Why are we calling it fiction and not literature?

In this book, we would like to introduce you to the cultural universe created for children and young adults in Spanish. Obviously, the universe is as big as our galaxy, even bigger. We are not going to be able to cover every work, genre, type and format of fiction in this world, as productive as children’s and YA fiction is. It has expanded its boundaries now more than ever, with the boom in narrative videogames and graphic novels. In spite of this issue, we would like to try and sample a few famous and not-so-famous works and important fictions that have risen in the last 50 years.

We use the term fiction in this book in the broadest sense of the word. It includes books, series, films, videogames, theatre, oral narration, YouTube or other open video resources, fanfic texts in Wattpad or other shared writing spaces online and transmedia products. This diversity defines the current status of narrative fiction for children and young adults. We also want you to realize that we are not referring to ‘real’ stories, such as documentaries, biographies, etc. In this module, we are going to focus on the imaginary worlds that permeate our stories. This sort of untrue narration may have monopolized the children’s and YA market up until very recently. However, let me underline that this has changed, with publications such as Fantastically Great Women who Changed the World by Kate Pankhurst or our own Inventoras y sus inventos by Aitziber López & Isabel del Río Sanz, illustrated by Luciano Lozano or other historiographic books such as The History of the World for Children by Lauren J. Dowling, or the amazing History as you have never been told before: A book for Academia Play (one of the most successful learning channels YouTube) or La historia de España en 25 historias by Javier Alonso López.

Therefore, for us, fiction is defined as any creative, mainly narrative work, involving characters, facts and/or places that live in someone’s imagination. In other words, these people, events or places are not real or factual. As we have already said, it is opposed to non-fiction, in which the author assumes the responsibility of representing factual realities. This binary opposition is never fully black and white, as many works manage to blur the line between the real and the imaginary. This is a characteristic of postmodernism, autofiction, creative non-fiction, docudramas, or even literary frauds such as Famous all over Town by Daniel James. The issue with this publication is that a white, middle-class American author, who hid behind a pseudonym, Danny Santiago, published a novel about a Hispanic young man growing up in LA, as if it were autobiographical. His editors tried to alert him of the danger of hiding behind a pen name that made him appear Hispanic, but he argued that other authors, such as Mark Twain, had done it before and there was no problem. The book was recognized as one of the best examples of Chicano literature and that is where the problem arose.

The distinction between fiction and non-fiction, as arbitrary or impossible as it may seem, helps us distinguish between different types of knowledge. To the traditional classification between common knowledge, describing beliefs and principles nurtured by society (family, community, language, culture, humanity…), empirical knowledge (related to personal experience and your own life or the life of your friends – also known as vicarious knowledge) and scientific knowledge, we would have to add another category of knowledge, known as fictional knowledge. It is important to know that in Spanish, there are two adjectives related to the English word ´fictional´ and we prefer the word ficcional, as opposed to the word ficticio, as the latter has a negative connotation, implying pretence or falseness. This fictional knowledge helps us approach reality through metaphors (moving meaning across two terms), abstractions (generalizing an idea or an experience) or mimesis (imitating a person or a situation). Fictional knowledge is being explained, because without this definition, a lot of the issues that are going to arise for the development and examples of children’s and YA fiction would not make any sense. In the same way, we are going to use this category of knowledge when we encounter the idea of emotional development and empathy, which impacts this type of fiction dramatically, although we would like to avoid falling into the rabbit hole of assigning children’s and YA fiction into a specific purpose and function, whether it is emotional or didactic.

What is children’s and YA fiction?

Before developing a working definition, we would like to highlight a series of beliefs that circulate through children’s and YA fiction. As Peter Hunt points out, the first of these beliefs is that this type of fiction is simple or inferior compared to other types; the second belief being that its text is trivial and very homogenous (1991: 21 – 22). He continues by affirming that the study of this topic has been relegated to educators, librarians, and counsellors (23). The most ironic issue is that research on this genre of fiction has been postponed for graduate degrees. Hunt gives us an example of the publishing and editorial process of different versions of Peter Rabbit, proving that some of these beliefs are still alive and people have reacted strongly to them. When ´Ladybird books´ published Peter Rabbit, they were criticized because they simplified the original language, saying that kids would not understand. The critics were worried about the consequences that this would have on the educational system and culture of parents and teachers. They protested that the illustrations could not be watercolours and they argued that violence and death in the stories had to be censored. They were not happy that the rights of the books were sold to TV but not to supermarkets, and last but not least, they questioned if such interventions on a text were necessary and if they were, wouldn’t it be easier to write an entirely new text, instead of re-publishing and adapting something already written (30).

