I couldn’t begin to count the number of letters I’ve received from young readers that say something like, “When I read On My Honor I learned always to tell the truth.” Each time I’m tempted to write back and say, “Really?”
Teachers love to ask their students to identify the “theme” of a story, and there’s nothing wrong with that concept. It asks the reader to look beneath the story action for meaning. And every story, whether it intends to or not, has meaning. The meaning can, quite simply, be found in the resolution of the story problem. If the thief gets caught, the theme—without needing to be stated—is “Crime doesn’t pay.” If he doesn’t, the theme is something entirely different, perhaps even “If you want something, take it.” Or maybe something much more subtle. Maybe the uncaught thief suffers in some other more interesting way which says, “Be true to yourself. You’re the one you have to live with.”
But that doesn’t mean that stories—at least not subtle, interesting, good stories—are written to teach. We don’t assume that adults read novels to be taught “lessons.” Why should stories written for young people be different ? Except, perhaps, that we’re always looking for occasions to improve the young.
Not long ago someone on a children’s literature list serve asked, “Why do writers object to having their work called ‘didactic’? Surely they want their readers to learn from their stories.”
And the answer is, “Yes . . . and no.” We don’t enter our stories with some piece of wisdom we want to teach, we come with questions we are compelled to ask. Such as, Where does my friend’s responsibility end and mine begin? (On My Honor.) What does it mean to be part of a family? (Runt) How do I find comfort and meaning? (Little Dog, Lost).
In On My Honor Joel feels responsible for Tony’s bad judgment and thus his death, though Joel is not, in fact, responsible for it, except tangentially. The story’s resolution doesn’t exonerate Joel, but it does bring him out on the other side . . . into feeling his father’s all-encompassing love. In the final moment of the story, being in that love is enough. We know the pain won’t be gone in the morning—Tony will still be dead and Joel will still feel guilty for his part in the fatal accident—but we also know Joel’s father will still be there, and that’s what matters.
It’s the feeling that gives the story its meaning. I suppose you could say it presents the theme, but I have never put the theme into words and I never will. To do so would be to diminish it. What can be felt in that final story moment is larger than anything that could be said, certainly larger than any moral that might be imposed on it.
A theme is not a lesson to be stamped in the middle of the reader’s forehead. It is a truth a writer has struggled with and found some nourishment in. And it is experienced—that’s what a story does, draws the reader into an experience—rather than proclaimed.
I once heard a Newbery medalist tell about her grandson’s asking her for the theme of her award-winning novel. He needed to know for an assignment. She said, “Well, I suppose it’s . . .” and he wrote what she said. He got a D on his paper. The teacher told him he’d gotten the theme wrong!
What do my stories mean? Well, Little Dog, Lost means what the reader feels. It means the longing the reader experiences as a dog searches for a boy, as a boy searches for a dog, as an old man searches for a connection of any kind again. It means the joy everyone feels—characters and readers alike—when they find one another.
If the story works, when you have experienced all that longing, been rewarded by all that joy, you may not have learned anything, but you will be changed . . . just a bit.
And that’s what stories are for.