Genres: Definitions for Children’s Literature

Please understand that categorizing books is not a science. There are many gray areas, and some genres have a lot of subtypes. Use standard textbook reading lists and get recommendations to develop your appreciation for each genre.

Why categorize books? Children’s books are categorized into genres for various reasons:

  • Each type of book has its own history and criteria for evaluation.
  • Children may request books in the specific genres they enjoy, and you will be in a position to recommend books you think they might like.
  • By reading many books in a genre, students of children’s literature may compare them and begin to understand and appreciate the elements of each type.

Here are a few very basic definitions, adapted from several sources, to help you understand the essentials of each genre.

Contemporary realistic fiction includes stories that could happen to people or animals. The characters are made up, but their actions and feelings are similar to those of people we could know. These stories often take place in the present time and portray attitudes and problems of contemporary people. Realistic fiction includes family stories; realistic animal stories; sports stories; adventures; and mysteries.

Historical fiction is set in an historical time period which blends authentic historical settings and facts with imaginary characters and plot. It may include real historical figures as secondary characters. It is generally considered to be a story written about a time in which the author has not lived or set in a time no later than one generation before the composition.

Non-fiction or information books emphasize documented facts. They inform and entertain young readers by the excellence of presentation, illustration, and research. They can be written about any aspect of the physical, biological, or social world.

Biography tells the story of an actual person’s life or a portion of his or her life. Often the person’s life is notable for his or her accomplishments or a significant triumph. An autobiography is simply a biography written by a person about him- or herself.

Traditional literature, the ancient stories or poems of many cultures, originate in the oral, or storytelling, tradition. These books are often attributed to different groups and cultures, but have no known original authors. Traditional literature has been used as a way of passing down traditional wisdom and knowledge necessary for the survival of the group as well as a way of explaining myths, epics, legends, tall tales, fables, and religious stories.

Poetry is the artistic expression of ideas and feelings though a rhythmical composition of imaginative and beautiful words carefully selected to achieve the desired effect in the listener or reader. Types of poetry include Mother Goose and nursery rhyme books; anthologies of many kinds of poetry in one volume; poetry books in which all the poems are on one theme or topic; and single, illustrated poems.

Modern fantasy refers to works of literature in which the events, settings, or the characters are outside the realm of possibility. The author must convince the reader to suspend disbelief by creating an internally logical and consistent world. There are many types of modern fantasy, including the modern fairytale (by a known author); animal fantasy, personified toys and objects; quest stories and high fantasy; time travel; and stories about miniature worlds and people.

Science fiction is a type of imaginative literature in which the author convinces us that something unusual could happen because the story is grounded in scientific principles or technical possibility. It is sometimes called futuristic fiction.

Picture books (which are a format, not a genre) are profusely illustrated books in which the pictures are essential to complete understanding and enjoyment of the story. The illustrations may provide clues to setting, plot, characterization and mood. Types of picture books include baby and toddler books; alphabet, counting and other concept books; wordless books; picture storybooks; pattern books; and beginning readers.



Tomlinson, C. M. & Lynch-Brown, C. (2000). Essentials of Children’s Literature. 4th ed. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon. IMC 809.89282 L987es4

Lukens, E. J. (1999). A Critical Handbook of Children’s Literature. 6th ed. New York: Longman. IMC 809.89282 L954cr6