Learn the difference between themes in children’s fiction, and thematic categories, when to decide on a theme, and what types of themes work well in children’s literature.
Originally published in Kid Magazine Writers, March 2005
Portrait of Jean and Genevieve Caillebotte, 1895 – Pierre-Auguste Renoir
I was awake late at night, fascinated by what I learned. My cat kept me company as I researched the topic of themes in children’s literature for more than an hour. I then set aside my books and laughed. The authors of my stacked up writing books each mentioned the T-word and spent a few pages discussing the topic. But few of them agreed on anything.
Until that night I never knew how fascinating the subject is, and how little themes are understood. Before this I thought a writer could pick up a reference book, scan down a list of themes, choose one and model a story around it. But come to find out there’s more to it.
A reference book might list themes for children’s literature like this:
These are thematic categories. All of them are universal experiences every child could relate to. But they are not fully developed themes.
How to turn a thematic category into a complete theme for your children’s story
To be complete a theme should express what the author is trying to say about a thematic category. For example “friendship” could be developed into this theme: “A child can find friendship when she learns to give it.” Or it could be this: “Friendship is fragile and must be treated with respect.” The fully expressed theme tells us what the story is about on a philosophical level. It reflects a philosophy of the author.
Creation of a short story could start with deciding on a theme, but most authors prefer to choose a character or plot first. Choosing a theme first can work well for some writers but it may lead to didactic plots, formulated to teach a lesson to young, vulnerable readers.We know children don’t want lessons when they pick up a magazine and flip through the pages looking for fiction. They want entertainment and excitement. They’re looking for a character they can identify with. They don’t want a story about how to make Mom happy by mopping the kitchen floor.
When and how to choose a theme for your children’s story
If we don’t want to be caught writing preachy children’s fiction we should be sure our thematic statements don’t express an instructional point of view. So if themes chosen before plot and character can endanger a story’s vitality, when is the best time to choose them?
I’ve often found while writing a story, information about the theme comes to me. I may start out with a plot, choose a protagonist, and start writing the piece, then decide mid-way through it’s about learning to compromise. Or I might get to the last paragraph and still not understand the inner meaning of what I’ve written. Either way is fine. Not knowing the theme when you finish the first draft is nothing to worry about.
Like most writers I let the story rest a while and go back to revise after I’ve had time to forget the details. I find the ideal time to come up with a complete thematic sentence is right after the first read-through and before revision starts. Once I’ve read the piece I usually know what I want it want it to express. I then tighten or expand scenes until the inner significance comes out full force.
Clichés in themes
We all know our fiction must be free from clichés. This applies to the theme as well. If your theme is too simple and too well known the story might not be chosen for publication. For example, “Love conquers all” sounds like an excellent theme but it’s been done a million times – usually in romance novels.
A better theme for children’s literature could be “Love leads people to do crazy, insane things they would never otherwise consider doing.” It’s still a true statement – but gives meaning to a story with much more excitement and an opportunity for humor as well.
A theme is a general truth that applies in many situations
When you’re writing out a thematic sentence you should not use proper names. The truth of your theme should be applicable in general, not just to your main character. For example you wouldn’t say “Jane didn’t object when Brenda stole lipstick from Ava’s purse, so next Brenda stole Jane’s sweater.” That’s actually more of a plot. The theme could be expressed like this: “Giving in to bullies makes them think they can take advantage of you because you’re weak.”
Does the author have to know the theme?
If you manage to complete a story without understanding the theme you won’t be alone. Some authors disregard inner meanings and concentrate only on telling a moving, exciting story with memorable characters. They may want to leave the literary analysis for their readers. However if the story ending falls flat, failing to satisfy, you might be able to repair it by considering the theme. What does the character really want? What is the story about? Knowing the answers to these questions can help us see why an ending may not work and how it can be fixed.
When you look hard enough you can find a theme in any story whether it was originally intended or not. Revising your story so readers can easily pick up on the story’s inner meaning will be a selling point you can mention in your cover letter.
Eventually every researching writer pushes away the books and articles of others. It is then time to internalize and digest compiled facts until some new wisdom can be expressed.
After reading about themes I closed my mentoring books and got up to place them on the top shelf of a bookcase nearby. It was then I noticed my fluffy white cat and bent down to stroke the fur on her head. Would this be a story about compassion? She lifted her head to meet my hand, gratefully accepting my affection. Her blue eyes rolled back. She appeared to be enjoying nirvana. It became clear this story would be about much more than just giving a loving touch. It’s about joy in receiving as well.