The Macquarie dictionary defines adventure as ‘an undertaking of uncertain outcome, a hazardous enterprise or an exciting experience’ and adventure stories can be categorised by a mixture of action, suspense, surprise and a final resolution (Lodge 1991, p. 151). Adventure can cover both fiction and non-fiction and the classic adventure memoir often showcases real physical danger, distinct displays of courage and know-how (Sutton 2001). Adventure fiction can be defined as the story ‘of the hero – or individual or group – overcoming obstacles and dangers and accomplishing some important and moral mission’ (Saricks 2009) and whilst some adventure stories are playful, they can also be serious. The lines between fiction and reality are often blurred (Grenby 2008, p. 170) and non-fiction books like The Diary of Anne Frank and material relating to Alexander the Great can provide as much adventure as any fiction stories.
A number of adventure stories feature a quest or journey as the main source of adventure where the main character embarks on a journey with a specific purpose (e.g. to solve a mystery, seek a prize or fortune, discover something or to find someone). Various forms of conflict are an important element in most adventure stories and the thrill of such conflict is often what makes adventure stories so appealing to many children (Lodge 1991, p. 153). Although many adventure stories have similar themes, there is a lot of crossover between adventure and other genres, including graphic novels (Saricks 2009). Some popular characteristics of children’s adventure stories are:
- Brisk pacing – a hero or central character can escape from one dangerous episode to the next, often in a short amount of time
- The storyline focuses on action, usually a set of obstacles or a mission where dangers are met along the way
- An identifiable hero – a character who readers can relate to and like
- Conversational language – Invites the reader to participate in the hero’s exploits
Readers are drawn to adventure stories because of their participatory nature, where the reader feels like they join the hero through multiple dangers and experiences treasure hunts, dangerous scenarios, formidable obstacles and exploration of the universe’s boundaries (Saricks 2009).
Adventure stories are largely about empowerment. It takes a marginal and every-day person and makes them significant and strong enough to encounter great dangers and make huge, life-altering decisions (Grenby 2008, p. 174). The children’s adventure story typically creates protagonist figures who seem unimportant in their normal lives and who are often victimised and neglected (Grenby 2008, p. 174). Having to follow instructions from adults in their own daily lives, children reading adventure stories are encouraged to imagine themselves as being hugely important, influential and significant on a world or universal stage. Main characters who have ordinary traits but experience extraordinary adventures helps readers to imagine themselves as possible participants in adventures as well (Grenby 2008, p. 177).
Origins and History of the Adventure Genre
Adventure has always been an important factor in children’s books, particularly since the early nineteenth century, although adventure stories go back a long way into ancient history (Lodge 1991, p. 152). Odysseus is one of the world’s oldest adventure stories and it provided a pattern for the adventure story (Lodge 1991, p. 152), as did biblical stories and classical myths. Children’s adventure stories were often originally intended for an adult audience, whilst some sought a cross-over between adult and children readers. For example, King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard was dedicated ‘to all the big and little boys who read it’ (Grenby 2008, p. 71). Another example is Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift whereby versions were created especially for children (Grenby 2008, p. 71).
In the nineteenth century, the adventure genre and the notion of a quest was extremely popular and managed to capture the spirit of a period in time where new lands were being discovered and expeditions were being made into unknown areas (Lodge 1991, p. 154). Nineteenth century adventure stories were written almost exclusively for boys and they showcased a world in which majority of significant events were dominated by male characters (Lodge 1991, p. 154). If women or girls were included, they were often background characters with an important influence on their sons/husbands/lovers/brothers but otherwise generally removed from the main action of the story (Lodge 1991, p. 154). The nineteenth century was a great time for non-fiction adventure, with descriptions of the expeditions of James Cook and Mungo Park marketed for children (Grenby 2008, p. 171). During periods of conflict, children’s adventure stories often revolved around them and any reluctance to embrace adventure was generally thought to be cowardly (Grenby 2008, p. 178).
The adventure genre changed around the beginning of the twentieth century, especially around 1950 (Lodge 1991, p. 153). The ‘holiday adventure’ also became popular whereby the story tended to draw less on the survival tradition of previous stories and looked to explore small-scale, domestic adventure (Lodge 1991, p. 153). One of the most significant developments in the twentieth century has been the emergence of writers interested in actively engaging the interests of girls and including female characters in more prominent character roles.
Grenby, MO 2008, Children’s Literature, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.
Lodge, L 1991, ‘Tales of Adventure’, in Saxby, M & Winch, G (eds), Give Them Wings: The experience of children’s literature, 2nd edn, Macmillan, South Melbourne, VIC, Australia.
Saricks, J 2009, The readers’ advisory guide to genre fiction, American Library Association, Chicago.
Sutton, R & Parravano, M (eds.) 2001, A family of readers, Candlewick Press, MA. Pp. 172-182, ‘Adventure’.