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Simplify Teaching Main Idea and Theme with Picture Books - Examples Included!

Explore the use of picture books for teaching main idea and selecting the best books to teach theme in classrooms. Understanding a text’s main idea and theme helps reading comprehension and critical thinking skills. Picture books combine visual cues with textual stories, making these abstract concepts more accessible and engaging for students of all ages.

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Theme vs. Main Idea: What's the Difference?

Understanding the distinction between a book’s theme and main idea is foundational to developing literacy skills.

  • Theme: The theme of a book encompasses the lesson, moral, or message conveyed to the reader beyond the plot. It’s a universal lesson extending beyond the characters and their story, offering insights applicable to the reader’s life.
  • Main Idea: The main idea is the book’s essence, often encapsulated in a single sentence summarising the story’s core. Recognising the main idea means understanding the heart of the narrative.

As students progress in their literacy journey, distinguishing between these two elements becomes important. 

Teaching Main Idea and Theme with Picture Books

Students can build an understanding of the main idea and theme and apply their knowledge to evaluate other texts.

Picture books blend engaging stories with visual storytelling, making abstract concepts like theme and main idea tangible. Here are some strategies for using picture books to teach these concepts effectively:

  • Choosing the Right Books: Select picture books that resonate with your students, featuring plots and characters that engage them. This connection makes it easier for students to grasp the main ideas and themes.
  • Making Connections: Picture books allow students to bridge text and imagery, enhancing comprehension. Encourage students to observe how illustrations complement the text, revealing characters’ actions and the story’s progression.
  • Diverse Themes: Incorporate picture books with both familiar and unfamiliar themes. This variety helps students become adept at identifying themes independently.
A young girl reads a book with vivid, colorful abstract art exploding from the pages, symbolizing teaching the main idea through imagination and creativity.

Benefits of Picture Books in Teaching Theme and Main Idea

Picture books are powerful tools for instruction at various age levels. They simplify complex ideas through storytelling and illustrations, making abstract concepts like theme and main idea tangible.

 Picture books’ visual elements help students connect text and imagery, deepening their comprehension and retention.

  • Analysing Stories: Picture books allow a complete analysis in one sitting, focusing on theme and main idea.
  • Deeper Understanding: They promote a deep comprehension of the narrative structure and underlying messages.
  • Inclusivity: Picture books, particularly wordless books, invite participation from students of all reading abilities, ensuring everyone can engage with the story’s main ideas and themes.

Teaching Theme with Picture Books

Themes are the underlying messages or morals of a story. Picture books often explore universal themes such as friendship, courage, and diversity. To help students identify and understand themes, you can:

  • Prompt discussions on how characters’ actions reflect broader life lessons.
  • Explore how the resolution of the story’s conflict conveys the theme.
  • Connect themes in the book to students’ personal experiences.

Identifying a book’s theme involves inference, as themes are typically implied rather than explicitly stated. Encourage your students to:

  • Explore Visual Clues: The book’s cover, title, and illustrations hint at the theme.
  • Read Closely: Pay attention to the story’s blurb, recurring motifs, textual clues, repeated words, and clues in the illustrations.

Questions to Guide Theme Exploration:

  • What clues helped you identify the book’s theme?
  • How do the characters and plot convey the theme?
  • What must you look out for when identifying a book’s theme?
  • Was the theme directly stated or implied? What is your evidence?
  • What message did you take away from reading the book?
  • What do you think the author wants you to learn from this book?
  • What part of the book was most important in identifying the theme?
  • How did the main character help you determine the theme?
  • How did the cover, title, and blurb help you identify the theme?
  • What books have you read with similar themes?
  • How could the author have made the theme clearer?

Teaching Main Idea with Picture Books

The main idea of a story is its central message or what the story is mostly about. Picture books often convey the main idea through repetitive textual themes and supporting illustrations. You can guide students to discover the main idea by:

  • Discussing the significance of the title and cover illustrations.
  • Analyzing key scenes and how they contribute to the overall story.
  • Encouraging students to summarize the book in their own words.

