Adventure fiction is characterised by its fast-paced, action-driven story lines. Not only does this characteristic provide its broad appeal, but it is also a prominent feature found in many other popular genres of children’s literature such as fantasy, science fiction and historical fiction (Sarricks 2009, ch. 2).
Providing the story line has a strong emphasis on plot and pace, the adventure genre can be adapted to, overlap or blend with almost any other genre (McArdle 2015, ch. 1). This versatility creates a vast number of possible subgenres and genre blends, however this guide will focus on the most common adventure genres found in children’s fiction. A brief description of each genre is listed below, starting with traditional subgenres and moving on to more modern genre blends. Examples of each genre can be found on the following Recommendations page.
The survival subgenre originated from the Robinsonade tradition, those stories modelled on the novel Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Dafoe, 1719 (Hahn, 2015, p.504). The protagonist finds themselves in an unforgiving environment where they must rely on their own resourcefulness to survive. Part of a group or a lone survivor, the hero is isolated from their ordinary life. They face numerous dangers and there is a real sense of trepidation that their actions are vital to their success and ultimate survival. These stories are often set in the outdoors and the struggle against the environment plays an important role in the narrative.
In children’s literature the modern adventure tale has diversified from the ‘marooned on a deserted island’ or ‘lost in the wild’ formula. Modern children’s outdoor adventure stories may focus on nature and the environment, but not necessarily include a survival element. Likewise, stories focusing on danger and survival may be set in alternative locations such as fantasy lands, futuristic worlds or outer space.
War stories are a traditional subgenre of adventure fiction and a subject that is always relevant. Wartime settings provide a powerful backdrop for the narrative, while the struggles against the enemy can make for compelling reading.
Children are introduced to mature themes through the war genre. These stories can foster empathy for others and promote an understanding of humanity, society and history. It is particularly important that these stories are age appropriate, providing a balanced view between conflict and the consequences of war (Sutton & Parravano, 2010, p.176).
Historically a common theme in adventure fiction, this subgenre focuses on stories with a nautical setting. From epic voyages across the ocean to larger-than-life swashbuckling escapades, sea adventures continue to fascinate young readers. Children enjoy the thrilling rush of following the hero on a journey into the unfamiliar and often dangerous seafaring world.
Mystery stories for children are naturally quite eventful and have a strong focus on action-driven plots. The protagonist may find themselves on a treasure hunt or involved in the detection of a crime. They face many obstacles on their way as they uncover secrets, break codes, discover clues and solve baffling puzzles. The hero may even come across a few bad guys who are determined to see them fail.
Children enjoy the escapism element of these stories as they face dangers and solve puzzles from the safety of home. The build-up of tension and suspense adds to the page-turning appeal of the mystery adventure genre.
Spy adventure fiction is a subgenre which has emerged in recent years with increasing popularity in children’s literature (Hahn, 2015, p.7). Following the appeal of James Bond-like characters, the protagonist in this subgenre is a spy or secret agent. The hero is assigned a mission where they must use their intelligence and problem solving skills to evade danger after danger.
Action, adventure and peril feature highly in these stories and readers are lured by the subsequent adrenaline rush. They relish the challenge of solving the mystery as the story unfolds, while enjoying the myriad of twists and turns along the way. Good versus evil is a common theme, as stories often have clearly defined good and bad guys (with the exception of the double agent!).
Fantasy and Supernatural Adventure
Fantasy stories for children are closely related to traditional fairy tales and myths. These stories contain magical, supernatural or other “unreal” elements. These magical elements can range from a simple talking toy to complex wholly-imagined worlds.
Fantasy and supernatural fiction blend perfectly with the adventure genre as they typically involve heroic quests, exotic locations, thrilling action and fantastical characters. These stories capture the imagination of young readers and they revel in being taken on a journey outside the realm of possibility.
Fantasy stories for children may include talking toys and animals, magical powers, fairies, wizards, goblins, elves, dragons, witches and enchanted creatures. Supernatural stories for children may include supernatural powers, ghosts, monsters and those unexplained things that go bump in the night. Of course, with fantasy and supernatural adventures the possibilities are limited only by the imagination.
Science Fiction Adventure
Contrary to fantasy, the science fiction adventure genre presents a world that could be possible. They are stories of technology, invention, exploration and discovery. Children’s books in this genre typically feature dinosaurs, aliens, spaceships, time travel, robots or high-tech machines. The settings are almost always exotic, with common backdrops set in future times or other worlds. These stories feature fast-paced, mission-based plots and a strong sense of danger in the unfamiliar, providing plenty of thrills for young readers.
Many historical stories for children often contain a significant dose of action and adventure making this a natural genre blend. Although fictional, these stories combine historical information through authentic details, settings, events or characters. These historical details bring the past to life and provide an extra level of interest as young readers imagine themselves in another time period. Historical fiction can be educational as well as entertaining.
Animal stories dominate children’s literature because of their timeless appeal and ability to engage readers. Young children especially identify easily with animal characters and these stories are a common feature in picture books.
Animal adventure stories may use animals as the main character or as supporting characters. These animals may display realistic animal behaviours or may be personified with human traits and characteristics. Anthropomorphised animals are often used in the narrative to present a moral or complex issue that children can relate to from a safe emotional distance (Burke & Copenhaver 2004, p. 205). Realistic animal narratives usually explore the relationship between the animal and the protagonist, focusing on how that relationship helps the child to grow.
Furthermore, animals are used in adventure stories simply because they are good fun. The characters capture the imagination of young readers. Children are entertained by the animal antics and they enjoy sharing in their adventures.
Contrary to the over-the-top formula found in other adventure genres, realistic adventure books prove that even modest everyday exploits can hold just as much excitement and page-turning appeal for young readers. These stories use realistic characters, settings and plots to reflect contemporary lifestyles and real-life problems. School and family stories feature strongly in this genre, while common themes include relationships, friendships and growing-up.
Children often find these true-to-life adventures relatable and engaging.
Action-packed stories with a sporting theme fall into the sports adventure genre blend. The sporting activity may be the focus of the narrative or may simply provide an interesting backdrop. These stories often include themes on challenges, teamwork, discipline, competition and the values of sportsmanship. Readers may also gain a better understanding of the sporting activity through the details provided in the narrative.
For many children sports play a significant role in their everyday lives and development. Sports adventure fiction can be particularly engaging for these children as they identify with the characters and events of the story.
Burke, CL & Copenhaver, JG 2004, ‘Animals as people in children’s literature’, Language arts, vol. 81, no. 3, pp. 205-213.
Hahn, D 2015, The oxford companion to children’s literature, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
McArdle, MM 2015, Readers’ advisory guide to genre blends, American Library Association, Chicago, viewed 11 September 2016, ProQuest Ebook Central.
Sarricks, JG 2009, Readers’ advisory guide to genre fiction, 2nd edn, ALA Editions, Chicago, viewed 4 September 2016, ProQuest Ebook Central.
Sutton, R & Parravano, MV 2010, A family of readers : the book lover’s guide to children’s and young adult literature, 1st edn, Candlewick Press, Somerville, Mass.