My ten-year-old strode right up to me and he was like: Dad...
And I said: Yes?
And he said: I finished that book you gave me.
And I was like: Well? Did you like it?
And he was like: I did. The characters rocked. I liked Benjamin Winklesauce the best. He was pretty funny.
I laughed. My rare albino lemur laughed. And then my son said: But I really enjoyed the theme of the story.
I sat right up, he had my attention.
"Go on," I said.
"Yeah," he said, "the characters never gave up, even when things were super hard."
"So what was the theme? What was that story about?" I took a nice long sip of coconut milk, right out my crazy straw.
I spit coconut milk all over him. All over the wall. All over my rare albino lemur. He'd nailed it. He'd boiled down the story to one word, to the driving theme, to that question writers get asked all the time: what's your story about?
Now, while my son is very smart (straight A student, EXCEL program...yes, I'm bragging), turns out he was cheating. Kind of. ;) In his reading/writing class, the students were learning about common themes in books. They were even given a handout. And, since we're in the business of writing FOR middle-grade readers, I thought I'd share with you those themes our audience is learning about and receptive to. While we should never resort to becoming didactic, it IS important to understand WHAT you are writing about.
In fact, author David G. Allen says it best: "For me, not knowing your theme until you're finished is like using a scalpel to turn a kangaroo into Miss Universe - there will be a lot of deep cuts, and there's a high chance it won't work."
So, here are the themes from the handout:
- Acceptance - "These books have characters who respect & accept others' differences and beliefs."
- Courage - "These books have brave characters who have the strength to overcome a fear or accept a risk."
- Perseverance - "These books have characters who never give up, even when facing difficult times."
- Cooperation - "These books have characters who work together to solve a problem or achieve a goal."
- Compassion - "These books have characters who want to make those who are suffering feel better."
- Honesty - "These books have characters who find that it is best to always tell the truth."
- Kindness - "These books have friendly characters who are generous and considerate of others."
- Loyalty - "These books have characters who trust each other and never turn their backs on their friends."
So, what do you think? Are there any themes missing? Anything to add to this list? I think Love is missing (yes, even for middle-grade...maybe especially for middle-grade; discovering young love). What else? And what's YOUR story about? Can you boil it down to a theme? Can you think what that milk-sopped ten-year-old boy might say about YOUR book?
Let's hear what you have to say. Don't be shy...I'm out of coconut milk. You're safe.