Themes in Children’s Books

T is for Theme

What is Theme? has 4 definitions for theme, but the definition that relates to literature is:

Theme is a unifying or dominant idea, motif, etc.

Some people might confuse theme with the subject of a story. But the subject of story refers to something more concrete and definite—it’s what the author is really writing about. The subject matter of the story includes the characters, the setting, the plot—these are tangible, concrete things on the surface.

Beneath the novel’s surface lies its true meaning, or its theme.  A literary theme usually relates to the author’s statement or opinion on the topic. It’s an idea about something abstract that unifies the whole story.

Usually the theme of the story can be gleaned from the characters themselves. The character’s thoughts, feelings and emotions, reflections and revelations, and what they learn throughout their experiences can give the readers an idea of the theme running throughout the story.

For instance, the subject matter of Harry Potter is the Wizarding World. But the story itself has many themes—friendship, love, sacrifice, good versus evil, etc.

What are the Common Themes in Children’s Books?

Middle Grade

Friendship is a common theme in middle grade novels. At this age children are beginning to realize the value of friends and have a need for being part of a group.

Family is another common theme. Middle grade novels often show the importance of family. Sometimes they deal with a child’s greatest fear—losing a parent, or a family member.

Coming of Age stories are also popular. At this age children have to deal with the physical and emotional changes that come with growing up. Adolescence looms over them and in these coming of age stories, they learn to mature through their adventures.

Diary of a Whimpy Kid, the Movie

Young Adult

Common teen issues like sex, pregnancy, abortion, drug addiction become themes in young adult literature.

Peer pressure and the need to fit into a social group are also common themes.

Parents and authority figures are almost always absent from YA literature, but when they are, the main teen character often has some form of conflict with them. Young adults trying to find their own place in the world, and trying to figure out who they are often need space to grow and adults and other authority figures, who might be well-meaning, might not give them the space they need to grow.

Of course, love is also a common theme in YA lit–whether it’s falling in love or experiencing heartbreak for the first time, or gaining some new insight about the different types of love.

Ginny & Harry, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

How do You Use Theme in Your Own Writing?

The best thing to do when starting out to write a new story is to forget about theme. Write the story the way you’ve imagined it in your mind. Don’t let themes get in the way of the story you’re trying to write because the novel might end up feeling too stiff or forced.

A theme usually comes out naturally from a well-told story. Once you’ve written your first, or second draft and read your novel from beginning to end, you’ll get a feeling for the theme that’s lurking beneath your actual story.

If that theme is something that you feel makes the story stronger, hone in on it and use it to unify your characters, your plot or your setting. You can use theme to help you figure out what scenes need to stay in your story or what scenes don’t really add much to your story’s depth.  You can also use theme to strengthen certain plot points or character traits in your story.



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18 Responses to “Themes in Children’s Books”

  1. mooderino says:

    Great post. Theme is usually in the spark that gets me interested in writing the story in the first place.

    Moody Writing
    The Funnily Enough

  2. Would survival be a theme or would that be a coming of age theme?

  3. Scrolling through some of your posts, I’d say one of your main themes is being thorough. Nice blog, Nutschell!

  4. Chautona says:

    What I love is that special moment when you realize a (or the) theme of a story that you hadn’t intended. That moment where you reread the past few chapters and realize that there is a continuing thread, subconsciously added, that weaves a theme through the story. It’s just the most energizing feeling as a writer. Well, that and the moment when you realize that you just wrote the last word.

  5. M.J. Fifield says:

    I never start out with a theme when I start writing. One will eventually show up as I work my way through the telling of a story.

  6. Jay Noel says:

    My major themes are centered around characters. Most of my characters are dynamic and undergo some kind of change – so my theme revolves around that.

    But it’s fun when I discover a theme that’s been lurking under my writing that I didn’t know was there, or didn’t intend to put in there.

  7. So far my theme has been friendship in both books.

  8. Wendy says:

    I’m a girl who loves a theme whether it’s for a party, for decorating, or for writing a blog. I do better with a theme, which is why I’m loving this A to Z Challenge! I also like following the themes at Sepia Saturday and Geneabloggers. In March, I celebrated St. Patrick’s Day all month by focusing my posts on the Irish members of the family. Thanks for visiting my blog and commenting. Returning the visit!

  9. ami says:

    It’s also pretty common for readers to identify themes that the author never intended or, at least, were not conscious of during the writing. That’s all part of the fun.


  10. Nice layout of theme – they really are mostly covered under these! My recently finished MG is a coming of age story – as you note above. My adult paranormal suspense novel is about love, loss and redemption – I can assume themes in many adult novels. The key is to have a unique story! Nice to be on the A to Z with you.

  11. Great post! I love knowing my theme from the start, because it helps me make those million decisions that need to be made over the course of a novel. And then when I get to the end, it STILL needs to be revised to unify everything! I think theme is so important, though. And as important as it is to have a theme, it’s also important to not have it stand out. Funny how that is!

  12. Thanks for the post. Theme is a tricky thing to explain, but you explained it well.

  13. Pauleen says:

    I’m really enjoying reading your A to Z posts…lots of diversity and interesting topics. Will have a further exploration of your blog generally.

  14. Lovely post and a lovely blog! I agree, your theme does come out in the story even without you trying. Thanks for stopping by my blog.

  15. Louella says:

    Really, we are up to ‘T’ already? Goodness me, I am way behind :)

    I am really not a writer (so much)… I just do bloggies occasionally when I find it beneficial to my state of mind.. lol

    I had never thought of consdering the theme of ‘anything’ when writing, not consciously. I just generally blot the words on the screen (or paper) and I stop when I loose the motivation. (Thank goodness I am not a professional writer, or I would be very very VERY broke!)

  16. Hilary says:

    Hi Nutschell … great comments for a great post and blog .. my theme usually gets itself woven into my blog post .. but I agree the well written book needs to hold together ..

    Cheers Hilary

  17. Russel says:

    Basically had to point out I’m just happy that i stumbled onto your website page.

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