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Universal Themes in Middle School Literature


The abstract quality of literary themes can make it difficult for middle school students to identify them. Whereas character and plot is directly stated through the words, a theme is implied or suggested by the text. A theme requires students to synthesize what they have read to identify a deeper meaning. Often a story will have more than one theme, including themes that the author didn’t intend. Prominent universal themes at the middle school level include good versus evil, a great journey and growing up.

Identifying Themes In Middle School

Posing specific questions can help middle school students identify and understand universal themes in literature. What are the needs and desires of the characters? What is the character like at the beginning of the story and how or why does she change? Is there a conflict between characters? Are there symbols in the story? In answering these questions, students can get a better understanding of how they should approach the task of discerning universal themes in the text.

Good Versus Evil

The theme of good versus evil, perhaps one of the most common themes throughout literature for all ages, considers the issue of human morals and the question of whether all humans are basically good or basically evil. It is often manifested through an exploration of extremes of inequality, violence and selfishness, for example. Novels that middle schoolers read bearing this theme include "The Giver" by Lois Lowry and the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.

A Great Journey

The theme of a great journey follows one or more characters through traveling adventures, in which many unexpected events, problems and friendships arise. The journey often discloses lessons and revelations along the way. Middel school books containing this theme include "A Wrinkle in Time" by Madeleine L'Engle, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain, and "The Little Prince" by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

Growing Up

Growing up is a pertinent theme for middle school students, as they may identify with changes these characters experience. When young characters are placed in circumstances in which they must confront themselves or aspects of the world in new and uncomfortable ways, these confrontations lead to realizations that cause the characters to learn and grow. Middle school stories that embody this theme include "Hatchet" by Gary Paulsen and "Island of Blue Dolphins" by Scott O'Dell.

About the Author

Soheila Battaglia is a published and award-winning author and filmmaker. She holds an MA in literary cultures from New York University and a BA in ethnic studies from UC Berkeley. She is a college professor of literature and composition.

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