Nodelman & Reimer (1992) add to these beliefs, stating that it appears the best stories for children need to be colourful, short, positive, and happy (86). They highlight the fact that choosing a book for children seems to be a question of age and how much fantasy it contains and they argue that children do not accept aspects of the book that they are unfamiliar with (86). They add that these narratives seem to censor unacceptable behaviours, such as violence and immorality, because they are written to be mimicked; or topics that can be fear-inspiring. It seems necessary to include role models and to teach life lessons, which are fun too (86).

We would say that children’s and YA fiction is defined by and large by the audience it addresses, but what about those works from children’s literature such as Gulliver’s travels, which were not written for a specific audience and have been redefined throughout history as stories for children. To curtail this kind of creativity  does not seem to work. However, let us have a look at the characteristics that are common in this type of fiction nowadays:

  1. Commercialization. Children’s and YA fiction, in any format, is the most economically profitable. In this sense, it is rather curious to observe the double agreement that this fiction makes, since children’s and YA products tend to go through an adult filter (the parent who buys the book, the videogame, the TV channel; the teacher who recommends something…) In other words, the industry is very conscious that the purchasing, curation and selection of products lie with adults, even though the product is directed at a younger audience.
  2. Double readership and adult author. Although the children’s and YA book is written with a young person in mind, we have to bear in mind that the definition of child and childhood is not as easy as it seems. It is important for us to stop for a minute to think about what we mean when we say ‘kid’.  Nodelman & Reimer say that we think of a child as a person with a limited comprehension of their reality and a limited attention span. They are innocent, naïve, good by nature and not able to understand evil or sexuality. They are emotionally vulnerable and can be easily traumatized. They are eminently wild and they lack self-control. Kids are a project that is not finished and are self-centred. On the other hand, they are imaginative and creative, but conservative and do not like experimenting with anything new or unknown. Boys are different from girls (87). These beliefs, reinforced throughout history, and Piaget’s research, are based on generalizations and are dangerous for two reasons: : 1. They ignore diversity in the group called ‘children’ 2. They define this group of people by their limitations, in contrast to their positive aspects, because due to this set of beliefs, children are considered less educated, less resilient and vulnerable to other people (88). Hunt states that it could be said that childhood is the period of your life, considered as free of responsibility and susceptible to education; or if we follow a Piagetian approach, children are people whose minds and bodies are still developing and flexible (5). Without entirely rejecting these Piagetian ideas, it is necessary to add that Piaget introduces the rigidity of his definition of stages in childhood, supported by Vygotsky, what he calls stages of proximal development giving us a grey area in between the rigid stages.

This is important because the concept of a child is not a universal concept, but a concept linked to the culture that produces it. In a way, childhood is always defined by adulthood. This characteristic has developed the view that childhood is a colonized territory, always defined by the adult that acts as a guardian and sometimes censors the fiction that the child is exposed to. The child does not have a voice to participate in their definition. Jacqueline Rose warns us that children’s fiction has tried to colonize children and makethem believe that they have to conform to the way that adults want them to be and sometimes, even through shaming and blaming, to the point of rejecting the importance of certain things that adults consider unimportant (96). In her own words, if fiction for children builds an image of the child inside the book, it does it to protect the kid that lives outside the book, the one that we cannot reach out to so easily (97).

The double readership, that we have just discussed in the previous two points, is one of the most marked characteristics of this class of fiction, in comparison to fiction for adults. Likewise, almost every children’s product in the market has been written/filmed/produced by adults, except for rare and wonderful exceptions, such as Swordbird by Nancy Yi Fan (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swordbird), Mootsy and the Awfully Big Bite by Lindsay Myers and her daughter, Tara Cunniffe (https://www.mootsyandme.com/) or Christopher Bearle, known as the youngest author in the world with This and Last Season’s Excursions. Dorothy Straight, who was born in 1958, is another remarkable example, as this author published a story written for her grandma at 4 years of age, called How the World Began.  A.A. Milne said once that

Children’s books were chosen for us by others; because they liked them when they were little; or because they have some reason to believe that kids will like them now; or because they have read them recently and they think that, our enjoyment as adults is something that they, as children, are going to match. Unfortunately, none of these reasons are proof that this will be the case (Hunt, 1).

