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Analyzing Style, Theme & Voice in Children's Literature

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

This lesson helps teacher candidates learn about analyzing children's literature based on style, theme, and voice. We will discuss each of these literary elements and examine some examples.

Analyzing Children's Literature

What are some specific characteristics that impact the quality of literature? Style, voice, and theme are three elements that affect how a reader perceives the text. The style and voice provide context to the writing by clarifying the position of the author. Style relates to the way an author's choices impact the story. Voice refers to an author's unique way of speaking that is generally consistent among all works completed by an author. Themes are what the story is about. In this lesson, we will learn more about style, voice, and themes in children's literature while analyzing specific examples from the works of Maurice Sendak.

Style

When analyzing the style of a children's book, you will examine the important decisions the author makes that affect the outcome. Some questions you may ask include:

  • What is the point of view of the narrator? Why did the author choose this narration style?
  • What is the structure of the story? How do non-linear structures, such as flashbacks and flashforwards impact the reader?
  • What literary devices and word choices are used? What is the effect of these choices?
  • What is the verb tense of the story? Why was this tense chosen?

Let's examine the style of the following passage from the Caldecott Award-winning book Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak:

''That very night in Max's room a forest grew and grew…and grew until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around and an ocean tumbled by with a private boat for Max and he sailed off through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year to where the wild things are.''

From this passage, you can see that the author chose to write the story from the point of view of a third-person narrator who can describe Max's behavior and imaginative thoughts. The story is written in chronological order according to Max's experience, but it is in the past tense to reveal that it is a memory. Although the word choices are simple, some rich language, such as tumbled and private, are included. This passage is one long run-on sentence that is repetitive to indicate stream of consciousness thinking about this event.

Voice

To examine the author's voice, we will need to review a wider range of work by the author. Maurice Sendak also wrote a children's book named Pierre: A Cautionary Tale in Five Chapters and a Prologue that shares many of the same characteristics of Where the Wild Things Are. Examine the following passage:

''Now, as the night began to fall a hungry lion paid a call. He looked Pierre right in the eye and asked him if He'd like to die. Pierre said, 'I don't care!' ''

Although there are differences in style between these two pieces of literature, such as the use of rhyme, the voice remains consistent. Sendak writes matter-of-factly about negative feelings and behaviors that children exhibit, such as aggression, power struggles, and loneliness. The children stand up to scary creatures (monsters and lions), but return to the security of their family in the end. Sendak's voice demonstrates his view of children as imaginative beings with complex emotions. Sendak recognizes the reality of the childhood experience without sugar-coating it.

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