Friday, June 22, 2012

Story Element #5: Theme

Exploring theme in picture books is what we do in our sleep. It's the underlying message we share with the world, but it shouldn't be a message you set out to deliver. Focus on the story! However all good stories have a universal take-away theme that gives us hope or lets us feel connected to one another. Even though theme should be subtle, especially in picture books, and we shouldn't set out to conquer it, it is a very important component of the story-telling process and should definitely be considered.

Today's consideration? Giraffes Can't Dance by Giles Andreae. This is one of the first picture books I bought as an adult. I was in college and not yet married. I was in the creative writing program and loved going to bookstores (and still do). When I picked up this book and read it right there in the bookstore, the last page gave me happy cold chills and I knew I had to have it for my future children. Not only is it a great story with fun word play, rhyme, animal characters, and an interesting setting, but the theme was the icing on the cake. It's why I bought the book. Let's take a look.

Title: Giraffes Can't Dance
Author: Giles Andreae
Illustrator: Guy Parker-Rees
Publisher: Orchard Books (1st ed. Purple Enterprises)
Year: 2001 (1st ed. 1999)
Word Count: 482

As the title implies, this book is about a giraffe, Gerald. Here's my synopsis. Gerald is good at eating leaves, but when he tried to run around, he tripped. The Jungle Dance was approaching and all the animals danced their cool dances. When it was Gerald's turn, the animals sneered at him and called him "weird." Gerald lost all confidence. He believed everyone about his not being able to dance. Some key phrases hint at the theme
"...he started walking home.He'd never felt so sad before--so sad and so alone."
On his walk home, he discovers the beautiful moon and meets a little cricket who encourages him:
"...sometimes when you're differentyou just need a different song."
Gerald listens for music in the breeze, the trees, the grass. The cricket plays some music too. Gerald starts moving his body and before long he felt so great he opens his eyes and realizes he is dancing! As the animals leave the dance, they see Gerald dancing and stop to stare. They compliment him:
"Gerald's the best dancer that we've ever, ever seen!"
They ask his secret, and he says that anyone can dance when they find music that they love. Oh, what a wonderful theme to explore! Yes, this book pretty much spells out the theme for you right there on the very last page, but it comes from straight from Gerald's mouth, which I decided not to quote to keep at least a little suspense for you when you run out to find a copy of this book for yourself. (Was that a run-on sentence?)

I wonder if Andreae set out to explore this theme and "teach" children that everyone can dance once you find the music you like. I guess it is possible, but I doubt it happened that way. I bet he had a great character, Gerald the giraffe, and said, "Hmmm... What is Gerald good at? What is he bad at? What does he want? He was bad at dancing. He wanted to fit it and feel accepted. He wanted to be able to dance, but more importantly I think he wanted to be happy and not feel alone. I bet Andreae explored how to resolve this. By telling the story that had to be told, I think the theme found it's way to the surface. 

Your Turn
You can start with the theme or you can end with the theme. Either way, you need to have a great story FIRST! Perhaps you want to explore the theme of a new girl moving into another girl's classroom and how they are rivals and try to become friends. The overall theme would be friendship. The takeaway theme, the underlying connection to all humans, will come out through the characters' actions and speech. When the story problem is resolved, you'll be able to say, "Yes! The theme was about such and such about friendship. Don't give up! Theme can be very hard to pinpoint, but when you do, you'll know it. Remember, it can be a great starting point, but don't set out to say, "I'm going to teach kids that when you move, everything will be okay once you make some friends." Everyone will SEE right through it and it likely won't come across as being subtle. Good luck!

Story Element #1: Character
Story Element #2: Conflict
Story Element #3: Plot
Story Element #4: Dialogue
Next time: Story Element #6: Pacing

What are some of your favorite themes to explore in your writing? 
What are some of the themes of some of your favorite picture books?

Keep on keepin' on...


  1. Hi Christie,
    Thanks for sharing this interesting post about themes in picture books. I agree that the best themes are sprinkled in the pages- a touch of this and a touch of that. I think Peter Carnavas is brilliant at delivering subtle themes. Jessica's Box is one of my favourite picture books as it explores unique differences in people, the difficulties of making new friends in some situations and knowing that inside we are all special.

    1. Hi again,
      I forgot my email. Could you please send me your PB Template? My email is

      Thank you :)

  2. I totally agree that theme should come FROM the story or character and not be the start of the story. Great post!


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