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Literary Genres

Genres in Fiction: 

“Genre” is the term used to describe the various types of literature.

            “Genre is a French term derived from the Latin genus, generis, meaning "type,"

            "sort," or "kind." It designates the literary form or type into which works are

            classified according to what they have in common, either in their formal

            structures or in their treatment of subject matter, or both. The study of genres

            may be of value in three ways. On the simplest level, grouping works offers us

            an orderly way to talk about an otherwise bewildering number of literary texts.

            More importantly, if we recognize the genre of a text, we may also have a better

            idea of its intended overall structure and/or subject. Finally, a genre approach

            can deepen our sense of the value of any single text, by allowing us to view it

            comparatively, alongside many other texts of its type.”


Fiction includes stories that are made up in the mind of the author.  They are “make-believe” or imaginary.  The stories are not true, although they may be based on truth, including scientific, historical, or geographic fact.

Some of the major subdivisions of fiction are realistic fiction, historical fiction, and fantasy.

·         Realistic fiction includes stories that seem like real life, and stories that could happen in today’s world.  The situations are true to life or could be true, but the characters are made up.

o    Adventure stories are a type of realistic fiction that are exciting and usually have an aspect of peril, threat, or danger.  Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen, is an adventure story.

o    Mystery stories are also a type of realistic fiction that include an element of suspense and secrecy. Something puzzling usually needs solving and a crime is frequently involved.  There are typically  good guys and bad guys.  Examples are The Dark Stairs, by Betsy Byars and Nate the Great, by Marjorie Sharmat.

o    Humorous stories refer to stories that are primarily intended to entertain and amuse. Events are frequently exaggerated. An example is Harris and Me, by Gary Paulsen. These may also include family stories such as Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, by Judy Blume and school stories such as The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, by Veronica Robinson.

·         Historical fiction includes stories that take place in the past and that are based on historical fact. Usually the setting and the events in the story are close to the facts, but the characters are made up. However, historical fiction may include real people as characters.  Examples of books with real people included among the characters are Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes and I, Juan de Pareja, by Elizabeth Borton de Trevino.  War stories and biographical fiction are types of historical fiction.

o    War stories are historical fiction books set during a period of war and conflict.  Examples are Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry, and Baseball Saved Us, by Ken Mochizuki.

o    Biographical fiction includes stories in which the main character is one who really lived in an earlier period of history.  The “Dear America” and “My Name Is America” series are biographical fiction stories written in a journal style.

·          Fantasy books are make believe stories that are so fantastic that they can't possibly be true. They often include animals behaving like people. Examples are James and the Giant Peach, by Raold Dahl and The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland, by Louis Carroll. 

o    Fantasy animal stories are stories in which the animals are given human characteristics, such as wearing clothing, speaking or making decisions.  Examples are Charlotte’s Web, by E. B. White; Babe the Gallant Pig, by Dick King-Smith and Clifford, the Big Red Dog, by Norman Bridwell.

o    Ghost stories or supernatural fiction are stories in which one or more of the characters may be visitors from the spirit world.   Examples are Jade Green, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor; and Wait Till Helen Comes, by Mary Hahn.

o    Time fantasy and space fiction are fantasy stories in which the characters travel back and/or forward in time. Examples are Time Train, by Sid Fleischman and The Castle in the Attic, by Elizabeth Winthrop.

o    Science fiction includes stories that are based on scientific fact. It can include space fiction and time travel.  In time travel and space fiction, the characters travel back and/or forward in time. In stories for children, the characters often begin in the real world, go off on their adventure, and then return to the real world.  The author tries to make the facts as realistic as possible so the reader believes the event could actually take place. Although fantastic, science fiction contains elements within the realm of possibility because of scientific discovery.  Examples are The Giver, by Lois Lowry; Running Out of Time, by Margaret Haddix; and A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle.

o    High fantasy series are stories that are epic in nature, usually include a quest of some sort that continues over many volumes, including many that echo the Arthurian quests for truth and justice.  Series such as C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, Lloyd Alexander’s Prydian cycle, and Jane Yolen’s "Young Merlin" series are in that category.  The Star Wars saga and the Harry Potter series are also in this genre.

·         Nonfiction books are books are factual books, and are usually classified with Dewey Decimal numbers There are some special genres within the nonfiction category, such as biography, poetry, drama, and folk or traditional literature.

o    Biographies are, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, “the history of the lives of individual men and women as a branch of literature.”  Biographies for children differ somewhat from biographies for adults.  For example, they don’t usually include footnotes, although modern biographies for children usually include a bibliography of sources. Whereas fictionalized biographies are included in historical fiction, factual, authentic depictions of a person's real life story are biographies. Collective biographies are books that group short chapter-length biographies together around a theme.  For example,  Black Stars in Orbit, by Khephra Burns, a collective biography of black astronauts.   Biographies are written by persons other than the subject of the story, whereas autobiographies are books people write about their own lives.

