Themes and Motifs

There are a number of common themes which frequently appear in children’s adventure fiction. Many of these themes are not exclusive to the adventure genre and regularly overlap or feature in other children’s genres. Some of the more common themes are described below.

The Heroic Protagonist

Essential to all adventure stories is the hero mythology (Sarricks 2009, ch. 2). The narrative centres around the protagonist, the dangers they face and most importantly the heroic actions they take to emerge victorious. Without these heroics the adventure story would not exist.

Heroes may take many forms but they are always likeable characters, winning over readers who share their struggles and cheer them on to succeed.

  • The hero could be an experienced leader—respected, admired and the one people turn to when disaster strikes.
  • They may be a superhero—possessing special powers and abilities.
  • They could be the underdog—an underestimated hero who has not yet fully realised their strengths and capabilities.
  • Or they could be an unlikely hero—an ordinary person who finds themselves in an extraordinary situation.

What’s important is the personal characteristics and actions of the hero. They have a strong moral code and display courage, ingenuity, resourcefulness and quick thinking intuition. However, heroes are not always perfect and their flaws add interest to the narrative and allow readers to connect with the character.

The protagonist may be a stereotyped or underdeveloped character. Simplified ‘good guys’ are common in adventure fiction, as the emphasis is on the heroic action and not character development (Sarricks 2009, ch. 2). Traditionally adventure genres feature male protagonists and in children’s literature this is often a young boy. However, female protagonists are increasing and we have included examples of adventure stories with female heroes on our Recommendations page.

 

The Journey

A journey is almost an essential element of adventure fiction and a theme that is commonly found in this genre. It can be argued that without a journey to ‘another place’ it may be difficult to even have an adventure.

In the adventure genre the protagonist regularly embarks on some sort of quest, mission, voyage or expedition. In children’s stories, this journey usually starts at home or some familiar environment, before the hero is forced to venture into the unknown. The journey itself is often a key part of the narrative as the protagonist encounters obstacles and challenges along the way.

Exotic settings also play an important role in the adventure genre. Their unfamiliarity adds to the intrigue of the story and heightens the sense of danger for the hero. These settings are frequently changing as the journey takes the hero from one location to the next.

A regular theme in the children’s adventure genre is the cyclic journey. These journeys often start and end at home, enabling young readers to vicariously experience dangers with the comforting reassurance that the hero returns safe and sound.

 

Good versus Evil

Another theme frequently found in children’s adventure stories is the struggle between good and evil. The hero must battle the antagonist throughout the narrative as they fight to succeed and survive.

The antagonist may be an individual (villain), group (evil entity), or in the case of survival stories, a setting (harsh environment) (Sarricks 2009, ch. 2). True to the adventure genre formula the characters are often exaggerated to the extreme.

  • The hero is a good guy—likeable, with strong morals and principles.
  • The villain or villains are extremely evil—despicable, devious and immoral.
  • In survival stories the locations are wild, unforgiving, treacherous and deadly.

The adventure genre usually features a clear cut and simplistic distinction between good and evil. Young readers enjoy the over-the-top and divisive characters. Of course, everyone loves to hate the villain, and the more evil they are the better.

Triumph Over Adversity

Triumph over adversity is a common theme in the children’s adventure genre. Despite encountering numerous obstacles, the hero always succeeds as a result of their courage, determination and resourcefulness.

Adventure stories provide children with the opportunity to identify with a protagonist who takes risks, confronts dangers and faces difficulties, yet still emerges from the experience safe, sound and victorious (Sutton & Parravano 2010; p. 179). Although unrealistic, these stories may give children the tools and confidence to face difficulties in their own lives. They may also foster an adventurous spirit in children, encouraging them to try new experiences.

 

Friendship

The importance of friendship is a theme regularly presented in children’s fiction and the adventure genre is no exception. The hero may endure the struggles of their plight on their own, yet often they are able to share the experience and hardships with a trusted companion, even if it is a pet. Friendships formed in times of adversity are unique and develop long-lasting bonds.

At the very least, adventure stories often feature a helpful character or advisor who assists the hero on their journey (Tobias 2011; p. 101). Without friendship, teamwork and the support of others the hero would not succeed.

References

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.

Tobias, RB 2011, 20 master plots and how to build them, 3rd edn, Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati, viewed 15 September 2016, ProQuest Ebook Central.