THE SEVEN UNIVERSAL THEMES IN LITERATURE
Adapted from: Against Borders: Promoting Books for a Multicultural World by Hazel Rochman
These themes echo back to the earliest Greek dramas and epics. The themes can combine in one story, or dominate one whole story. They work across genre such as mystery, romance, adventure, etc. Students can use them to make connections between texts.
1. The Perilous Journey. In an adventure, vision quest. quest, exodus, the main character will first feel "stuck" somehow -- literally, emotionally, develop-mentally, etc. She/he will have an escape, which could be a fantasy or real journey. In Where the Wild Things Are, Max explores his personality.
2. The Hero and the Monster. The "monster" can be internal and/or external, an individual, or a monstrous force or group. In Baseball Saved Us, the monster is the American government and some of its citizenry.
3. Outsiders. The main character is the outsider coming into a new situation; or a new person could be introduced into an established group. In Crow Call, Dad comes home from war to his children who barely know him.
4. Friends & Enemies. The main characters form or breaking alliances, handle social situations. Smokey Night shows how enemies can become friends. In The Mitten, animals that might otherwise prey on each other try to share an improper habitat.
5. Lovers vs Strangers. Fairy tales and folk tales often pair characters who may appeal or repel each other. Strangers can be "exotic," new or different in some important way. Love may come from unlikely sources, e.g., "Beauty and the Beast."
6. Family Matters. The narrative explores family dynamics, search for family, escape from family, e.g. "Hansel & Gretel," New Moon, The Happy Hockey Family.
7. Finding Home. The story may or may not involve a "perilous journey." In The Whispering Cloth, in the refugee camp, Mai literally fabricates a home and family.
Shea, Pegi D. (2010). Eliciting picture book responses up and down the grade level ladder, and back and forth across the curriculum. New England Reading Association Journal. December Issue.