What Are You Trying to Say?
By Amy Houts
When I’m inspired to write, I don’t consciously think about what I’m trying to say. The theme, whether it’s about friendship, love, or sibling rivalry, grows organically out of the story. But once I have my story down and read it over, sometimes I’m surprised by the underlying message, aggravating tone, or obvious sarcasm. I think, I didn’t mean to say that! What is lurking in my subconscious comes through whether I want it to or not, at least on my first draft. In order to understand this, it helps to look at a few examples.
In the classic picture book, Corduroy, a teddy bear desperately wants to find love, someone to take him home. Lisa’s mother doesn’t want her to buy Corduroy because he’s missing a button. So, Corduroy ventures out of his safe toy shelf in the department store where he is for sale to find his lost button. Lisa decides to buy him anyway, and she sews on a button herself. What is the author, Don Freeman, trying to say? The theme relates to appearance and acceptance, and also to hope. Every day Corduroy hopes someone will take him home. It offers an uplifting, positive message. What if Lisa passed over Corduroy and picked another stuffed toy without any obvious flaws? The theme of the story would be much darker, relating to rejection and despair (and probably wouldn’t have been published).
Another classic picture book, Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak, shows how a young boy copes with anger by using his imagination. He is angry that his mother sent him to bed without his supper. His room transforms into a place where Wild Things live and he becomes king of the Wild Things. At the end, the boy’s supper is waiting for him and it’s still warm. This softens the ending. Whatever he did, his mother forgave him. What if the main character didn’t use his imagination, but trashed everything in his room, and his mother was so angry, she didn’t bring him his supper? The theme would be very different (and again, probably not be published).
In my new book, Maye’s March for Women’s Votes, a young woman helps to fight for voting rights in the early 1900s. While the story itself is about a voting rights parade that turns violent, the overall theme of the book is that everyone, including women, should have right to vote. What Maye is fighting for relates to today. With the passing of new voting restriction laws, I hope readers are inspired to think about the history of voting rights, what voting means, and possibly to fight for it today. If my main character, Maye, was against women voting (and there were many women and men, called anti-suffragists, who were) the theme of the story would be much different.
It’s important to get your story down—not to question or consciously focus on your stories theme before you write it. But once you are done with that first draft, read it over and ask yourself, does this convey what I want it to? If not, figure out what you can change to get across your message. Sometimes, especially in middle grade or YA books, themes are not always happy. Sometimes love is tragic, life is unfair, people are cruel—and if that is what you are trying to say, that’s fine. Being aware of the themes and implications of your stories will make you a better writer.
Amy Houts is the author of over 100 picture books. She writes for both faith-based and mainstream publishers. Amy’s faith-based books include God’s Protection Covers Me (Beaming Books) and The Giant Book of Bible Fingerplays for Preschoolers (Group Publishing). Amy’s educational books include 60 retold tales for the series, Compass Children’s Classics, 2020. Her 10 nonfiction science early readers for Highlights Press were released in 2020. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @AmyHouts, and on Facebook, Author Amy Houts. Visit her website: www.amyhouts.com.