Where Do You Find a Novel’s Theme, Anyway? (A How-To for Young Readers)

I’ve been asked lately by a few elementary teachers and librarians to offer some advice on how to guide students through finding the theme of a book. It’s not always easy—in fact, by the time you get to the end of a book, and have sifted through the conflicts and the sub-plots, the major and minor characters and all their desires and fears and…

Yeah. Where was that theme supposed to be, anyway?

It can be a head-scratcher at times. Even to adult readers. So theme can be especially frustrating for our younger readers.

Really, though, theme isn’t an answer floating out there, separate from the rest of the book. It’s woven into the very fabric of the book. Everything in the book (and I really do mean just about everything) points to theme.

Some of the best places to start thinking about theme are:

The characters. In my MG, THE JUNCTION OF SUNSHINE AND LUCKY, the main character, Auggie, is a plucky girl who sees beauty in the strangest places. Rusted pipes and broken-down cars and used-up appliances. It’s why she’s able to take the items her grandfather picks up as a trash collector and turn them into sculptures, becoming a folk artist.

The conflict. In THE JUNCTION, Auggie comes face-to-face with the House Beautification Committee, which does not in any way enjoy her sculptures. In fact, they’re going to pile on the fines if she doesn’t remove them—then blight her house if she can’t pay those fines.

The resolution. Again, in THE JUNCTION, we see Auggie deciding to sell her sculptures, freeing herself from the draconian rules of the HBC. (And, as it turns out, saving her entire neighborhood to boot.)

Okay, so clearly, there’s a beauty is in the eye of the beholder theme happening—we’ve got a girl who sees trash as art supplies, a House Beautification Committee that does not, and a resolution that involves the very sculptures the two entities are fighting over. You could also say there’s a power of the individual theme here, as Auggie uses her artwork, in the end, to stand up to the committee.

These aren’t the only solutions, either. That’s a big part of what I’ve always loved about literature. It’s not a math problem with only one right solution. The kicker is, you’ve got to be able to point to specific passages in the text itself to support your own answer. And these are three broad but really solid areas of text to start digging out theme.

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