Today for Reading for Research Month author Baptiste Paul presented material on theme. He described theme as "the big ideas...in a story," which I found very dissatisfying when I read it this afternoon. But now, after a couple of hours...okay. I get that. All I have for a definition is something like "a world view the author is concerned with" or "a life issue the author wants to explore." Hey, that's a big idea.
Paul makes a point I hadn't thought about. Theme is conveyed through illustrations in picture books as well as text.
Today I read three of the five books suggested. Paul didn't discuss them. Readers are supposed to "objectively read them" ourselves. Yikes.
Today's Picture Books
Rain by Sam Usher shot over my head. A boy is stuck in the house with his grandfather while it's raining. He wants to go out, but Gramps, who is busy reading a lengthy letter that is sealed with hearts and then responding to it, will have nothing to do with that. Until, of course, he's ready to send out some mail. Then they have an adventure on their way to the mailbox that involves clowns and boats. It's a beautiful book, but I don't get the big idea.
King Jack and the Dragon by Peter Bently & Helen Oxenbury is a traditional story of kids up to their necks in fantasy play. King Jack is fine with fighting dragons in the daylight with his brave knights, but after the other kids head home and Jack's left on his own in the dark, Mom and Dad start looking really good. Now, the big idea/life issue the author and illustrator are dealing with here involves children using fantasy play to deal with frightening things, safe in the knowledge that Mom and Dad are there for him to turn to. (Unless it's something else.) Lovely text in verse, and I'm becoming fond of illustrator Oxenbury.
Of these three books, I thought Daniel Miyares' Float had the strongest theme. A young boy goes out into the rain with his homemade paper boat and has a good time until the boat gets away with him and is ruined. Like Jack in King Jack and the Dragon, this kid turns to Dad, who dries him off and gives him some hot chocolate. Then the kid finds some more paper, makes a plane, and heads out into the sunshine to fly it. The big idea/life issue? We try and fail, and try again. Get knocked down, get back up. Resilience, baby. I like that theme, so I hope I'm right about it applying to Float. And what is particularly interesting about this particular theme in this particular book? Float has no text. The theme is, indeed, conveyed totally through illustrations.
Many times authors will say that they weren't aware of the themes in their books until after they finished writing them. I've been trying not to do that. I try to to definitely know my theme, and it has to be supported by action, dialogue, etc.
So do I know the theme for my picture book manuscript? Indeed, I do. "Can we control our lives?" Both the child main character and his grandfather support it. Yeah, that's a classic children's book theme.