Teaching Theme: The Red Tree

15 Dec
click the image to read more about this book

click the image to read more about this book

My very first department chair regularly read favorite books to his classes. He wasn’t a snob, either. He reveled in good writing, regardless of genre or target audience.

He was the first person to tell me about Harry Potter. He said something like, “The kids in England are reading this. It’s wonderful, and I think it’s going to be big over here.” Yes, he was a prescient guy. He was also brave. He often read picture books to seniors in high school…and they loved it. One of his favorite children’s books is now one of mine: The Red Tree by Shaun Tan. I use it to teach theme.

I begin my introductory lesson on theme by asking students to formulate a working definition (SEE THIS HANDOUT). As a class, they always come up with a decent one. I might have to do a bit of prodding, but this stuff is usually “in there.”

After collecting definitions, we refine our conception of theme. Depending on what was compiled in class (I usually use a common Google Doc to have students shape collective definitions), I emphasize certain aspects. My key points are always:

  • Multiple themes exist in any piece of art. Art is nuanced, so any painting, story, photograph, play, sculpture, or song will have multiple lessons within.
  • The author really means it. I tell my students, “I don’t think authors intend every message English teachers squeeze out of the work, but I’ve been around enough writers and written enough on my own to understand that writers are very intentional, even neurotic…so critical readers honor the craftsmanship of artists.” Or, I might just say, “They mean most of this stuff. Trust me.”
  • A theme is never one word. There’s a difference between topics and themes. Family, love, and betrayal are all topics. The specific comment the author wants to make about families is the theme.

No surprise. The students breeze through the definition process but STRUGGLE to write coherent, original theme statements that go beyond the obvious and avoid simple summary. In other words, they can define concepts but need help applying them. No matter… I keep my job because they need such help.

reading to sophomore students

reading to sophomore students


After the students create a working definition of theme, I READ The Red Tree. I don’t just say the words. I strap on my professional reading hat and perform.

Regardless of their age, students sit on the floor, gathered around me like preschoolers. While I read, I give them two tasks.

  • First: spot the red leaf on every page. That task is just for fun.
  • Second: think about the theme of this book.

Reading the book is always entertaining. With the right balance of cheesiness and playfulness, high school students have little trouble morphing into their preschool selves, and the book is complex enough to avoid any cliché interpretations.


When we have read the book, I introduce the following THREE STEP PROCESS TO UNLOCKING THE THEME TO ANYTHING (Note: This process is adapted from the Jane Shaffer writing program.) The students and I work through the steps, and they write their own theme statements on different books.

STEP ONE: This book is about…

I ask the students to complete this phrase, “The book is about….” I push them to create at least 30 words or phrases in two to five minutes. The mantra is, “Get it down. Don’t edit. Just write.”

After the initial list is complete, I review the difference between abstract and concrete words. In this process, concrete words will not lead to theme statements, so we cross these out.

Then, I ask the students to choose three words from their lists that bring about strong reactions. I say, “If I ask you to write an essay about this book (I won’t) or talk to a friend for fifteen minutes…which of these words sparks the most ideas in your head?” After selecting three words, I ask them to choose the best one.

STEP TWO: The author feels that …

In step two we take the best word from step one and plug it into the phrase, “The author feels that ______________…..” At this point I tell the students they will need to write at least three theme statements with that one topic, trying to write something new each time. Don’t write the same idea with different words.

Sometimes they complete this step before I show them my examples; other times I show these examples and then have them generate their own with a different “trigger” word.

This step requires plentiful and frequent feedback. I roam the room and check in with each student several times, pointing out errors and helping them push past their first thoughts to their best thoughts.


After students have written three to five theme statements, I ask them to choose the best one. I use my example theme statements for The Red Tree to model this selection process. (Note: #3 is NOT a theme.)

Next, we cut “The author feels that….” phrase. I tie in other class lessons on conciseness and remind the students such phrases are filler.

Finally, I encourage students to write their ideas as precisely and stylishly as they can. Using my example, I always ask the students, “Where am I adding style?” At least one student picks up on the verb choice of “grows and overshadows.” In the book, a red tree sprouts in the closing pages, and I am conjuring this image with my diction. I usually stand on my desk, pantomiming the growth of the tree, to really help the students see the imagery I’m trying to parallel.

Of course, this one lesson will not teach every student how to write a brilliant theme statement. It does, however, lay an excellent foundation, and through frequent practice (my students write theme statements at the end of every novel), they do master this skill by the end of the term.

Learn more about Shaun Tan’s haunting, beautiful work.

one of my favorite stories from Shaun Tan's TALES FROM OUTER SUBURBIA

one of my favorite stories from Shaun Tan’s TALES FROM OUTER SUBURBIA

2 Responses to “Teaching Theme: The Red Tree”


  1. The Red Tree | Science Book a Day - November 7, 2013

    […] Publishers Weekly Book Review Bart’s Bookshelf Book Review Mental Foodie Book Review Robin Neal Teaching the Red Tree […]

  2. Recap: 2013 | Robin Neal - January 2, 2014

    […] 2. Teaching Theme: The Red Tree […]

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