The truth is that market forces are changing extremely quickly and thanks to self-publishing platforms, such as Wattpad, publication and promotion on digital networks and the creation of small new publishing companies, this reality is changing. Children’s fiction is not only taking children’s voice, in terms of their preferences, into account, but also little by little, younger authors are coming to the fore. YA fiction currently has many writers and potential writers that are the same age as the readers. If you want a longer list or would like to contribute to it with some authors you know and like, which have not yet been included, you can access it through this link:


3. This fiction integrates words and images. When we think about illustrations, we tend to think of picture books. Among all the picture books, we tend to imagine young kid’s picture books, but beyond these forms of fiction, graphic novels and comics have been more prevalent. In the last fifty years, graphic innovations have redefined the world of children’s and YA fiction. In the same way, we should take into account the unstoppable development of the entertainment industry, which makes millions each year: videogames. It seems that the link between pictures, texts and sound and their interactivity define their success, as we can see in this example: Das Bewegte Buch (2011), translated by Miguel Angel Mendo as El Libro Inquieto. (CC-BY-ND-SA-NC)

4. Interactivity is key in fiction for younger people. It requires engagement. Kids and teenagers want to be completely involved in what they are doing in a powerful way. Therefore, there is a demand for fiction that is attractive and interactive and somehow immediately engages them. We could say that every fiction requires that level of investment and it is necessary that every reading/viewing experience allows the reader/watcher to enter the narrative in an active way. However, children’s and YA fiction is very aware of this necessity and usually expands it.

5. Orality. Words in children’s and YA fiction are marked by their oral nature, even when they are not in an audio-visual format. One of the best examples of this oral nature is the bestselling series, a classic in Spanish literature for children, Manolito Gafotas by Elvira Lindo (http://www.clubmanolitogafotas.com/). It is a series of eight novels, which started on the radio, as a monologue by an 8-year-old boy. It has been translated into more than 20 languages, but it is important to say that the English translation has not been as successful as the Japanese or Iranian. There have only been three books in the series translated into English. It also has two films, both subtitled in English and one dubbed, and a TV series. In this link, you can see some photos of the Manolito Club and the international impact that Lindo’s work has had, in spite of the marked Madridian character http://www.clubmanolitogafotas.com/#manolito-around-the-world). Let us have a glance at an extract from the beginning of the first book, Manolito Gafotas, in which you can see how Manolito speaks:

My name is Manolito García Moreno, but if you go where I live and ask the first guy you meet: – Excuse me, sir, where can I find Manolito García Moreno? Your man, either shrugs or goes: – What the hell do I know, man? This is because by the name of Manolito García Moreno no one knows me, not even Big Ears López, my best friend, although sometimes he’s a pig’n’traitor – just like that, all together in one word-, he’s still my best friend and is super mega cool.

(1 – for the Spanish extract, original version, see the Spanish version of this book)

This excerpt – translated (badly) by me – does two things: 1. It shows Manolito’s voice in the imaginary anecdote he uses, in order to explain the origin of his nickname in almost one single sentence. 2. He uses colloquialisms that are typical of his age and his geographic region (mola un pegote, cochino traidor, con todas letras). As we discover in the next novel in the series, Manolito starts to write these novels because a counsellor in his school recommends him to do so. She wants him to tell her everything from ´the beginning of time´ (1). In other words, what we are reading is a fictional autobiography of a child imagined by an adult author, who uses oral Spanish, which sounds like a kid.

6. Characters in this type of fiction are very varied, including animals, normal people, superheroes or groups. They normally compel the reader to engage with them at a personal level and an imaginary level through myths and archetypes. Without getting into the nitty gritty of how characters are created or what category of character should be included in these ficticious stories, let us jot down the main traits of the characters that have traditionally belonged to children’s and YA fiction. This has changed throughout history and at-present, we are more than likely witnessing extreme heightened awareness in terms of representation, inspired by feminism, LGBTQ+, physical and mental health, race and socioeconomic discrimation. The need to increase inclusivity in fictional products for children (and adult alike) cannot be ignored any more.

In order to understand this aspect of character building, we will refer to this website written for people that want to write children’s or YA fiction https://www.writerswrite.co.za/everything-you-need-to-know-about-creating-characters-for-childrens-books/. They recommend this classification:

  1. Child or teenage main character: Examples: Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer, Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, Pippi Calzaslargas by Astrid Lindgren, Wooly and Tig (BBC), Verde fue mi selva by Edna Iturralde, Spirited Away by Studio Ghibli, Cocorí by Joaquín Gutierrez.
  2. Adult main character. Examples: Mary Poppins by P.L.Travers, Iron Man by Stan Lee, La peor señora del mundo by Pedro Hinojosa.
  3. Animal main character. Examples: Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter, The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson, No todas las vacas son iguales by Antonio Ventura.
  4. Supernatural or fantastic main character. Examples: The Grinch by Dr Seuss, Final Fantasy by Hironobu Sakaguchi, Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling.
  5. Another type of child or teen character. Examples: Coraline by Neil Gaiman, Miles Morales by Brian Michael Bendis y Sara Pichelli.
  6. Parents and other adults. Examples: Dr Doom by Stan Lee, Matilda by Roald Dahl, Peppa Pig by Astley Baker Davies, Ojo de nube by Ricardo Gomez.
  7. Younger characters. Examples: A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket, Pocoyó by Guillermo García Carsí, Colman López, Luis Gallego y David Cantolla.