o    Poetry includes single, illustrated poems (such as Hiawatha, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, illustrated by Susan Jeffers) and collections of poetry by one poet (such as Where the Sidewalk Ends, by Shel Silverstein) or collections of many poets’ works compiled by an editor (such as For Laughing Out Louder, edited by Jack Prelutsky).

o    Drama includes works written in dramatic form.  Books can include collections of short plays or book-length plays, such as the works of Shakespeare.

o    Folk literature or traditional literature includes stories that have been passed down from generation to generation.  Myths are stories of the gods and heroes of ancient times, and are sometimes classified in the religion section of the Dewey Decimal Classification System (292), whereas folktales, folk riddles, nursery rhymes and Mother Goose are classified in 398, 398.2, or 398.21.  These stories often contain elements of cultural identity, such as traditions, cultural mores, and rituals.  Sometimes, elements of religious belief of the people are included.   Epics are long stories that originate as poetry or song and that celebrate a national hero.  Beowulf  and El Cid are epics, as are The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer.   Hero stories and legends include the American tall tales, such as stories of Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill.  Tall tales usually include hyperbole, or exaggeration, about the hero.  European hero stories and legends include stories of Robin Hood and King Arthur and his knights, many including elements of mythology within the stories.

o    Fables includes narration demonstrating a useful truth, especially in which animals speak as humans.  A legendary, supernatural tale.

·         Cross-genre books are books that fall into more than one category. A book may be a mystery fantasy; or a historical fiction time travel story.  An example is The Devil’s Arithmetic, by Jane Yolen, that is a story that includes time travel back to the Holocaust while the main character lives in modern times.

Websites about Genres:

Bizic, Mim (Librarian, Quaker Valley School District, Sewickley, PA):  http://www.qvsd.org/Teacher%20Pages/bizicm/genres.html

“Genreflecting”:  http://www.genreflecting.com/

 “Helping Children Understand Literary Genres.” ERIC Digest.  ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading, English,   and Communication, Indiana University, 2805 E. 10th St., Suite 150, Bloomington, IN               47408-2698.

Genre Lesson Ideas:

All genres:

Students complete library search worksheets using the online catalog to identify up to five other books related to a specific genre that they would like to read in the future.


The children make and bring to the library/classroom an object from their book that has magical powers and write about how it fits into the story. For example, a magic wand that they made, a book, a slipper. This works if the teacher can follow up in the classroom to remind them.

Historical Fiction:

Students create timelines of ten events that really happened in history at the time the book takes place. They could be events that happened in the book.


Make up clues for several groups.  The clue for each group led to another clue somewhere in the library.  When the students found the second clue, it led them to a mystery book on the shelf.  They pulled it and sit down until everyone has finished.  Read the titles of all the books found and ask what these books have in common.  Show students a poster with criteria for a good mystery book:

    -Characters are well developed.

    -Reader can solve mystery along with main character because all clues are given

    -Plot engages the reader and propels the reader on through the book.

    -The mystery is solved at end of the book.

Professional Books about Genres:

Asher, Sandy, ed. But That's Another Story: Famous Authors Introduce Popular GenresNY:

            Walker Publishing Co, 1996.

Buss, Kathleen, and Karnowski, Lee.  Reading and Writing Literary Genres.  International Reading

               Association, 2000.

Fletcher, Ralph, and Portalupi, Joann.  Craft Lessons:  Teaching Writing K-8.  Stenhouse Publishers,


Fountas, Irene C., and Pinnell, Gay Su.  Guiding Readers and Writers (Grades 3-6):  Teaching

               Comprehension, Genre, and Content Literacy.  Heinemann, 2001.

Harvey, Stephanie.  Nonfiction Matters: Reading, Writing, and Research in Grades 3-8.  Stenhouse

               Publishers, 1998.

_____, and Goudvis, Anne.  Strategies That Work: Teaching Comprehension to Enhance

Understanding.  Stenhouse Publishers, 2000.

McCarthy, Tara.  Teaching Genre (Grades 4-8).  Scholastic, 1999.

_____.  Teaching Genre:  Biography (Grades 4-8).  Scholastic, 2001.

_____.  Teaching Genre:  Historical Fiction (Grades 4-8).  Scholastic, 2001.

_____.  Teaching Genre:  Humorous Fiction (Grades 4-8).  Scholastic, 2001.

_____.  Teaching Genre:  Journals & Diaries (Grades 4-8).  Scholastic, 2001.

_____.  Teaching Genre:  Mysteries (Grades 4-8).  Scholastic, 2001.

_____.  Teaching Genre:  Myths and Legends (Grades 4-8).  Scholastic, 2001.

Portapouli, Joanne, and Fletcher, Ralph J.  Nonfiction Craft Lessons: Teaching Information Writing

               K-8.  Stenhouse Publishers, 2001.

Withington, Janice J. Genres of Literature: Thematic Study Guides & Bibliographies.  Torrance, CA:

            Good Apple, 1996.

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