Wikipedia defines theme as "A broad idea, message, or lesson that is conveyed by a work. The message may be about life, society, or human nature. Themes often explore timeless and universal ideas, and may be implied rather than stated explicitly."
Theme is one of the most difficult concepts for students in grades 3-6 to understand. For students to understand theme and then discover themes in the books that they read, they need to synthesize the ideas across a book. This is often very difficult to do with the novels that they are reading independently. Yet when we scaffold their learning by using picture books with easily accessible themes and build on conversations from one book to another, our students can begin to understand theme and find theme in the books that they are reading independently.
What Do I Look for in Books to Teach Theme?
I am always on the lookout for books to use to add to our discussions about themes. Since this is a difficult concept, we talk about themes all year long. I look for books with depth, but with a theme that is accessible to my students. I shy away from books in which the theme is too obvious. I look for books that have:
- epigraphs that give clues;
- titles that gives us insight; and/or
- metaphors that allude to themes.
I also look for picture books that fit under specific categories for teaching about theme. These allow me to facilitate conversations in a way that builds understanding.
Wordless Picture Books to Start the Conversation
I like to start the conversation around theme using some of my favorite wordless picture books. I think wordless picture books invite conversation and allow students at all levels to make sense of the story and the theme by looking carefully at the pictures. I like three wordless picture books for launching conversations about themes. In The Flower Man by Mark Ludy, the author uses color to help readers understand the message. The main character in the book works hard to make the place where he lives better. As things improve, more color appears. South by Patrick McDonnell is another fantastic wordless book about a cat who helps a lost bird on his journey. Finally, A Circle of Friends by Giora Carmi reminds us of the things that can happen when we focus on acts of kindness. In the story, one kind act leads to another, creating a circle story through the illustrations.
What Does the Author Really Mean to Tell Us?
I want students to know early in our conversations that the theme is not something that is explicitly stated, and sometimes the actual plot of the story is a metaphor for what the author is trying to say. With the right books, students in grades 3-6 can begin to understand how themes are implicit, and recognize examples in different stories.
There are many picture books that tell stories with larger themes. For example, Walk On! By Marla Frazee is about a baby learning to walk. But if you read the inscription, the author wrote the book for her son who was off to college. I ask students, what could the author's message be and why would she use a story of learning to walk to convey it? How to Heal a Broken Wing by Bob Graham and Learning to Fly by Sebastian Meschenmoser are two others that can extend these conversations about larger themes within narratives.
How Do Storylines Come Together?
Often the theme of a book becomes clear when storylines come together. Many stories with depth have several storylines that seem separate early in the book, but then the stories come together. I want my students to start to realize that the place where storylines come together is a key point in the story. I like to use picture books in which the separate storylines are obvious, so that kids can begin to see how this works.
Artie and Julie by Chin-Yuan Chen is a book well-suited for this type of conversation. Two stories are told on split pages — spreads that have actually been cut in half. When the stories come together, the page is no longer split in two. This visual representation of storylines coming together is brilliantly done, and a terrific way for kids to actually "see" how this works in a story.
Panda and Polar Bear by Matthew Baek is another wonderful book where two storylines come together.
I want students to know that there are universal themes in books, and they will come across similar themes in stories that they read throughout their lives. I like to introduce this idea in a few ways. One of ways I do this is to pair stories that somehow go together.
Wanda's Roses by Pat Brisson and The Curious Garden by Peter Brown are both about how people work together to create community gardens. This is an obvious way to show kids how similar stories might have similar messages.
I might follow-up by reading a book like The Enormous Turnip by Alexei Tolstoy, to show how a different story might have a similar theme of working together.
Different Theme/Same Theme
I also want students to know that there are many small themes that may emerge within a broader topic. For example, there are lots of books about friendship, but there might be several possible messages/themes in any book about friendship that are more specific than the broad theme of friendship. To help kids see this, I might share a few books about friendship that have different messages about friendship. For example, Help!: A Story of Friendship by Holly Keller deals with friendship surviving the evils of gossip while Bella & Bean by Rebecca Kai Dotlich focuses on finding ways to enjoy friends who have different interests. Once readers understand that authors can give us lots of messages about friendship, I might also introduce The Robot and the Bluebird by David Lucas, a story about a robot who gives his heart to a new friend.
As students begin to understand these concepts about theme, I move on to more complex picture books. I want students to transfer their understanding about theme to more complicated texts such as Voices in the Park by Anthony Browne, The House by J. Patrick Lewis and The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson. These three books invite readers to pull together all that they have learned about theme to explore more sophisticated examples of it.
I have found that when I introduce theme with picture books and am strategic in the books that I choose, children understand theme with more depth, and are able to discuss theme in the books they are reading independently. These picture books allow me to invite students in on the fun of discovering themes on their own.