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Understanding theme | Reading

A story's theme is the message woven throughout it, often about important topics such as human nature, life, or society. It is deeper than the plot or summary and it can answer questions such as "What does it mean to be a family?" or "What are we afraid of?".

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Video transcript

- [David] Hello, readers. Today I want to talk about themes. A theme is an important idea that is woven throughout a story. It's not the plot or the summary, but something a little deeper. A theme links a big idea about our world with the action of a text. Sometimes a theme answers a question the story is trying to explore, like, "What does it mean to be a family?" Or, "What are we afraid of?" Themes will be statements that answer these questions, like, "You don't have to be related to someone "for them to be your family." Or, "We are afraid of losing our individuality." Now, theme is different from the main idea of a story or its summary. The main idea is what the story's all about, and the summary is the events of the story. It's the plot, it's what happened. But the theme is a lesson or a message that you can take out of the story and apply to your own life. Themes are universal. That is to say, anyone can relate to them. So if I tell you a story about how I got food poisoning the one time I ate a sketchy roadside hot dog instead of packing my own lunch, the theme isn't, "Avoid Sticky Pete's hot dogs on Route 91." The theme is "It pays to be prepared," because not everyone has a Sticky Pete's, but everyone can be prepared. Ugh, why did I eat it? Why is it green? A theme is similar to a moral. But a moral is more about a specific lesson it's trying to teach you. A theme could be a lesson, but it doesn't have to be. Sometimes you can discover the theme by asking yourself some big questions. What did the characters learn? How did they grow and change? Why did characters act the way they acted? What's different at the end of the story? And what stays with you after the story is over? Let's go through a folk tale and see if answering these questions helps us to uncover the theme. This is a story about Anansi the Spider, a heroic trickster from West Africa. Anansi was clever, but he wished to be wise. Wiser than everyone, in fact. He decided that he'd take all the wisdom he could find, all the wisdom in the whole world, and gather it all inside a little clay pot. But he didn't like having it in the house, this pot of knowledge. "What if our kid knocks it over?" he asked his wife, Aso. "What if someone comes over in the night and steals it?" "Who's coming to steal your pot, Anansi?" she asked. "Nobody even knows you have it." "It's not safe," Anansi cried. And he decided to hide it. "I'm going out," he said, "Don't follow me." "Whatever," said Aso, who went back to doing something that was actually useful. Anansi wandered through the forest, lugging this enormous clay pot of wisdom, never aware that his little son, Ntikuma, was following close behind. "Not tall enough," said Anansi, looking at a cliff. "Not deep enough," he said, frowning at a canyon. "Ah-ha," said Anansi when he came to the prickly thorn tree at the edge of the forest near a little stream. "Now, this will do just fine." Anansi had many legs, and he was very strong. But even he could not climb the tree and carry the pot of knowledge at the same time. He scrabbled up the tree, then slid back down again. He wiggled up the tree, then slid back down again. He clambered up the tree. "Hey, Dad," Anansi's son called out. "What, what? "I said nobody follow me. "What are you doing here?" Anansi cried. "You should tie the pot to your back, Dad. "Then you can use all your legs to climb the tree." He was right, but it didn't matter to Anansi. "I'll teach ya to give me advice, you little miscreant," Anansi yelled, shaking his fist, the same fist that held the handle to the pot full of wisdom. It went sailing into the air as time seemed to slow down. "Oh no," said Anansi. "Oh no," said Anansi's little son. And the pot smashed open right there in the stream, carrying all of Anansi's carefully gathered up knowledge into the ocean, sending it out to the whole world once again. "You are in so much trouble, Ntikuma!" Anansi said, clambering back down the tree. And then he said, "Ow, ow, ow," because in his haste, he had poked himself on the thorns of the tree. His son took of running for home, and Anansi raced after him. And as they ran, it began to rain. And as the rain came down, Anansi stopped running and began to walk and think. "Ntikuma's plan would have worked after all." When he at least caught up with Ntikuma, he apologized for losing his temper. "What was the use of all that wisdom "if I can still be outsmarted by my little son?" he said. The two of them embraced, and because of Ntikuma's timely interruption, a little bit of Anansi's knowledge lives in us all today. So our questions checklist. What did the characters learn? Well, Anansi learned that even if he had all the wisdom in the world, a child could still have a better idea than him. How did the characters grow and change? Anansi apologized for losing his temper and realized that he wasn't the only person with good ideas. "Why did characters act the way they acted?" I think Anansi was greedy. Why else would he wanna have all the wisdom in the world and not share it without anybody else? And, "What's different at the end of the story?" At the end of the story, everybody gets a little bit from the pot of wisdom. It flows out into the ocean and gets sent to everybody. And Anansi realized that keeping all the wisdom to himself still didn't make him the wisest all the time. Finally, "What stays with you after the story is over?" The fact that all of us, you, me, your Aunt Matilda, all of us have a little bit of Anansi's wisdom inside of us. So a theme of this story could be, "Anyone can have a good idea," or, "Wisdom is inside all of us." What theme would you give this story? Discuss it with your friends, your classmates, your family. And let us know. The theme of all of my videos is and shall forever be that you can learn anything. David out.