Aesop’s fables are short, easy to read, and end with a moral. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” “Union gives strength.” “Necessity is the mother of invention.” “Little by little does the trick.” (See all at www.aesopfables.com.)
It’s amazing to think that these short lessons are 2,000 years old. It’s great to have kids read them just for the insights that fact brings. Good storytelling endures. And the world may have changed in two millennia, but people haven’t.
Reading the fables is a good way to introduce the idea that stories have a theme. You can start by trying to guess the moral to a new fable and move on to attaching morals to fairy tales and movies that the kids know.
The theme of “The Three Little Pigs” is as obvious as those of the fables. “Hard work pays off.” Others are subtler. “Hansel and Gretel” has really two themes: one dealing with the witch and the other with the stepmother. They are similar though, something like “Wit and teamwork can overcome evil” for the witch and “All bad things come to an end” for the stepmother. Apparently, it is okay to destroy a witch, but you must outlast a stepmother.
Picking a theme for “The Three Bears” is challenging. Some jokingly suggest that the tale says “It’s all right to enter a strange house and try things out,” or “Kids can get away with things that would get you or me thrown in jail.” I prefer “Creatures are more alike than appearances suggest,” but I’ve heard others as plausible.
Does every author build their book around a theme? Yes and no. The author doesn’t have to be aware of a theme, it just happens when he or she selects an ending. A lot of kids’ literature has the same theme: “Be true and work hard and you will win the beauty contest/ball game/race and get the boy/girl of your dreams.” Kids who aren’t exposed to more variety may “grow out” of reading fiction and feel it’s childish and irrelevant to real life.
In both my novels, Desiderata and Agnes, young women are thrust into lives not of their choosing and resolve to make the most of their lot. I’ve had girls tell me that they like that ending better than any other book they’ve read; I’ve had women tell me they were disappointed that things didn’t work out better. I think the girls appreciate they can adapt to trying circumstances; the women, mothers all, want an ending they’d like for their daughters.
Savvy, by Ingrid Law, has a wonderful theme: “We all have unique gifts that we have to discover, control, and use.” It’s something I really believe in. I’d love to use it for a book one day.