All books are hybrid genres. There is no pure genre in children’s literature. While there is always a dominant genre, a mixture of additional genre features might be present. Genres shape how stories get told, how information is represented, how texts get constructed, and the expectations of readers’ engagement with texts. Awareness of how genres are constructed contributes to critical reading of words and images. The picture book is a hybrid genre because it has two sources of information: words and images. Words and images can communicate parallel and/or contradictory stories. Picture books combine with other genres to represent poetry, biographies, informational texts, realistic fiction, historical fiction, and folktales. All children’s books are records of the places and times they emerged from. Here are some insights to promote critical reading of the genres rendered in picture books. The list begins with the genres rooted in oral tradition and ends with poetry, a genre that is least restrictive in content and form.
Traditional literature includes fairy tales, nursery rhymes, ballads, fables, folktales, legends, and myths. They communicate values, morés, acceptable behavior, and the consequences of socially unacceptable behavior. The construction of traditional literature is ongoing. While it is interesting to retrace the history of these tales, little evidence exists about their very beginnings. Even literary tales, that is, stories invented by writers, probably came from other folk tales. It is important to pay attention to the histories of these texts as much as how they have been retold and reconstructed in the present time. Critical analysis of these reconstructed tales can contribute to noticing their sociopolitical commentary.
Historical fiction uses historical information to authenticate the fictionalized past. These texts have the potential of humanizing historical events by bringing the reader up close to their impact on personal lives. These children’s books can offer glimpses of the complexities of race and class relations, for example. However, all historical texts represent particular perspectives about the past, rendering in the foreground and background particular details and understandings about these historical circumstances. Critical reading of these demands that readers inquire into the historical background. One powerful practice is to read these texts against secondary sources about these historical times. The reader should question how the author conducted historical research and the choices that were made to include these data in the text.
Realistic fiction gained popularity over the past 50 years as cultural communities struggled to have their children’s lived experiences represented in these texts. This genre is intimately tied to multicultural children’s literature, a literary category that emerged during the Civil Rights Movement. If the text is told from a first-person perspective, the reader is immersed in the character’s thinking and feeling life. If the text is told through a third-person perspective, the reader has a panoramic view of the social processes among the characters. In many ways, realistic fiction blurs the line between reality and fiction, and discourages the reader from paying attention to how language use creates the social worlds represented in these texts.Analysis of the interactions among characters allows the reader to consider how language creates social relationships.
Nonfiction marks the distinction between fact and fiction, a difference that is misleading because all texts are socially made. Nonfiction includes informational texts and biography. These texts imply that there is a reality out there that can be captured through language, and that language is a close representation of that reality. Nonfiction assumes an authority about what is represented in these texts. These texts need to be read side by side with and in relation to the social context in which they emerged. For example, consider multiple books about a country and analyze the dominant messages communicated through text and images about who lives there and what is important about the place.
Biography tries to represent the lives of real people who live in the present or the past. While many of these texts attempt to render well-known people within context, many of these stories also depict them separate or isolated from the communities that supported them in the first place. A critical reading of biography requires that the reader engage with the life story alongside other versions of the person’s biography as well as historical and current primary sources. Recontextualizing biographies allows the reader to understand the person within their communities, society, and/or history. Many biographies illustrate the subject matter with photographs, which bring more credibility to the text. But just like words, photographs convey perspectives. Autobiography can fall victim to many of these issues, even though it is reported by the person who lived the experiences. In both cases, the authors make many choices about what they leave in and leave out of their storytelling.
Fantasy creates new worlds that go beyond the parameters of the one that the reader knows, introducing characters with larger than life capabilities. Magic plays a role in the main characters’ accomplishments. Fantasy can disarm readers because it distracts them from making the connection between society and stories. However, it can also bring social issues in greater relief and invite readers to reconsider their circumstances.
Poetry invites readers to experience words through their senses, thoughts, emotions, and lived experiences. The poet uses the conventions of imagery, rhyme, rhythm, sound devices, sensory details, figurative language, line breaks and white space, repetition, and compact language to convey feelings, ideas, stories, and the like. These poetic conventions propel readers into making meaning, synthesizing, and analyzing. It is one of the genres that challenges the notion of comprehension: no single meaning is intended in a poem.