Characteristics of Children’s Literature as a Genre

Dr. Tina L. Hanlon

Associate Professor of English
Ferrum College

Children's Literature Course Home Page

Below are concepts from two books on children's literature by influential scholars. Nodelman was speculating and inviting debate about ways to define children's literature as a genre, not arguing that these characteristics always do define the genre.

From Perry Nodelman, The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, 1st ed. Longman, 1992:

Children’s Literature

1. Is simple and straightforward.
This does not mean that vocabulary needs to be overly simplistic or that style should be choppy or flat (as too many books for children are).

2. Focuses on action.
Subtle psychological events are often implied through narration and comment on actions.

3. Is about childhood.

4. Expresses a child’s point of view.

5. Is optimistic.
“Hope is a vital dimension of a children’s book.” (Sarah Smedman)

6. Tends toward fantasy.
Fantasy often implies a symbolic defiance of our knowledge of reality, and represents the potential that lies below the surface in each of us.

7. Is a form of pastoral idyll.
The pastoral idyll celebrates the joys and innocence of rural life, close to nature and in the company of friends.

8. Views an un-idyllic world from the viewpoint of innocence.
More complex and interesting books reflect ambivalence about desire to have the comforts of home and the exciting dangers of adventure, desire to be innocent and experienced, desire to grow up but not grow up, etc.

9. Is didactic.
Traditionally, children’s literature has been seen as attempting to educate children.
A universal theme is teaching children that despite its boredom, home is a better place to be than the dangerous world outside.

10. Tends to be repetitious.
Repeating tasks is a basic method of education.
Repetition is a common trait of oral literature.
Repetitions with variations of words, phrases, situations, and narrative patterns are common in children’s literature.

11. Tends to balance the idyllic and the didactic.
Some books are almost completely didactic (teaching them how to become like mature adults and deal with the adult world) or idyllic (reflecting a desire to retain the innocence of childhood), but most books combine the two approaches, and deal with opposing ideas, such as home vs. away, communal concern vs. self-concern, good vs. evil.

NEWS: Perry Nodelman continues his theoretical work about how to define children's literature in his 2008 book. See the trailer created by Nodelman for The Hidden Adult: Defining Children's Literature at See also page on this book at Johns Hopkins University Press. The book focuses on six classic works of children's literature to discuss common elements of the genre.

Feeling Like a Kid by Jerry Griswold, 2006

Griswold argues that these "five themes recur in classic and popular works of Children's Literature" (1) and that, "looked at in a different way, [they] can be seen as feelings or sensations prevalent in childhood" (3).

  1. Snugness
  2. Smallness
  3. Scariness
  4. Lightness
  5. Aliveness

See also page on this book at Johns Hopkins University Press and Powerpoint posted in the ANGEL site for this course.

This page's last update: December 5, 2008