This is not a complete classification since many of these characters share more than one characteristic or mix categories, but they serve as a reference. The most academic source to look at character creation for children’s and YA fiction, especially in terms of main characters and narrative, is still the book by Northop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism. You can find this book in the university library: https://tinyurl.com/3b565dyd. For Fry, the hero, male or female, can be mythical –superior in nature and to its environment (Thor); romantic – superior in skills and in the environment (Batman); highly mimetic – superior in the degree of skills but not in the environment (Spiderman); not very mimetic – neither superior nor better, but more realistic (Manolito); and ironic – inferior to us in power and in intelligence (Inspector Gadget). In spite of his attempt to offer a comprehensive list, due to his focus on myths, some more modern fictions do not fit into his classification. In fact, one of the main issues that continually arise is the lack of frameworks and theories to explain what happens in children’s and YA fiction because academics have focused on written fiction for adults and they have not expanded their research into children’s and YA narratives (Hunt, 6-7).

As we have mentioned above, these systematic typologies are artificial and therefore, can be questioned and debated and in fact, they are. We will probably see an explosion of heroes, main characters, antagonists and other characters in the next 10 or 20 years that will add new ideas and angles to these classifications that we have seen, based on older examples. To give us an idea of character evolution in children’s fiction, Maria Nikolajeva describes the tendencies to change them in her article, The changing aesthetics of character in children’s fiction (2001). You have the article available in the library for free and I would like you to read it, in order to understand how characterization has evolved to present-day. (https://tinyurl.com/jd5aae)

7. Children’s and YA fiction are considered very important in social and educational terms. This idea has been rather problematic in the development of children’s and YA texts and fiction, in general. We can summarize this idea through the concept of ‘didacticism’. Didacticism in these categories of narratives is defined as the tendency to assign an educational or teaching purpose to every fiction as their main motivation. This tendency stems from the 19th century, which poses as the beginning of children’s literature (1850), at which point books started diverging from a didactic purpose to an entertainment purpose. Hunt would rather state that children’s literature started in the 1950s, when genuine children’s books were established and hundreds of titles and varieties could be found (9). Sometimes, the didactic purpose is opposed to the entertaining skopos of fiction for children. Children’s products have been denied the aesthetic pleasure of reading with no other ulterior motive, even when it may or may not lead to the acquisition of other types of knowledge that may derive in learning (Rodríguez Tapia y Moreno Paz, 170). The relevance of cognitive skills and the development of social skills that the schooling system has placed on books as sources and tools for knowledge has stigmatized children’s fiction and boxed it in as docere versus the universe of delectare – docere/delectare was Aristoteles classification for texts. This dysfunction is still rampant in this type of fiction, in which censorship of certain products and processes is very active – not just in translation but also at the level of editing and self-censorship when creating a product for children, as we will see throughout this module, with some examples.


Frye, N. (1957) Anatomy of Criticism, Princeton: PUP. If you are interested in creating narratives, this text is essential to understand the way worlds are built, characters born and stories woven in a traditional way.

Garrido, A. (1997). Teorías de la ficción literaria. Madrid: Arco. This book has the same function as the previous one, but it is in Spanish and it includes some more modern forms of narration.

Hunt, P. (1991) Criticism, Theory, & Children’s Literature, Cambridge: Basil Blackwell. It is one of the most crucial books for our topic and develops all the concepts that you need to be bear in mind, when you work on or research for this type of fiction.

Hunt, P. (1994) Introduction to Children’s Literature, Oxford: OUP. If you are interested in the history of literature for children, I recommend you read this book in order to understand the evolution of children’s fiction.

Nikolajeva, M. (2001) ‘The Changing Aesthetics of Character in Children’s Fiction’, Style , Vol. 35, No. 3, Conventions of Children’s Literature: Then and Now (Fall 2001), pp. 430-453, Penn State University Press. This article focuses on the representation of characters that are currently emerging in children’s fiction.

Nodelman, P. & M. Reimer (1992) The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Boston: Ally and Bacon. This book poses many interesting questions that are going to allow you to think about how we read, for what purpose and how to improve the way we read children’s fiction.

Rodríguez Tapia, S. & M.C. Moreno Paz (2018) ‘El conocimiento ficcional como forma de acercamiento al conocimiento del mundo real: reclasificación de los tipos de conocimiento, caracterización y fundamentos para un enfoque lingüístico’ Hikma 17 (2018),145 – 173  https://helvia.uco.es/xmlui/handle/10396/17618 In a philosophical way, this article develops on how knowledge can be formed from experiencing fiction.  

Rose, J. (1984) The Case of Peter Pan or the Impossibility of Children’s Fiction, London: Macmillan. This article develops the idea of ‘children’ as ‘others’ and colonized individuals.


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