Grasping the main idea requires students to distil the essence of the story. Model this process by highlighting the following:

  • Key Details: Focus on repeated themes, phrases, or concepts that signal the main idea.
  • Evidence: Teach students to use the text and illustrations as evidence supporting the main idea.
  • Guided Reading Sessions: Use picture books in guided reading sessions to model identifying the main idea and themes. Ask targeted questions that prompt students to think about the story’s message.
  • Visual Thinking Strategies: Employ visual thinking strategies to analyze illustrations. Discuss how the artwork complements the text and enhances understanding of the main idea and themes.
  • Comparative Analysis: Integrate multiple picture books with similar themes. Encourage students to compare and contrast how each book approaches the theme differently.
  • Creative Projects: Assign projects that allow students to express their understanding of the main idea and theme, such as creating their own picture book or drawing scenes that represent the theme.

Questions for Main Idea Determination:

  • Predict the main idea from the book cover.
  • How does the conclusion reinforce the main idea?
  • Do the title and illustration give you any clues as to what the main idea will be?
  • What details from the book helped you determine the main idea?
  • What information and words are repeated throughout the book?
  • What do you need to look out for when identifying the main idea?
  • What do you think the author wants you to learn from this book?
  • How could the author have made the main idea clearer?
  • What repeated elements throughout the book point to the main idea?

Picture Books for Teaching Main Idea and Theme

You will already have books to teach the theme and main idea in your classroom. These are some ideas to get you started.

Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty

Main Idea: A curious Ada Twist discovers her questions often lead to more questions than answers.


  • Never give up in the face of failure.
  • Curiosity helps us understand how things work.

After the Fall by Dan Santat

Main Idea: Humpty Dumpty realises the importance of getting back up after a fall and it takes time to recover from trauma.


  • Resilience triumphs with persistence and courage
  • Life begins when you get back up

All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold

Main Idea: Students feel welcome and included in their classroom no matter their background, race and culture.


  • Be proud of who you are.
  • Welcoming others celebrates inclusiveness, appreciation and tolerance.

A Bad Case of the Stripes by David Shannon

Main Idea: Camila Cream learns to accept herself for who she is and be comfortable in her skin.


  • Change for yourself and not for others.
  • Don’t let peer pressure influence your choices and behaviour.

The Bad Seed by Jory John

Main Idea: A seed acts badly because others think it is bad but realises it is never too late to change its behaviour even if others still judge it.


  • Your past actions don’t determine who you are now.
  • Behaviour is a decision you make.

A Chair For My Mother by Vera B. Williams

Main Idea: A family saves money for a comfortable chair after their home and belongings are destroyed by a fire.


  • Communities come together to help others in need.
  • Common goals can bring people closer.

Change Sings by Amanda Gorman

Main Idea: A girl issues a call to action to other children to force change in their community.


  • We all have the power to make a difference.
  • Positive changes are possible when we work together.

Click, Clack, Moo Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin

Main Idea: A group of cows negotiate with Farmer Brown to improve their living and working conditions.


  • Working together helps bring about positive change.
  • Negotiation can bring about conflict resolution.

The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt

Main Idea: Duncan learns his crayons have different needs when they communicate their problems with how he treats them.


  • Communicate needs to be understood and respected.
  • Negotiation can bring about change.

The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson

Main Idea: Some children feel like outsiders when entering a room but find the courage to share their stories to make new connections and friends.


  • We can all feel like outsiders at some point
  • With courage, we can reach out to others and make connections.

The Dot by Peter H. Reynolds

Main Idea: A teacher gives a frustrated girl the confidence to be creative and believe in herself and her talents.


  • One person can make a difference to others.
  • Have the confidence to give something a go and believe in yourself.

Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae

Main Idea: With the support of a new friend, Gerald, the giraffe discovers he can dance, even though he thought it was impossible.


