For students, a great deal of mystery hovers around the idea of “symbols” in a story. Here is a way to illuminate them. Start by having your students list the most fundamental pieces of a particular book. Let’s use the example of The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo. Some of the elemental pieces are: Soup. Spoon. Light. Dark. Dream. Hero. Rat. Ask the students to discuss what these mean to them, separate from the story.
Soup is food, maybe the most basic and nourishing of food. Soup makes us well when we are sick. Soup sustains and nourishes even the poorest people. Soup is fundamental to life. You eat soup with a spoon. A spoon is fundamental, too--the first utensil a baby learns to use to feed itself. A rat is a vile, loathed creature. A mouse—a tiny, timid creature.
Now ask your students how these fundamental pieces work in the book. In Despereaux for example, Chiaroscuro the rat wears an empty overturned soup spoon on his head. He isn’t nourished, but craves nourishment. As much as Despereaux wants to be more than he is, a mouse hero, so do Chiaroscuro, and Miggery Sow. Despereaux’s dream is heroic because he wants to save someone he loves. Miggery Sow and Chiaroscuro’s dreams are not heroic because they are selfish dreams.
When Princess Pea is imprisoned in the dungeon, she offers Chiaroscuro soup to save her own heart from being poisoned by hate—as Chiarscuro’s has been poisoned. She is offering him the fundamental nourishment of life. Something we all need. Without it, our dreams too easily become selfish. With soup, our dreams can be heroic.
In the beginning of the story, books were Despereaux’s fundamental nourishment—giving him his knightly dreams. Long may books fill this need for us all.