“Describe the theme of the book in your book report,” the teacher says. Everybody else seems to understand, but you don’t. What is a theme? Will you know it when you see it?
Finding a Theme of a Book
When you were young, your parents may have read you stories that ended with “the moral of this story is…”
That moral was a message that you could glean from the overall story. For instance, from The Three Little Pigs we learned about the importance of planning a project well. We know this, because we learned that building a brick house works, while building a straw house is short-sighted.
In a book report, you could state that one theme for The Three Little Pigs is that good planning can lead to success.
But we could also say the theme was about making smart choices.
As you can see, a theme isn’t something that's stated outright; it often appears as a lesson or message that the reader understands by reading between the lines.
A book of fiction can have many themes. Why? Because different people can find different meanings in books. You may find a lesson that others don’t see.
Finding a Theme in Two Steps
1. When you finish reading a book, ask yourself to sum up the book in a single word. For example, you could say a single word that symbolizes The Three Little Pigs is sturdiness, since one major lesson in this book is to use sturdy building materials.
A single word for the book Little Red Riding Hood could be deception. Deception is the subject of the book.
2. Next, stretch that single word into a message, like "the innocent are vulnerable to deception." This is a theme for Little Red Riding Hood.
Symbols Can Be Clues to Your Themes
Literature is an art, and the beauty of art is that it can be interpreted differently by everyone. The message of a fiction book is much like the message of a beautiful painting. It is not something that is stated in a particular sentence and easily located; it is something that is comprehended upon reflection.
Sometimes an object such as a bridge or a large body of water will appear over and over in a book. The object could actually be a symbol or motif which represents or sheds light on the theme.
If you notice that an object does seem to be a strong and meaningful symbol in a book, try to determine any possible deeper meaning of that object.
A bridge represents a crossover or change, doesn't it? If you notice a few bridges, and you notice that your main character is going through a big change, you can be sure that the bridge is being used as a symbol.
When you decide upon a theme, make sure to use examples and quotations from the book as you write the book report, to prove that the theme is important. Remember, as long as you have evidence to back up your theme idea, you're on the right track.