  • It’s okay to be different and do things your own way
  • Have the courage to do what, at first, seems impossible.

The Good Egg by Jory John

Main Idea: A good egg, suffering from a breakdown, takes time for itself and realises it doesn’t have to be perfect.


  • Accept yourself and others for who they are.
  • Don’t stress over things you can’t control.

Gustavo, the Shy Ghosts by Flavia Z. Drago

Main Idea: Gustavo is a shy ghost with trouble connecting with the other monsters. To make friends, he musters up the courage to share his talent for music.


  • persistence in overcoming challenges
  • being true to yourself

The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig

Main Idea: Brian struggles with standing out in school until a new student helps him grow in confidence and feel visible.


  • one person can make a difference in how someone else feels
  • small acts of kindness help others feel valued

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña

Main Idea: CJ’s nana teaches him to appreciate his surroundings and what he has rather than wanting what others have.


  • Find the beauty in everything and everyone.
  • The difference between wants and needs.

Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes

Main Idea: Lilly reflects on her mean actions and apologizes when she understands she is wrong. She gets an apology in return.


  • Taking responsibility for our actions.
  • Value of forgiveness.

The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires

Main Idea: A young girl plans to make the most magnificent thing, but when things don’t go as planned, she gets mad and uses a growth mindset to adapt her plans.


  • Making mistakes leads to growth.
  • Never giving up in the face of failure.

The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi

Main Idea: Unhei wants to choose an American name but decides she likes her Korean name the best, so she chooses it again.


  • Be true to yourself and be proud of who you are.
  • Your name is your identity.

The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch

Main Idea: Princess Elizabeth uses creative thinking to rescue Prince Ronald but happily skips into the sunset alone when he criticises her appearance.


  • Happy ever after is different for everyone.
  • Beauty is only skin deep, and appearances can be misleading.

Pig the Pug by Aaron Blabey

Main Idea: Pig the Pug learns the hard way that it is better to share than be greedy.


  • Regulating emotions leads to better decision-making.
  • Negative behaviour has negative consequences.

The Proudest Blue by Ibtihaj Muhammad

Main Idea: Faizah looks up to her older sister for her strength and pride when bullied at school for wearing her hijab.


  • Respect others’ differences.
  • Feel pride about our identity and what makes us different from others.

Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson

Main Idea: A witch’s kindness and generosity towards animals she meets lead to her making new friends and defeating a dragon that threatens them all.


  • working together helps us overcome obstacles.
  • we can accomplish more together than we can alone.

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats

Main Idea: A young boy named Peter wakes up to a world covered in fresh snow and experiences the joy and wonder of a snowy day.


  • exploring our surroundings with curiosity
  • making independent decisions

Stuck by Oliver Jeffers

Main Idea: When Floyd gets his kite stuck in a tree, he uses creative thinking and perseverance to get it down.


  • The process is as important as the end result.
  • Perseverance and determination lead to success.

Thank You, Omu! by Oge Mora

Main Idea: When Omu shares her delicious stew with people in her neighborhood, who come together to thank her for her generosity.


  • putting the needs of others before your own
  • small acts of kindness can make a difference

Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts

Main Idea: Jeremy has to choose between what he wants and what he needs. 


  • The difference between wants and needs.
  • Socio-economic differences cause inequality.

Voices in the Park by Anthony Browne

Main Idea: Four different characters describe their visit to the same park from their unique perspective.


  • our prejudices affect how we view the world
  • everyone has a unique viewpoint

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen

Main Idea: A bear calmly asks the other animals if they have seen his hat until it suddenly remembers where it last saw the hat.


  • There are consequences for lying and stealing.
  • Assumptions can be dangerous.

The Widow's Broom by Chris Van Allsburg

Main Idea: Widow Shaw protects a witch’s broom when her neighbors react with fear.


  • approach things we don’t understand with open-mindedness
  • standing up for what we believe in