The meme below, which gets posted around social media every once in a while, is something that I imagine drives teachers crazy.
I know a lot of writers who aren’t thrilled about it either. The reason: we writers often do mean the color blue symbolizes depression. Maybe not all the time. And obviously that’s not the only thing that makes a great novel. But I defy anyone to argue that F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t make the light on Daisy’s dock green for several reasons and that it doesn’t enhance the important themes in The Great Gatsby. (For those wanting to read more about those reasons, click here.)
I’m not sure why looking for symbols and subtext in literature has gotten such a bad rap. In fact, close readings meant to uncover layers of meaning are widely thought to teach students to think critically in all areas of knowledge. In addition, this type of analytical thinking is tied to success in high school, college, and beyond.
Although I can’t speak for all writers, I know that in my most recent novel, every symbol or simile was deliberate. And after close readings of a couple of my favorite middle-grade novels, I’m sure even some of the tiniest details were not casually thrown in and were included to enhance deeper meaning as well as to illuminate certain truths about life.
For example, in Kate DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightingale, a National Book Award finalist, the narrator says, “The baton looked like a needle.” DiCamillo could have written that the baton looked like a twig or a sword or even a pool cue. But I would suggest that the simile was chosen purposely to reinforce Raymie’s belief that the baton will help stitch her family back together when she uses it to win Little Miss Central Florida Tire.
In addition, it’s evident that a deliberate pattern of light imagery is woven through the book to emphasize Raymie’s struggle to come out of the darkness of her mother’s depression and her own sadness as a result of her father leaving. From the jar of candy on Mrs. Sylvester’s desk, which is lit up by the sun “so that it looked like a lamp” to Raymie’s beloved book, A Bright and Shining Path: The Life of Florence Nightingale, to the sun glinting off the abandoned grocery carts, making them “magical, beautiful,” it’s clear this light imagery is important to both the story and to Raymie herself. At the end of the novel, the observant reader is rewarded when these images come full circle (spoiler alert) and figure into Raymie’s transformation into a girl who comes to believe in her own strength. As she attempts to save Louisiana from drowning, it’s that magical glint of the shopping cart that points her in the right direction. And as she and Louisiana swim to the surface, Raymie has the realization that it’s “the easiest thing in the world to save somebody. For the first time, she understood Florence Nightingale and her lantern and the bright and shining path.” At that moment, we realize everything that Raymie has observed and learned so far in her life has helped her find her way out of both literal and figurative darkness.
Rebecca Stead is another author who uses rich symbolism and imagery to enhance the reading experience. Her novel, Liar & Spy, begins with this passage: “There’s this totally false map of the human tongue. It’s supposed to show where we taste different things, like salty on the side of the tongue, sweet in the front, bitter in the back. Some guy drew it a hundred years ago, and people have been forcing kids to memorize it ever since. But it’s wrong—all wrong.” In this opening passage, Stead is basically hinting to her audience that they should read critically and not believe everything at face value. This is a clue as to how to read the book. Astute readers who parse that passage might read with a more critical eye and at some point realize they are dealing with an unreliable narrator—as unreliable as that map of the tongue.
Important subtext can also be found in the novel with references to Seurat’s painting A Sunday on La Grande Jette. Georges’s mother has told him that the artist’s pointillist technique of painting with tiny dots requires the viewer to take a step back to look at the big picture rather than each dot. Later when Georges’s father urges his son to stand up to bullies, Georges repeats his mother’s philosophy about the big picture, that the little things don’t matter in the long run. His father, however, tells him that some things do matter in the here and now. This conversation results in Georges rethinking his perspective on life: “The dots matter.” Stead could have merely written that sometimes you look at the big picture and sometimes you don’t. But how much more memorable has she made this truth by using such a beautiful analogy?
In my own novel, The First Last Day, the main character Haleigh gets her wish to live her last day of summer over and over again. Each morning, her mother throws her an apple to take with her as a snack. The first time Haleigh misses the apple, and it falls to the floor. The second time, since she’s ready for it, she catches it and throws it back to her mother. By the end of the novel, after Haleigh takes the final step that will reverse her wish to stay in summer forever, she takes a bite of the apple and “waits for the future to happen.” I could have chosen a peach or a banana for those scenes. But I chose the apple because of its almost universal cultural significance. Haleigh, like Eve, revels in her innocence, at first rejecting the apple, which will bring her knowledge and, possibly, pain. Her finally taking the bite of the apple reinforces the novel’s subtext that the loss of innocence is a necessary rite of passage, which can also bring positive experiences along with the pain.
In another recurring image, Haleigh sees a waxing crescent moon, on its way to being full, and imagines it to be “the final curve in a pair of parentheses, the close of a single thought, suspended in the infinite sky.” Once she makes her decision to move on, she sees the moon differently: “No longer a closed parenthesis, it seemed more like a giant comma, a pause in the middle of a sentence, ready for the rest to be written.” The moon symbolism and Haleigh’s thoughts about it, underscore the meaning of Haleigh’s evolution from someone who is content to live a secure life, suspended in time, to someone who is now eager to move forward and see what the future will hold.
As both a writer and a reader, I’ve found that uncovering the significance of such examples of symbolism and subtext that I’ve cited here can reap great long-term rewards, making the whole reading experience richer. I’d urge all readers, even those who already were annoyed by that meme above, to do a little detective work by taking a closer look at the similes and symbols woven through some of your favorite books. You’ll no doubt enhance your critical thinking skills. And along the way, you just might discover some of life’s universal truths in a more memorable way.
Dorian Cirrone is the co-regional advisor for the Florida Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. She has written several books for children and teens. Her most recent middle-grade novel, The First Last Day (Simon and Schuster/Aladdin), is available wherever books are sold. You can find her on Facebook and on Twitter as @DorianCirrone. She gives writing tips and does occasional giveaways on her blog at: http://doriancirrone.com/welcome/blog/