Going Beyond Good
Teaching Your Middle and High School Students How to Thoughtfully Examine a Good Book
Having spent the grammar school years teaching my children how to write book reports and giving them instruction on narrating books, I found myself surprised when I asked my middle school-aged child to tell me why she liked a certain book. Her answer was “because it was good.” Sure she could narrate a terrific summary of the book, but I was looking for more. I was looking for layers of discovery within the book, and possibly parallels in her life. Then I thought, “Oh, I have to teach that.” So began our literary studies.
I thought that because my children love to read, analyzing literature would somehow come naturally. But enjoying a good book and analyzing a work of art are two entirely different things, even though they are often experienced together. I have found that, as with many things, the more you practice analyzing literature the better you will become at it. If you have also embarked upon the task of teaching your children how to analyze good books, and are not sure where to start, I’d like to share with you a few basics that will help you quickly find your footing in this subject.
First let me start by saying that I think great works of literary art have at least two major facets to them. One is the surface story, and the other is the underlying themes, or what the writer is saying underneath his breath, so to speak. We all love a good story that moves us to feel something. That “something” could be scary, intriguing, happy, sad, or any number of things. If this is all that we get out of the reading, and we walk away having enjoyed a fine story, then the writer has accomplished a great feat. It is when the story, with its memorable characters, has us thinking deeply about our lives and relating the book’s themes to other books that we have read that we know we are reading something more than just a good book.
How do you begin to teach a child how to examine a good book? In this brief article I will discuss themes, motifs, and symbols as they relate to good literature. Having a working knowledge of these three literary devices will help you and your junior and senior high school students experience an author’s words in a more complete and fulfilling way.
Recently I read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee with my eighth-and ninth-grade children. I think that it is an excellent book to use as a basis for our discussion. Although this is not a “Christian Classical” book, it is a wonderfully rich work of art. I will explore how themes, motifs, and symbols are used in this book. There is so much to say regarding using these tools that I can’t possible cover much detail. Yet, as a compass orients one in the direction he wishes to go, I hope to point those who need it in the direction of literary engagement.
Themes are defined as “the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.”1 As your students read more classical books, encourage them to look for themes. Many books include more than one theme. Tell them to search for as many as they can find.
There are three major themes in To Kill a Mockingbird: education, courage, and social injustice. You may be wondering how to spot a theme. I have found that looking for the beliefs and attitudes that the characters hold or reviewing major events that occur in the book are excellent ways to pinpoint major themes.
It is fairly easy to spot the theme of social injustice in To Kill a Mockingbird. You see it quickly by recognizing the racism that exists among the townspeople. But we can also explore the injustice of classism as seen through the relationships of the major families in the story. The Finches are well to do and have a higher social status than the Cunninghams, who are poor, but who are not as poor as the Ewells. Some pretty terrible words are used to describe the Ewells and the black people in the book, who find themselves at the bottom of the social status simply because they are black. This tough theme is explored through the eyes of a child. The author seems to realize that when the reader encounters the hurtful words that are spoken by a young child, the reader will understand that the child is only mimicking what she has learned in her community. Again, the theme of social injustice is conveyed in this book through the characters’ ideas on racism, classism, and sexism.
Another theme in Harper Lee’s book is education. Atticus, the father, deems that most of the injustice that happens in Maycomb County is because the people are ignorant. He believes that the key to change is education. Throughout the book, you see how he values the education of his children very much. Interestingly, Scout’s (the daughter) most influential teachers are Atticus (her father), Calpurnia (the housekeeper), neighbors, and her brother Jem. That sounds a lot like homeschooling to me.
The last theme I see is the theme of courage. Again, you know you have a theme in a book when you notice an unstated idea presenting itself throughout the book. In this case that idea is courage. It is found in Atticus defending Tom Robinson, in Scout walking away from a fight, in Jem reading to the mean neighbor (Mrs. Dubose), in Boo Radley standing up for the children, in Calpurnia taking the children to church, and in many other areas.
The themes in a book are not necessarily explicitly stated, but they are there. Finding the theme is one step in getting your children to think deeply about what a book is saying as well as what is happening.
Challenge your students to dig into the text of the books they read to discover the themes. A good book has themes running throughout it, as streams run through a small town. Finding and understanding the themes is one major step in opening up a child’s understanding of what makes a book good.
A motif is a reoccurring element used in an artistic or literary work.2 One of the ways themes are developed throughout a great book is with motifs. To identify the motifs in a story, have the students ask themselves why certain things are as they are. For example, does this event make me feel something? Why is this happening? Is the author trying to make me feel or see something that supports a theme?
