Genres in Children's Literature
In children’s literature, genre identifies books according to content. Beginning at the left of the genre tree, we see that all literature is either prose or poetry. To define poetry, the initial impulse might be to identify it as rhyming, or condensed, or rhythmic. Yet these obvious elements of poetry are not true distinctions. Some poetry does not rhyme. Some poetry is longer than some prose. Some poetry is less rhythmic than some prose. With all the forms poetry can take—haiku, sonnet, couplet, blank verse, limerick, narrative, cinquain, and free verse, to name a few—finding a definition that both identifies them all and distinguishes them from prose is next to impossible. It is easier and more practical to define poetry by saying what it is not. The most obvious “not” is that poetry is not written in paragraphs.
Poetry may appear on the page as a single line, a thin column, or in the shape of a tree, but not in a paragraph. Prose, on the other hand, is always written in paragraphs. Beyond that difference in format, the function of the two literary forms is identical: Both poetry and prose thoughtfully explore the world, give insight into the human condition and experience, and bring pleasure to the reader.
The difference between fiction and nonfiction is verifiability. Fiction springs largely from the author’s imagination. An idea, question, or incident from the real world may give rise to a work of fiction, and the setting and even many details may be verifiable, but the plot comes from the workings of the mind. In Staple’s (2005) Under the Persimmon Tree, the setting and story involve the actual events in and cultural trappings of Afghanistan in the days after the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City, including the American counterstrike, the Taliban’s repression of women, and the careful descriptions of Afghani cities and villages. However, the plot revolves around two fictional characters who eventually meet in a refugee camp. If this book were nonfiction, however, it would be wholly factual—no fictional elements. All the evidence and facts presented in nonfiction books can be verified. The distinction between fiction and nonfiction is similar to determining which answer is correct on a true-false test: If any part of the statement is false, the answer is false. If any part of the book is fiction, the whole book is categorized as fiction.
Nonfiction books are classified as biography and informational. Biography (and autobiography) tells the story, or at least part of the story, of an actual person’s life. As with all nonfiction, reliable sources and documentation are imperative.
Informational books are called nonfiction in adult publishing. Children’s libraries classify all books in one of ten categories (ranging by 100s from 000 to 900) in the Dewey Decimal System. All except the 800s (literature—fiction and poetry) are informational books. Anything in the world is grist for the nonfiction mill: building a violin, life in China, the history of the ball bearing, animals that hibernate, how governments work, and so on. In the last 25 years, no area of children’s literature has changed so dramatically. Although some excellent informational books were written decades ago, in recent times subject matter has broadened, the quality of writing and illustration has improved, and the number of books published has increased.
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