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Writing genre fiction for children

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.

For the purposes of this article (and my sanity), I shall only be looking at the main fiction genres for children. My genre list is by no means definitive or exhaustive, but what I want to do is present some guidelines for some of the genres and some examples of books for further reading. Let me say straight away that a number of the books I’ve listed below quite happily overlap other genres as well. Take my own book for young adults, Noughts and Crosses, as an example. The story is about the friendship of two teenagers, Callum and Sephy, which eventually turns into a deep, undying love. Does that make it a romance/love story? The story takes place in an alternative version of contemporary Britain. So it’s a fantasy story – right? Callum is a ‘Nought’ (white) and Sephy is a ‘Cross’ (black) and their society has strict demarcation lines where the two groups are not encouraged to integrate. Noughts are the minority and historically the ex-slaves of the Crosses. As the book takes an angled look at modern-day racism, does that make it a real life/contemporary story? Genre can be a hard one to pin down.

One of the first pieces of advice I received when I started writing was ‘write about what you know’. Even though this advice is a useful starting point, I don’t necessarily agree with it. After all, that’s why we have imaginations, to take us outside of our own limited realm of experience. My advice would be to write what you care about rather than what you know. If you care about it, but don’t know too much about it, then you’ll take the trouble to find out, to do proper research. And if you care about it, then you’ll write with a passion and a heart that will shine through.

Beware of choosing to write in a genre simply because it appears to be ‘currently fashionable’. You may feel that you’ll have more chance of being published or making money that way, but it’s unlikely to be true. If you don’t truly believe and feel every word you write, it will show. And what is ‘currently fashionable’ may not be so in one or two years’ time. For a while in the mid to late 1990s, horror stories were the thing. Over the last few years, fantasy has been even bigger. But that also means there is more competition as every writer hoping to make some fast money jumps on that bandwagon. What makes your story more original, inventive and readable than the next one? If you can’t answer that question, think long and hard about the type of story you are writing – and why.

Thrillers

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.

Good examples: I Am the Cheese by Robert Cormier, Cirque du Freak series by Darren Shan.

Action

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.

Good examples: Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz, Cherub series by Robert Muchamore.

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.

When I’m writing a mystery or an adventure story, I always make sure that the protagonist’s troubles get worse in the middle of the story. Much worse. For example, in chapter one of my novel Hacker, one of the protagonists, Vicky, is accused of cheating in a Maths test by hacking into her teacher’s computer to get the answers. But there’s worse to come. When she gets home, she and her brother Gib find out that their dad has been arrested for siphoning off millions from the bank where he works. Worse is to come! Vicky and her brother have a huge bust up when Gib tells Vicky that her real parents drowned to get away from her and that she’s not his sister and she never will be (Vicky is adopted). So not only does poor Vicky have her own school problems to deal with, she has to find a way to prove her dad innocent and find her own place within her family.

Good examples: Wolf by Gillian Cross, Creepers by Keith Gray.

Survival

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.

Good examples: Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver, Kensuke’s Kingdom by Michael Morpurgo.

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.

Good examples: Watership Down by Richard Adams, The Sheep Pig by Dick King Smith, Fire, Bed and Bone by Henrietta Branford.

Real life/contemporary

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.

Good examples: Holes by Louis Sacher, The Illustrated Mum by Jacqueline Wilson, Stone Cold by Robert Swindells, (Un)arranged Marriage by Bali Rai, Junk by Melvin Burgess, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson.

War

Unfortunately a genre which is always relevant. This genre allows the writer to examine the best and the worst of human nature.

Good examples: Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo, I Am David by Anne Holm, Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian.

Romance and love stories

This is a popular genre for exploring relationships, and stories tend to be aimed at young adults.

Good examples: Saskia’s Journey by Theresa Breslin, Forever by Judy Blume, No Shame, No Fear by Ann Turnbull.

Sports

This genre uses sport to illustrate and illuminate the major character(s) or society as a whole.

Good example: Keeper by Mal Peet, McB by Neil Arksey.

Fantasy

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.

Good examples: Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer, His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman.

Historical

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.

Good examples: Hero by Catherine Johnson, Coram Boy by Jamila Gavin.

Humour

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!

Good examples: Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison, The Hundred Mile-an-Hour Dog by Jeremy Strong, I Know What You Did Last Wednesday by Anthony Horowitz.

Science fiction

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!

Good examples: Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve, Unique by Alison Allen Grey, Hex by Rhiannon Lassiter.

Poetry/narrative verse

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.

Good examples: Love That Dog by Sharon Creech, Cloud Busting by Malorie Blackman, Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson.

Short stories

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.

Good example: A Thief in the Village and other stories by James Berry.

Graphic novels

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.

Good example: Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan.



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.


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