Children’s literature arouses their imagination, emotions and sympathies. It awakens their desire to read, enlarges their lives, and provides a sense of purpose and identity for children.
The Read Aloud Handbook
Realism for children involves reflection, both as a mirror showing real life and as a mode of thought in which the meaning of that life is contemplated.
Joan I. Glazer
Introduction to children’s literature
This module examines realistic fiction. It also discusses three types of closely-related fiction: historical fiction, realistic animal stories and survival stories.
Defining realistic fiction
Realistic fiction is the term used to describe fiction that tells a story that is possible, but the story is told in a creative and artistic way. All the literary elements – setting, characters, plot, theme – must be plausible. The story itself doesn’t have to be true, but it could be.
Realistic fiction (or realism) has a number of distinguishing characteristics. First, the setting must be one that is possible in today’s world. It does not have to be a setting that the reader has experienced first hand, but it must be one that the reader could experience. Second, the characters must act like real people. They must be depicted accurately and realistically and not have any supernatural or magic powers. Third, the plot and the conflict that arise out of the plot must seem real to the reader. Also, conflicts must be solved in realistic ways. Finally, the theme developed in the story must be one that is relevant to today’s young readers.
A very popular genre, realistic fiction offers its readers to read about “my life.” Jacobs and Tunnel describe the appeal this way:
This is my world. This is how I live. This story is about a girl like me. And the people in it are vaguely recognizable from the outset ... The main character becomes a kindred spirit. She experiences the same disappointments and hopes, rejections and joys as the readers, who is amazed and thrilled to find someone who sees the world through similar glasses. (90)
Themes in realistic fiction
Prior to the 1960’s many topics were considered taboo in books written for children and teens. But as society moved through this turbulent decade the social unrest seen in the society as a whole began to be reflected in the books being written for the juvenile market. Much discussion ensued about what was appropriate reading matter and many previously taboo subjects began to appear in novels aimed at intermediate and young adult readers. Books that dealt with such themes as sexuality, alcoholism, and death, among other topics, began to appear. This development peaked with the emergence of the problem novel in the 1960’s.
Today, authors of realistic fiction develop many diverse themes. Most contemporary themes fit into one of the following broad categories: family situations, peer relationships, growth and maturity and cultural differences. Within these larger categories, you will find many issues that represent the common experiences shared by today’s children.
For example, some of the themes developed in stories about family situations include – child abuse, single-parent families, foster homes, desertion, and divorce. Growth and maturity themes are very common – young readers are interested in books that address their own physical and emotional changes.
A recent change in realistic fiction is the development of stories told from a minority viewpoint leading to the development of multicultural literature.
Evaluating realistic fiction
Hillman suggests the criteria applied to all literature may also be applied to realistic fiction:
A good story, well told, that enlightens as well as entertains is key to our enjoyment. We want to be cognitively and emotionally engaged. We care about characters and are curious about what will happen to them. (Sometimes we’re sad when the story is over.) 165
Whether authors tell a “good story” is largely dependent on how they handle four literary elements: characters, plot, conflict and theme.
In order for a realistic fiction to be successful, the reader must identify with the characters in the story. Well developed characters pull the reader into the story and make them care. Virtually all protagonists in the realistic fiction written for young people are young themselves. According to Egoff, these young protagonists are endowed with “naive honesty, courage, determination and sensitivity.” (22) It’s worth noting that most children prefer to read about characters their own age or slightly older, and may balk at reading about younger children. Sometimes, however, the age of the characters may not be as important as the depiction of the struggle the characters are undergoing.
Plots are also an important element in realistic fiction. They need to move briskly, keeping the reader engaged and interested. In addition, the events in the story must seem plausible to the reader.
This literary element is the heart of realistic fiction. It grows out of the characters’ action (plot) and attitudes. Characters are frequently shown facing tough questions that often don’t have easy solutions. A recent trend in realistic fiction shows parents who are unable to assist the child protagonist and depict the character seeking help from outside the family unit such as a teacher or a friend.
As noted above, many different themes are presented in realistic fiction. Whatever the theme, it should arise naturally out of the story being told. The book should provide some insight into the problem being explored and how it might be resolved. Readers should be encouraged to draw their own conclusions about what happens in the book. Watch for books that seem didactic or preachy: “a book becomes didactic when the teaching function over powers the telling of a good story.” (Glazer, 418)
Other literary elements to be considered include setting and the author’s writing style.
Look for settings that are authentic. Skilful authors use realistic details to make their settings seem real to the reader. Because setting includes when the story takes place, it may be the one element that dates a story. Realistic fiction is based on contemporary life and authors tend to set their stories within the period of their existence; therefore, these books can become dated rather quickly. However, a well crafted plot, and interesting characters who face a still contemporary problem may help to overcome any deficiencies in the setting.
The author’s style must suit the story that is being told. The dialogue must seem real for the characters and the situation being depicted. A simple, straightforward style is often best for realistic fiction. While authors may incorporate figurative language in their description of characters or setting, realistic fiction is not the place for too much complicated prose.
Poorly written realistic fiction will display one or more of the following characteristics: poorly developed, stereotypical characters; problems that seem overwhelming, but can be solved too easily; and improbably settings.
For more information about evaluating realistic fiction see Appendix A.
The Value of realistic fiction
Glazer states the following as the key values of realistic fiction:
Through realism readers gain the experience of living somewhere else, living with strangers, smelling exotic foods cooking, or seeing flashes of colour in dress and personality. They see that societies are not all alike and they are values in each. They can explore different systems of child rearing, and variations in customs, and by extension learn more about what forces affect people. (420)
And while showing differences between people, realistic fiction also shows the similarities that we all share – the problems, hopes and dreams which are common to all people.
Realistic fiction allows readers to learn about themselves, and others in a nonthreatening and entertaining way. Sometimes the problems presented are within the reader’s own experience, sometimes they are not. In either case, the reader is carried into new territory. The reading of realistic fiction is a safe way for children to extend their own experiences – all within their own imaginations.
Furthermore, the reading of realistic fiction may help to build the emotional and intellectual maturity that comes with the understanding that there are many different viewpoints in this world.
Issues in realistic fiction
Realistic fiction is the most attacked and censored of all the genres. The reasons are obvious – the issues discussed in much of realistic fiction make some adults uncomfortable. Some parents feel that they would rather discuss these issues within the home setting than have their children read about them in books. Library staff need to be aware of realistic fiction that has sparked controversy in the past and books that may spark controversy in the future.
More information about controversial books can be found in the Censorship module.
Egoff, Shelia and Judith Saltman, The New Republic of Childhood. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Glazer, Joan I. Introduction to Children’s Literature. Upper Saddle River: Merrill, 1997.
Hillman, Judith. Discovering Children’s Literature. Englewood Cliffs: Merrill, 1995.
Jacobs, James S. and Michael O. Tunnell, Children’s Literature Briefly. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1996.