Genres You Didn’t Learn About in Kidlit 101
By Vikki VanSickle
One of the most formative experiences in my development as a writer was working in a bookstore. For four glorious years I was the manager of the award-winning, much beloved Flying Dragon Bookshop in Toronto. Working among kids’ books all day was a great way to understand the vast field of opportunity in children’s literature. In addition to the usual genre suspects—fantasy, ghost story, contemporary, etc—children’s literature has the added categorization of age divisions (ie: middle grade) and format distinctions (ie: picture book). Kid’s authors are forever classifying their books. Unlike our friends in the adult sphere, you aren’t just writing historical fiction, you’re writing a middle-grade historical fiction graphic novel! This specificity is important when placing your book in the market and is also one of my favourite ways to nerd out. Here are six classic and emerging micro-genres in kidlit, as identified by me, a self-proclaimed expert.
Picture Books About Food
This is a micro genre that has always existed—hi there, Strega Nona and The Very Hungry Caterpillar— but has made a resurgence in response to readers looking for more cultural diversity. Salma the Syrian Chef (Danny Ramadan), Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao (Kat Zhang) and Lentil Soup (Carole Tremblay) are all excellent Canadian examples of picture books about food. In this micro genre, food is a means of expressing cultural identity but it also serves a purpose in bringing people together. Bonus points to books that include a recipe, making Picture Books About Food a kid sister to the adult phenomenon of Food Memoir with Recipes.
“You Are Loved” Picture Books
This micro picture book genre is all about assuring children that they are loved. The tone is adult, all-knowing, and often includes similes or examples of how much a child is loved, or how special the child is. These are often the kind of books that people buy for first-time parents and baby showers. Think Guess How Much I Love You (Sam McBratney) or Love You Forever (Robert Munsch). A more contemporary take on this theme expands into acceptance of difference and cultural specificity, as demonstrated in Sweetest Kulu (Celina Kalluk), Dear Black Girls (Shanice Nicole) and The Day You Begin (Jacqueline Woodson).
The List Poem
While all picture books are arguably vehicles for illustration, the spare and open-ended quality of the text in this micro genre really allows for an artist to take the reins. List poems have lower stakes and generally include a series of images that convey character or theme, rather than a traditional narrative arc. Consider Marie-Louise Gay’s Stella and Sam books, in which older sister Stella provides whimsical explanations about the natural world for her little brother, Sam. In Canada, Sara O’Leary is the undisputed Queen of the List Poem. In This is Ruby, O’Leary builds a character profile of a young girl by listing her likes, activities, and dreams, brought vividly to life by Alea Marley, who lets the reader see the world through Ruby’s eyes.
The Buddy Comedy
From the philosophical musings of Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad to the dramatics of Mo Willem’s Elephant and Piggie, the buddy comedy allows life lessons to be explored from different angles, represented by the different personalities of the characters: introverted vs extroverted, prepared vs spontaneous, courageous vs risk adverse. But chances are kids will be too busy giggling to clock these lessons, which is the genius sleight of hand of the buddy comedy. Nowhere is the buddy comedy more prevalent than in graphic novels for ages 6-9, kicked into high gear by the success of Ben Clanton’s Narwhal and Jelly. The odd part of this odd couple dynamic keeps getting odder and odder, pairing unlikely food stuffs (Cookie and Broccoli by Bob McMahon), or even animate objects with inanimate objects (Bunbun and Bonbon by Jess Keating).
The Summer It All Changed
Summer is an ideal setting for kids’ novels. From a strictly practical sense, it gives the writer more flexibility. Freed from the confines of school, away from the eyes of adults, kids have all the time in the world to build forts, solve mysteries, fall in love, and discover who they are in the process. I love this micro genre so much that three of my own novels (two published, one forthcoming) use summer as a timeframe. In Days That End in Y, Clarissa meets her birth father and Benji comes to terms with his sexuality. In Summer Days, Starry Nights, a family secret is revealed. If you, like me, live for The Summer It All Changed stories, check out Elvis, Me and the Lemonade Stand Summer (Leslie Gentile), Music for Tigers (Michelle Kadarusman), and Everything Beautiful is Not Ruined (Danielle Younge-Ullman).
My First Brush With Death
For a long time in children’s publishing, a dog on the cover of a book meant that dog was going to die. This trend was so prevalent that beloved Canadian author Gordon Korman called it out in his book No More Dead Dogs. While a dog is no longer the harbinger of death it once was, there is definitely a micro-genre in which a child, usually between the ages of 9-12, experiences the death of someone close to them. For the purpose of specificity, I’m not including fantasy books here. Fantasy tends to have extremely high stakes and the possibility of death always seems to be on the table. In realistic fiction—as in life—the death is often unexpected. Award juries love this micro-genre, but so do tweens, who appreciate it when an author takes them seriously enough to explore hard subject matter. Some Canadian favourites include From Ant to Eagle (Alex Lyttle), The Agony of Bun O’Keefe (Heather Smith) and The Reluctant Journal of Henry K Larsen (Susin Nielsen).
There you have it! Now that you know about these micro-genres, you’ll see them everywhere.
Happy reading, friends!
Genres You Didn’t Learn About in Kidlit 101
The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Vikki VanSickle is the author of a number of acclaimed novels for children including P.S. Tell No One, Words That Start With B, Summer Days, Starry Nights, and the 2018 Red Maple award-winning The Winnowing. She has also written the picture books If I Had a Gryphon, Teddy Bear of the Year, and Anonymouse. Vikki started her career as an independent bookseller and spent 12 years working in children's publishing. A devoted member of the Canadian children's book world, she curates and presents regular book segments at CTV Your Morning and balances her writing with arts education for all ages.