Posted by: Kathy Temean | August 30, 2012

To Theme or Not to Theme

This illustration was sent in by Nicole Tadgell. She is an illustrator who loves drawing and painting children of all races, celebrating the journey of growing up. I featured Nicole in 2011 on Illustrator Saturday You can also visit her blog at: I’m very happy that Nicole sent in something for our enjoyment.  Thank you, Nicole.

Here is our guest blogger David L Harrison author of over 80 children’s books and all around nice guy.

To Theme or Not to Theme

by David L Harrison

When I began writing poetry for young people, I was unaware of the need for themes and unconcerned about supplying them. I accumulated a collection of poems over a three-year period – 100 in all – and sent them in mass to Bee Cullinan, poetry editor-in-chief at Boyds Mills Press. 

She liked them, accepted them, and began at once to sort the poems by themes. School accounted for maybe fifteen poems. Family made up another dozen or so. Under Bee’s guidance, I wrote enough additional poems to complete SOMEBODY CATCH MY HOMEWORK. The family collection was published as A THOUSAND COUSINS

But that was about as far as my accidental themes stretched. Everything else was a hodgepodge of subjects that caught my fancy during the three years of writing. Between HOMEWORK and COUSINS we brought out one theme-less collection as THE BOY WHO COUNTED STARS. In it were some of my most whimsical poems but the book laid an egg and I learned my lesson. 

Adults who buy books for kids like to know what a book is about. Parents may choose based on their sons’ and daughters’ interests. Teachers and librarians keep that in mind, too, but they are also aware that school is the office where children go to work. Their job description is to learn and those charged with helping them learn find it convenient to break down the job into categories such as math, science, language arts, and social studies. If you want to appeal to buyers, and who doesn’t, it’s just good business to understand how the market works.

Most good books possess some element that qualifies for a beginning-middle-ending or at least an overall arc that moves the narrative from a logical beginning to a logical conclusion. This is true of nonfiction, fiction, and books of poetry. In CONNECTING DOTS, I followed my memories from earliest to current. For ALLIGATOR IN THE CLOSET, I began with a house at night, took my readers on a general tour of my home (though often purely fictional), and ended by saying there’s really no place like whatever we call home. VACATION is the tale of Sam and his family, who leave home on a driving vacation to the ocean, get there, play there, and return home. For PIRATES, I started with an explanatory poem about the squalid waterfronts of filth and discontent that spawned many of the young men who turned to crime on the seas and ended with pirates being captured and some of them hanged. Most recently I took the reader of COWBOYS from two wranglers signing up for another cattle drive, up the Chism Trail to Abilene, and ended with two cowboys on horses trying to outrun a train, which was, of course, a metaphor of how the trail drives eventually came to an end. 

These days I like to settle on a theme, list numerous possibilities for poems or vignettes or episodes, write a few good examples, and send my proposal to a potential editor. On rare occasions I just begin by asking an editor if she/he might be interested in seeing a book about this or that before deciding whether or not to develop the idea further.

Kathy, many thanks for inviting me to your blog. I hope some of these ideas prove useful.

David, thank you for taking the time to share your expertise with us. 

You might want to check out David’s website: or go directly to his blog: That is where all the poets hang out.  You might want to get involved and try your hand at a few poems.  Also every Sunday, David posts a poem from one of his many books.  Enjoy!

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Great advice, David! Good reminder to keep the parent/educator’s decision-making perspective in mind when putting the manuscript/proposal together …


  2. Kathy, thanks for having me today. It’s always a pleasure!



    • David,

      Loved having you join us. Hope more poets find your blog.



  3. Such great advice about the notion of themes–makes such perfect sense. Thank you!


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