Some of the reccurring details, or motifs, found in To Kill a Mockingbird are descriptions of scary, tense elements or events: Boo Radley’s house, the rabid dog that has to be killed, the destruction of Mrs. Dubose’s flowers, the sudden fire, and the frightening night of the Halloween party. These are events that point to trouble, an underlying hint of the violence that is in the county. These motifs serve to enhance the ongoing trouble and violence that is taking place during Tom Robinson’s trial.
Symbols can be tricky. I agree with the statements made by Thomas C. Foster, author of How to Read Literature Like a Professor. He said:
Some symbols do have a fairly limited range of meanings, but in general a symbol can’t be reduced to standing for only one thing. If they can, it is not symbolism, it’s allegory. Here’s how allegory works: things stand for other things on a one-for-one basis. . . . John Bunyan wrote an allegory called The Pilgrim’s Progress. In it, the main character, Christian, is trying to journey to the Celestial City, while along the way he encounters such distractions as the Slough of Despond, the Primrose Path, Vanity Fair, and the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Other characters have names like Faithful, Evangelist, and the Giant Despair. Their names indicate their qualities. . . . Allegories have one mission to accomplish—convey a certain message. . . . Symbols, though, generally don’t work so neatly. The thing referred to is likely not reducible to a single statement but will more probably involve a range of possible meanings and interpretations.3
Given that explanation, you can see why symbols can be hard to pull out of a book. What you are looking for is an idea that is consistently presented when the said symbol is mentioned. Whether or not everyone agrees about what the symbol stands for is not important. People will see symbols where others do not. That is the nature of a symbol.
Let’s look at a symbol in the book To Kill a Mockingbird. The mockingbird is a symbol of innocence. One reference to a mockingbird occurs when Atticus is giving the directive to not shoot a mockingbird; the children do not fully understand why their father would say that, so they ask for clarification from their neighbor, Miss Maudie. She clarifies that statement for Scout by saying that mockingbirds do not hurt anything; they only provide pleasure for others. Additional references to a mockingbird are made about Tom Robinson and Boo Radley. Both men are portrayed as innocent and harmless characters in the book. On two separate occasions, Atticus declares that to cause harm to them is like killing a mockingbird.
I think that the mockingbird could also be used as a symbol for misunderstandings. One could shoot a mockingbird thinking that it is actually the bird of its chosen song, not realizing that it is mocking another bird’s call. The jury would convict Tom Robinson, wanting to believe that he did something that he did not do. Boo Radley, if convicted as a murderer, would be tried as if he were a danger to society. All three instances represent misunderstandings, and all three employ references to the mockingbird. Challenge your reader to look for symbols in a given text, making sure that the message of the symbol is consistent throughout the literary work.
As you begin to analyze books with your children from a literary viewpoint, you can also teach them to develop a Biblical worldview by asking questions that will help them discern the differences between the world’s view and God’s view. Are the people of Maycomb County inherently good or evil? If everyone is made in the image of the living God, where do classism and racism come into play?
A Few Recommendations
Another way to develop analytical skills in literature is by starting a small book study with a group of familiar friends. I have found that small group discussions enliven the book even more and help the student to see things that he may not have seen on his own. This kind of group study could lead to a lifelong love of reading and deep, meaningful relationships.
I also have found my local library to be an invaluable source when choosing classical books for my children. You can skim books to look for inappropriate language or even read the book in its entirety before selecting it for your students.
Librarians tend to have a pulse on age-appropriate classics as well. If you have a good local library and librarian, use them. Also check out the libraries and librarians in surrounding areas for assistance in the selection of good books.
In the sidebar, I’ve listed the titles of a few classical books. Choose one and begin sharpening your literary skills. I have also included two great websites to further your learning in this area.
Here is a list of the titles of a few classical books. Choose one and begin sharpening your literary skills. I have also included two great websites to further your learning in this area.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan
The Hobbit by J. R. Tolkien
The Lord of the Rings by J. R. Tolkien
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
Ruth Hoskins lives in Evergreen Park, Illinois, where she and her husband Bernard homeschool their daughters, aged 12 and 14. Ruth enjoys writing, reading, and helping others. She also works alongside her husband in their portrait and wedding photography business (www.bnhoskins.com). She is most grateful to her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for His unfailing love and faithfulness.
1. http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/mocking/themes.html, accessed on August 7, 2010.
2. http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/mocking/themes.html, accessed on August 7, 2010.
3. Thomas C. Foster, How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Harper-Collins Publishers Inc., New York, NY, 2003, page 98.
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