by Danielle Davis
The North Star has always been a beacon for travelers, all over the Northern Hemisphere. A barely drifting constant. A guide.
I believe theme functions as that same kind of beacon for every story—and storyteller.
I’m not a mariner by any stretch, and sea sickness prevents me from even wanting to be one, but here goes:
Imagine your story as a boat. The action is what happens on the boat—characters, drama, storm at sea. Theme is the why of what’s happening. Like the North Star, it gives purpose and direction; it serves as compass, companion, constant guide.
A one-sentence North Star statement can help direct your writing and revision as you shape and polish so that both the narrative’s end beat and each one along the way relate to that why. This beacon serves the plot, and, in the end, vitally serves the reader.
Because just like Polaris, not only does theme orient a story in the direction it’s meant to go, it’s there still twinkling after escorting the vessel to shore.
A North Star shines for everyone. That’s the beauty of it.
At a school visit, having a clear theme will help you present your book: why it matters, why you’re there, where you want to point children after leaving your time together. By sharing your story’s theme, kid readers will take that North Star with them. Your story can become a powerful guide for them too, a fixed and vital light as they chart their own waters.
Your story’s theme may be the reason you started writing it in the first place. It may be what keeps you creating when you’re faced with setbacks or lose steam. It’s why the story pulses for you, in you, a glow impossible to ignore and not to follow.
If I end up putting aside a manuscript for a time—or forever—it’s because I can’t land on its theme. Each story must have a North Star that matters to me, which I hope will matter to others. If I can’t look up and refer to it, I simply don’t know what I’m doing, where I’m going. Why I’m at this or why it may matter.
In my debut picture book To Make, art by Mags DeRoma, its North Star theme is right there in the text:
“Keep making. Keep waiting.”
Around the time I wrote To Make, I was lost at sea, without a map. Should I give up? Should I keep writing? How long will I have to wait for something to happen, to see shore?
That North Star was there as an answer, even when I did want to give up. Even when it took years and years for anything to happen. It’s why I wrote the manuscript, what shaped its making, what I needed to tell myself and to tell others.
It’s what I want children and any reader to know: You have something to share with the world. Keep at it.
So how do you find your story’s North Star?
- Think about where your story came from. How do the origin and impetus relate to the truth that glimmers within it? Why did you write it? Why does it matter to you?
- How could your story have come only from you and only be told by your unique voice? What’s embedded in it from your singular identity and experience?
- What is it you’d like your story to communicate to kids? What is a meaningful belief, image, or truth that’s escorted you on your journey that you want to pass along?
- If your story’s plot and action are a boat, what idea directs and guides it where it’s going?
I invite you to craft your theme into a North Star statement. Put it in your notebook or tack it on a wall. Let it steer the story as you shape and revise its action. Hang onto it when you lose your way. And when your boat reaches its destination, its light will still be there for you and for others: compass, companion, constant guide.
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Danielle Davis is the author of the picture book, To Make, illustrated by Mags DeRoma, and the middle grade novel, Zinnia and the Bees. She grew up in Singapore and Hong Kong and now reads, writes, and roller skates in Los Angeles. Connect with her about PB critiques, writing workshops, and more at DanielleDavisReadsandWrites.com.
Author photo provided by author; cover and artwork by: Mags DeRoma