Monday, February 24, 2014

Considering Common Themes in Middle-Grade Books

So there I was, reclining in my favorite recliner, kicked back, drinking coconut milk straight of the coconut while my rare albino lemur purred gently from her perch on my shoulder. 

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. 
"Perseverance, Dad."
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?

And while our stories have more elaborate pitches, or layers, involved, they are often just components of the theme that sits at the heart of our story. Boil it down...WHAT is 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.


  1. Now you mention it, my books lean heavily on the acceptance/perseverance dyad thematically. I could probably be more expansive if I had my own lemur...

    Thanks for this post, Joe. I think the theme was Honesty.

    1. And thank you for reading, Michael! And I really cannot recommend lemurs enough...

  2. Over coming some obstacle, although the book I was thinking of isn't coming to me at the moment.

    1. Sounds like an obstacle for you to overcome. ;) Kidding...thanks for reading!

  3. This is fantastic. I resonate with the scalpel analogy as I often don't know which direction my books are going. It's only after many revisions that I begin to see a theme take shape.

    I think a lot of books have variations on several of these themes. PI think mine have to do with self-discovery as well as friendship and courage.

    But coconut milk? Really? I think I'd spit it out, too. ;)

    1. Good point, Marissa, there are often several concurrent themes or some hybrid the Narwhal...which is part Whale and part...Nar???

      And the coconut milk? Yeah? I don't recommend.

  4. What about self-discovery? Or is that not meaty enough to base an entire book on? (I am so filled with doubt!)

  5. I am writing one now which reveals curiosity (in the past) and brings about transformation. Discovering a past relative and the way of life 150 years earlier, makes a girl appreciate a world without digital apps even though she was once addicted to her cell phone.

  6. Great list. Often books are a combo of these choices. I'm working on an MG that is a perseverance/love combo.

  7. Thanks for this very helpful list!


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!