This post is dedicated to the memory of Sarah Leah Carman Fried. A witty and charming young woman who passed away on March 28th. May her memory be a blessing.    

When I used to think about theme, what instinctively came to mind was an element of the story I would have to BS about on my next English test.

But since the dark ages of my high school years, I’ve learned to appreciate much about writing and its craft.

I recently used a prompt from Writing Fiction by the Gotham Writers’ Workshop. I was asked to think about one of my favourite works of fiction, thinking about the dominant theme of the story.

I chose The Gruffalo. I wondered if such a successful children’s book was perhaps so successful because its theme was tightly woven into the fibres of its story.

How Wit Beats Scary and Strong

So I thought about The Gruffalo’s theme. The story is about how wit beats scary and strong.

And then I went back and read the story again. I had missed something, many things in fact.

  1. Wit beats scary and strong even if it doesn’t look the part. Julia Donaldson’s main character in this book is a mouse. Mice are not known for their wit. But that’s the point. You don’t have to look smart to be smart.
  2. The mouse outsmarts its natural predators – the owl, the fox and the snake. But, these natural predators are also known for being smart; the wise owl, the cunning fox, the sly snake. Here too, scary and strong don’t need to look the part. To children reading the book (or being read to), a gruffalo certainly sounds more scary than this threesome, but to the mouse, they were the scariest of all. And the mouse cleverly outsmarts them, by ‘inventing’ the gruffalo.
  3. By the time the gruffalo comes along, mouse has already outsmarted the most clever and most threatening creatures (to him) of the forest. But now he’s up against a goliath and here too, he outsmarts scary and strong with such ease and charm we simply fall in love with him and his tale.

In the The Gruffalo, Julia Donaldson masters the art of storytelling. She uses theme as an undertone, binding the elements so tightly together and only at the end does she reveal its radiant beauty. And of course, let’s not forget that she does all of this in flawless rhyme!

I will not take theme for granted again.

A truly meaningful and entertaining story must have each element of the story deliver on its theme.