Picture Books for Teaching Main Idea and Theme

Picture Books for Teaching Main Idea and Theme

It is easy for your students to confuse a book’s theme with its main idea. Read on for an explanation of the difference, picture books for teaching main idea and theme as well as video and comprehension questions

Picture Books for Teaching Theme and Main Idea

Why Use Picture Books for Teaching Main Idea and Theme?

It is easy to confuse the theme of a book with its main idea.

The theme or central idea of a book is the lesson, moral or message the reader takes away after reading.

The main idea is what the book is about and can usually be stated in a one-sentence summary

As your students develop their literacy skills, it becomes crucial for them to identify the main idea and theme of a book. As with many comprehension strategies, the compact nature of picture books helps them.

When choosing picture books to teach theme and main idea, think about what your students can make meaningful connections with. Plots and characters they connect with help your students pick out the main idea and theme(s).

Throughout the school year, choose books with themes that are both familiar and different. Your students need exposure to different themes so they will be better able to identify them independently. Benefits include:

  • analysing a full story in one sitting
  • building up a deeper understanding, knowledge and skills (with additional books if needed)
  • more obvious story plots let your students make connections
  • the blurb can help narrow down ideas of what the main idea or theme is.
  • wordless books are an inclusive way to involve students of all abilities.

Using Books to Teach Theme

The tricky part of identifying the theme of a book is that an author often implies it rather than explicitly states it. This means looking for different ways the author may show the theme. Your students can:

  • Look at the cover, title and cover illustrations for clues
  • Read the blurb for details
  • Look for repeated works, text features, and clues in the illustrations.

The theme of the book is a lesson for everyone and not just related to the characters in the books.

Questions to Determine Theme

  • What do you need to look out for when identifying the theme?
  • What details from the book helped you determine the 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 to identify 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?

Using Picture Books for Teaching Main Idea

The main idea is what the book is about and can usually be stated in one a one sentence summary. When you recognise what the story is about, you know the main idea.

This skill shows they understand the big picture of the book (fiction or non-fiction) and pick out details as evidence.

Identifying the main idea shows an understanding of a book by determining the relevant parts. It involves organising, explaining, and remembering the text read. You can model this by highlighting repeated words, phrases, or ideas that represent the main idea.

Questions to Determine the Main Idea

  • Predict the main idea from the book cover.
  • 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?
  • Does the conclusion of the book support your ideas about the main idea? How?

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Picture Books for Teaching Main Idea and Theme

You will have books to teach theme and main idea in your classroom. This list of books are some of the most popular on Children’s Library Library, and may give you some ideas to get you started.

Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty

Camilla Cream loves lima beans, but she won’t eat them because her friends hate them. A mystery illness causes her to turn into what others think she should be. No one can figure out what is wrong until Camilla realises she needs to just be herself not bow to peer pressure. Reinforces themes of balance, self-esteem and growth mindset.

Main Idea: A curious Ada Twist discovers her questions often lead to more questions than answers.
Theme(s):
– Never give up in the face of failure.
– Curiosity helps us understand how things work.
– Space to be curious leads to creative thinking and problem-solving.

After the Fall by Dan Santat

A retelling of Humpty Dumpty from the egg’s perspective. Promotes perspectives, a growth mindset, perseverance, and courage as Humpty Dumpty conquers his fear of heights.

Main Idea: Humpty Dumpty realises the importance of getting back up after a fall and it takes time to recover from trauma.
Theme(s):
– Resilience triumphs with persistence and courage
– Life begins when you get back up

A Bad Case of the Stripes by David Shannon

Camilla Cream loves lima beans, but she won’t eat them because her friends hate them. A mystery illness causes her to turn into what others think she should be. No one can figure out what is wrong until Camilla realises she needs to just be herself not bow to peer pressure. Reinforces themes of balance, self-esteem and growth mindset.

Main Idea: Camila Cream learns to accept herself for who she is and be comfortable in her skin.
Theme(s):
– Be free to make your own decisions about who you want to
– Change for yourself and not for others
– Don’t let peer pressure influence your choices and behaviour

The Bad Seed by Jory John

When a “bad seed’ overhears negative comments he decides to change his ways. He doesn’t change his behaviour overnight but takes it one day at a time. Promotes a growth mindset, self-management, self-awareness and social awareness.

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.
Theme(s):
– Your past actions don’t determine who you are now.
– Behaviour is a decision you make.
– Willpower and self-acceptance help you change for the better.

A Chair For My Mother by Vera B. Williams

Rosa, her mother and grandmother are devastated when their home is destroyed by fire. The community helps them by donating items they will need. Promotes community, generosity, responsible decision-making and perseverance.

Main Idea: A family saves money for a comfortable chair after their home and belongings are destroyed by a fire.
Theme(s):
– Communities come together to help others in need.
– Common goals can bring people closer.

Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes

Chrysanthemum loves her name but on her first day of school, she gets teased for its uniqueness. When her music teacher reveals she is naming her baby Chrysanthemum, everyone wants to change their name to a flower. Promotes teaching theme, identity, and self-management.

Main Idea: Chrysanthemum learns to appreciate her unique name and what makes her special.
Theme(s):
– Appreciate what makes us unique
– Your name is your identity
– Words have consequences and can affect others negatively

Click, Clack, Moo Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin

Farmer Brown’s cows type him a letter demanding electric blankets. They go on strike when he refuses their demands. Duck takes an ultimatum from Farmer Brown to the cows and they agree to exchange the typewriter for the blankets. But, the next day Farmer Brown gets a note from the ducks demanding a diving board for their pond!

Main Idea: A group of cows work together to negotiate with Farmer Brown to improve their living and working conditions.
Theme(s):
– We can make a difference to our working conditions and personal rights.
– Working together helps bring about positive change.
– Negotiation can bring about change and conflict resolution.

The Curious Garden by Peter Brown

Liam’s curiosity leads him to explore an elevated train track. He discovers dying flowers and begins to nurture them. His dedication pays off when the flowers grow and start spreading over the city. Promotes the environment, patience and a sense of community.

Main Idea: Liam’s hard work and dedication pay off when he shows the town it is not too late to improve the environment and their community.
Theme(s):
– Perseverance and hard work bring about change and inspiration for others.
– We can all contribute to keeping our environment healthy and protected.
– One person can make a difference.

The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt

Duncan’s crayons have quit. They leave letters expressing their grievances and requesting a change in their working conditions. Reinforces themes of communication, creativity, self-awareness, relationship skills and perspective.

Main Idea: Duncan learns his crayons have different needs when they communicate their problems with the way he treats them.
Theme(s):
– Walk in someone else’s shoes.
– Communicate needs and wishes to be understood and respected.
– Consider the feelings and point of view of others.
– Everyone has a different purpose and different needs.
– Negotiation can bring about change and conflict resolution.

The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson

The Day You Begin considers the difficulty of entering a room where you don’t know anyone. In these situations, we are “an only” until we share our personal stories. Woodson reminds us that we are all outsiders and it takes courage to be ourselves.

Main Idea: Some children feel like outsiders when they first enter a room but find the courage to share their stories to make new connections and friends.
Theme(s):
– 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

An art teacher encourages Vashti to make a mark, a dot, prompting Vashti to create a wide range of dot paintings. She displays her work at the school art show and inspires a young boy to make his own unique mark. Promotes reflection, perseverance, a growth mindset and creativity.

Main Idea: A teacher gives a frustrated girl the confidence to be creative and believe in herself and her talents.
Theme(s):
– Creative thinking can open creativity, confidence, and growth.
– 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

Giraffes Can’t Dance? Or can they? Gerald is determined to take part in the annual Jungle dance. While the other animals laugh he shows perseverance, determination, and confidence to follow his dream.

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

A virtuous egg spends its time helping people out, whether it’s needed or wanted! One day The Good Egg cracks (literally) from the pressure of perfection. It takes a much needed break where it learns to live a more balanced life. Promotes acceptance, balance, wellbeing and self-management.

Main Idea: A good egg, suffering from a breakdown, takes some time for itself and realises it doesn’t have to be perfect.
Theme(s):
– Accept yourself and others for who they are.
– A balanced life is more important than trying to be perfect.
– Don’t stress over things you can’t control.

Here We Are by Oliver Jeffers

Travel over mountains and oceans, space and constellations, and the animals and people who populate the Earth. The handwritten facts throughout the book are a gentle plea to care for the planet and each other.

Main Idea: Take a tour of our beautiful planet and discover its amazing people, creatures, and places.
Theme(s):
– It is our responsibility to care for the Earth and its occupants.
– Show respect and kindness to others.
– A sense of belonging and community.

I Am Enough by Grace Byers

I am Enough follows a girl as she makes positive affirmations for those who lack self-esteem and self-acceptance. This book celebrates children for who they are and reinforces themes of acceptance, self-esteem and poetry.

Main Idea: A diverse group of girls show they are self-confident, empowered and respectful to themselves and others.
Theme(s):
– We are unique and that will always be enough.
– We are worthy no matter our differences.

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña

A grumpy CJ and his nana ride a city bus full of wonderful characters. He wonders aloud why he doesn’t have the things his friends do and why they have to volunteer at the soup kitchen every week. His nana’s straightforward and positive responses help CJ see and appreciate what he has and what he can give.

Main Idea: CJ’s nana teaches him to appreciate his surroundings and what he has rather than wanting what others have.
Theme(s):
– Find the beauty in everything and everyone.
– The difference between wants and needs.

Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes

Lilly loves school, her teacher, and her purple plastic purse. When her teacher, Mr Slinger, confiscates the purse she plans her revenge. She draws a mean picture of Mr Slinger but soon feels remorse and sets out to make amends. Promotes self-management, forgiveness, integrity, relationship skills and reflection.

Main Idea: Lilly reflects on her mean actions and apologizes when she understands she was in the wrong. She gets an apology in return.
Theme(s):
– Managing our emotions helps us react more positively.
– Take responsibility for our actions.
– Value of forgiveness.

The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires

A girl and her canine assistant adjust, examine, tweak, fasten, fix, straighten and study to create the most magnificent thing. But not everything works out the way she imagines. Promotes creative thinking, self-management, perseverance and a growth mindset.

Main Idea: A young girl plans to make the most magnificent thing, but when things don’t go as planned she gets mad and then uses a growth mindset to adapt her plans.
Theme(s):
– Making mistakes leads to growth.
– Never give up in the face of failure.
– Adapt when things don’t go as planned.

The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi

When Unhei moves from Korea to America her classmates can’t pronounce her name. She wants to choose a new name that is easier to pronounce but decides she likes her name just the way it is. Reinforces themes of acceptance, identity, integrity, open-mindedness, principled and tolerance.

Main Idea: Unhei wants to choose an American name but decides she likes her Korean name the best so she chooses it again.
Theme(s):
– Be true to yourself and be proud of who you are.
– Your name is your identity.

The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch

Princess Elizabeth saves her fiancé Prince Ronald from a dragon only for him to tell her to clean herself up and look like a princess. Elizabeth happily skips into the sunset by herself. Promotes gender roles, independence, self-esteem and strong female characters.

Main Idea: Princess Elizabeth uses creative thinking to rescue Prince Ronald, but happily skips into the sunset alone when he criticises her appearance.
Theme(s):
– Happy ever after is different for everyone.
– Beauty is only skin deep and appearances can be misleading.
– Thinking outside the box leads to creative decision making.

Pig the Pug by Aaron Blabey Pinterest

Pig the Pug was greedy and selfish in almost every way. He lived in a home with his dachshund friend, Trevor, but selfish Pig refused to share his toys with Trevor. Pig soon learns a painful lesson when he gets his just deserts. Promotes positive behaviour, integrity responsibility and self-management.

Main Idea: Pig the Pug learns the hard way that it is better to share than be greedy.
Theme(s):
– Regulating emotions leads to better decision-making.
– Negative behaviour has negative consequences.

The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family by Ibtihaj Muhammad

On the first day of school sisters, Asiya and Faizah walk in hand in hand. Asiya is wearing a hijab for the first time, which represents being strong. Faizah admires her sister’s beautiful blue scarf but hears other children making fun of her. The sisters follow their mother’s advice about being strong and true to themselves in the face of bullying.

Main Idea: Faizah looks up to her older sister for her strength and pride when she is bullied at school for wearing her hijab.
Theme(s):
– Respect others’ differences.
– Feel pride about our identity and what makes us different from others.

Ruby Finds a Worry by Tom Percival

Ruby has a Worry. It wasn’t very big, but it stayed with her all day so she stopped doing the things she loved. She finds discussing her worry makes it gets smaller until it was almost gone. Though a Worry appears every now and again Ruby knows how to get rid of them. Ruby’s Worry promotes adaptability, self-awareness, self-management and self-esteem.

Main Idea: Ruby has a worry that follows her everywhere, but finds out the best way to get of it is to talk about it.
Theme(s):
– You are not alone, everyone has worries.
– Ignoring your feelings can increase your worries.
– Sharing helps control worries and anxieties.

Stuck by Oliver Jeffers

When Floyd got his kite stuck in a tree he throws his shoes to dislodge it. That doesn’t work so Floyd attempts to use more and more outrageous objects (and people) to free the kite! Will Floyd ever get his kite back?

Main Idea: When Floyd gets his kite stuck in a tree he uses creative thinking and perseverance to get it down.
Theme(s):
– Making mistakes leads to growth.
– The process is as important as the end result.
– Perseverance and determination lead to success.
– Actions have consequences.

Thelma the Unicorn by Aaron Blabey

Thelma the pony wants to be a unicorn. When her dream came true she realises pretending to be someone else is not as much fun as she thought. She returns home where she can be herself. Promotes themes of friendship, self-esteem and identity.

Main Idea: When Thelma the pony becomes famous, she learns, with the help of her best friend. to be true to herself.
Theme(s):
– Be careful what you wish for.
– Be true to yourself and be proud of who you are.
– Be kind to yourself and others.

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What Next?

You can use graphic organisers for teaching main idea and theme. They provide your students with a structure to pick out information from a book and organise their thoughts.

As your students consolidate their skills, they can transfer them to their independent reading and writing. Remember to scaffold your student’s skills by reading many books throughout the school year.

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