Nothing in kids’ literature is ever what it seems. Whether you are a homeschooling parent or just trying to help your child with her reading homework, understanding symbolism in children’s literature is pivotal. Sometimes it takes a little digging into classic children’s books, like the works of Dr. Seuss, to get to the second layer of meaning.
Symbol Vs. Image
A symbol is often built from an image, but an image does not have to be a symbol. Imagery in literature is what allows the reader to really sink into a story. It is what lets the reader relate to the story; reading about a scary path through the woods elicits an emotional response. A symbol is an image that can be a stand-in for something else. The scary path can be just a path, but it can also represent a choice a character must make with unknown or frightening consequences.
Some symbols in children’s literature are easy to pick out. Others are more difficult, especially if the book was written in another country. Cultural differences vary so much that a yellow shirt could mean happiness in America, but something completely different in Africa. Archetypes are a kind of symbol that transcends this kind of cultural difference. In most cultures, the dark is frightening, the elderly are considered wise and there is usually some kind of classic trickster (like Wile E. Coyote). These are considered archetypes.
Two standard ways to pick out symbols in children’s literature include looking for the most repeated images that show up in the story, and looking for an obvious statement in the story that a certain image is really a symbol. To help keep track of the symbols that you find, you can make a chart to list all the images and what they might really represent in the story. It is often helpful to do a little research about the author of the story, as his or her own life will probably influence what was written.
According to elementary teacher Angela Bunyi, there is so much more to classic Dr. Seuss stories than meets the eye. To really figure out what the deeper layers of meaning might be, it is important to know that Dr. Seuss was the son of German parents growing up in America during World War I. Bunyi points out that The Sneetches came about as a result of Seuss feeling different throughout his childhood, and that Yertle the Turtle is a metaphor for Adolph Hitler. These images make Dr. Seuss books useful for teaching symbolism to kids.