. It appeals to the sense that there is something inside or outside of us which we may or may not be able to control, and stories often contain a magical element.
Research, research, research. Do your research. For me, the best historical stories shine a light on the way we live now. This genre of course includes war, which is listed separately.
Humour is always popular. It’s easy and engaging to read but hard to do well. Anthony Horowitz’s Diamond Brother series are fantastically funny crime novels and a particularly successful example of a fusion of genres. I’ve put them in this category though because for me, the antagonist in each of the Diamond Brother stories is almost incidental. I don’t mean the books have weak antagonists; they don’t. But it is the humour rather than the crimes in these stories that I more easily remember!
Science fiction is a vast genre. It can take you to other worlds, other times, other spaces and places, other minds. The writer who first turned me on to science fiction as a child was John Wyndham. I found his book Chocky totally mind-blowing. And it woke me up to the possibilities of science fiction. Science fiction isn’t only spaceships and aliens from other planets – though there’s nothing wrong with that! This genre allows for new technology and methodologies to be explored as in Unique by Alison Allen Grey, which explores the idea of cloning, or my own book, Pig Heart Boy, which uses as its starting point the whole notion of xenotransplantation (the transplantation of organs from one species into another). The title of my book gives away the species of the donor and the recipient!
Over the last few years, there has been a welcome increase in the number of stories told in narrative verse. This genre is particularly useful for those children for whom unrelenting pages of prose can be quite daunting, but who still want to be told a story as opposed to reading a series of different poems on unrelated subject matter. Narrative verse stories contain all the drama and heart of prose stories but are an interesting form to use when telling the story. As a writer, you need to be very clear as to why you want to tell your story in this way. And bear in mind that narrative verse is very hard to translate, thus limiting foreign edition options – but don’t let that stop you. If your story needs to be told in narrative verse – then go for it. Stories told this way should vary in rhyme, rhythm and cadence or they quickly become boring.
The sad fact is, short stories are a very hard sell. Random short stories across many different genres are an even harder sell. Short stories which focus on a particular genre may be easier to get published but not compared to writing a novel.
A number of well-known children’s books have also had graphic novel editions published. These include Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz and Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer. Graphic novels are expensive to produce so it is rare for an unknown author to be published in this form by a children’s publisher. Manga novels are becoming increasingly popular so this may change in the near future.
Fairy stories, myths and legends
These types of stories appear to have fallen out of fashion somewhat, which is a great shame. As a child I loved fairy stories and books of myths and legends from around the world. There was something very comforting in knowing that a true heart and a courageous spirit would eventually triumph over adversity. However as Rick Riordan shows, there’s plenty of material in fairy stories and legends which can still be used and given a completely modern twist.
Malorie Blackman has written over 55 books for children, including picture books and novels for all ages and reading abilities. Her most recent books are Boys Don’t Cry (2010) and Double Cross, the fourth in the Noughts and Crosses series. Malorie has received a number of awards including the FCBG Children’s Book Award 2002 for Noughts and Crosses, a BAFTA for best children’s drama with Pig Heart Boy in 2000 (also shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal), and the Smarties Silver Book Award 2004 for Cloud Busting. Her website is www.malorieblackman.co.uk and she is also on Facebook and Twitter.