Motifs are the workhorses of the literary device world. Unlike a one-line simile or a bit of hyperbole that might briefly spark the reader’s imagination before they turn the page, a motif—by definition—is woven throughout a story. To recognize a motif, a reader must comprehend the book as a whole and be savvy enough to catch individual repeated details throughout chapters and scenes. When the reader connects those dots, motifs support the book’s deeper meaning. They complement and enrich plot and characterization. Motifs can also serve as story glue, giving the reader grab-loops to grasp (the way a preschooler takes hold of a rope line). They provide continuity and recognizability—especially if the text is on the longer side.
Well-constructed motifs are perfect for MG! While it’s true that motif as a device is traditionally explored via lit class classics (like the color red in The Scarlet Letter or instances of watchfulness in The Great Gatsby), motifs certainly play a role in many middle grade novels. Let’s take a look at motif by the (literary) dictionary definition; then, we’ll find examples in some modern-day MG stories.
Motif is easy to understand if you’ve ever decorated a room or planned a party around some thematic idea. Imagine you plan to redecorate a kitchen; inspired by some wall hooks in the shape of lighthouses, you also pick out lighthouse border, lighthouse wall prints, a lighthouse soap dispenser… Your lighthouse motif guides the overall project and ties the space together.
In storytelling, motifs are the same kind of repeated, same-yet-different idea. You can bring out a motif in imagery, events, actions, objects, and figurative language. Generally, motifs satisfy readers (whether consciously or unconsciously) who enjoy patterns, structure, sense, and logic in their stories.
Well-structured motifs carry significance and contribute to theme, as well. If a story has a lighthouse motif, what do all those lighthouses mean? Is a character trying to find his or her way, but struggling? Now the motif satisfies the reader who loves connections, deeper meanings, and rich symbolism.
In the very popular Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, the crime motif appears in both apparent and subtle ways. Once the kids learn about the crime that inspired Mr. Lemoncello’s construction of the library, they solve the final puzzles and escape. So the motif certainly supports the plot (the only way to escape follows the path of long-ago bank criminals). Along the way, scenes and subplots highlight writers of crime fiction, historical criminals, and the students’ own “crimes”: lying, theft, unkindness. Because those who commit the crimes lose the game, this crime motif supports the book’s overall messages about fair play, teamwork, and kindness.
In Inside Out and Back Again, Ha shares her experiences as a refugee to America over the course of a calendar year, so holidays are a natural motif. As she begins and ends the year with Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, and tries to learn about American holidays in between, the holiday motif supports a theme of growth, change, and accepting new traditions while maintaining those Ha knows and loves.
The more recent Lucky Broken Girl by Ruth Behar includes a motif of cultural experiences that represent the different backgrounds of immigrants in the book. The food shared by Ramu, the altar in Chicho’s apartment, and Mami’s Cuban coffee all serve to provide main character Ruthie with opportunities to consider how immigrants from many different places now live side by side in America, supporting a theme of acceptance.
If you are a writer, consider how these skillfully-executed motifs serve the overall story. Adding effective motifs can help to support or clarify a tricky theme. If you are a teacher or librarian, try having student readers work in small groups to brainstorm instances of a motif in their current novel. Provide the first motif, but encourage the discovery and exploration of other motifs along the way; many middle grade language arts students will love a search-and-find assignment looking for instances of a motif.