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Common Themes in Children's Literature


There are many attributes to a literary work. These include plot, characterization, symbols and themes. The theme helps give focus to the story, and therefore is a fundamental part of the work. Many themes in children's books are similar to those in adult books, especially those dealing with human emotions.

Definition of a Theme

The subject of the literary work is the topic the author writes about, but the theme is a statement about or an opinion on the topic. It is an idea that may be expressed by the feelings, thoughts and conversations of the main character. It may also answer the question, "What does the main character learn in the course of the story?"

Friendship

Friendship is a very common need for children and therefore, any book that uses this theme is desirable reading. An example is "The Outsiders" by S.E. Hinton, which deals with friendship as part of gang life. The story develops the theme with a gang from a low income area and one from an affluent one. Fights are as much a part of their lives as competition for girls. Changes in the character's lives focus upon the necessity for friendship and the need for being part of a group. Another book on this theme is "Bad Fall" by Charles Crawford. This story shows the importance of friendship between two young boys.

Family

All families are different, and yet there is is something common in family life. For example, the book, "Everywhere" by Bruce Brooks show the relationship between a young boy and his aging grandfather. In "The Stone-Faced Boy" by Paula Fox, the young boy seems to be rejected by his family and only as a result of coping with difficult situations does his family come to accept him.

Prejudice

Bigotry and prejudice constitute a common theme in many children's books. They show the horrors of racism and their effect on children. "The Gold Cadillac" by Mildred D. Taylor tells of a young black girl and the prejudice she and her family encountered during a trip to the South in the 1950s in the family's new Cadillac. "Lilies of the Field" by William Barrett describes how a young black man helps nuns in a story that covers the themes of racial and religious tolerance.

Growing Up

Maturing and facing adolescence are common themes in children's books. An interesting story for middle grades that uses this theme is "Charley Skedaddle" by Patricia Beatty. The leading character grew up in a poor neighborhood of New York City, served as a drummer boy in the Civil War and matured to manhood despite many obstacles. "The Moon Bridge" by Marcia Savin tells of Ruthie Fox, a fifth grader who lived in San Francisco in 1941. She must adjust her life when her close friend is taken to a Japanese-American internment camp. "Old Yeller" by Fred Gipson tells of a boy's frontier life and growth to maturity by accepting the responsibility of manhood.

References
  • Survival Themes in Fiction for Children; Binnie Tate Wilkin; 1978
  • Middleplots -- Guide for Use with Readers Ages 8 to 12; John Gillespie and Corinne Naden; 1994
  • Juniorplots; John Gillespie and Diana Lembo; 1967
About the Author

Based in Bellmore, N.Y., Shula Hirsch has been writing since 1960 on travel, education, raising children and senior problems. Her articles have appeared in "Newsday," "Mature Living," "Teaching Today," and "Travel News." She holds a Master of Arts degree from Columbia University and is a retired professor of English.

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