books · discussions · shanti

A Guide to YA Symbols and Themes

Hi Virtual Readers! (how do you feel about this collective noun?) One of my favourite thing to notice about a book is themes and symbols that come up. Sometimes though, I’ll comment on someone else’s review and be like “I liked XYZ theme” and they’ll be like “Oh I never really noticed that”. This post doesn’t exist to make fun of those people. However: I’m going to talk about some themes I often see in YA so I can enlighten you all. *beams* *sprinkles pinch of salt.*  

symbols and themes

-Symbols-

How to spot them: symbols are *English teacher voice* a thing in a novel that represents something more than what it is. If something is repeatedly brought up, perhaps in connection to a change or event or specific person, it may be a symbol. If you write about symbols in your review you’ll sound *that* much more knowledgeable and literary, so make up whatever if you can’t see any obvious symbol.  There are no right answers.

Blood: This symbol pops up ALL THE FREAKING TIME. (so you better get used to it). When it’s actual blood spilled it usually symbolises violence or a transition (to murderer, to power, something like that). When it’s blood as in ‘I am their blood relation’ it usually symbolises the bonds of family. Example: Tris feels that her blood bond with Caleb is important, Katniss is weirded out by how the blood on Presidents Snow’s breath represents the people he’s killed.

Swords: This pops up really often in fantasy. Swords tend to symbolise power, independence, and history. The wielder of a sword, especially a famous *magical* sword is usually a Chosen One, set to change the history of nations. Example: Garion(from the Belgarath) bears a magic powerful sword, as do Sabriel and Lirael.

Cars: This symbol is more common in contemporary and urban fantasy. Cars are like the boring version of swords: they also symbolise power, independence, perhaps a transition to being a high consuming, high-polluting adult. Cars can also symbolise journeys. You have to work harder to kill someone with a car compared to a sword. Example: the role of cars in the Raven Cycle.

Injuries: When a character has an injury or is somehow differently abled, it can symbolise them feeling powerless, or represent their role in society. (or it can just be representation. Yay representation!) Bringing up the injury or behaviour or whatever provides an instant, implicit reference to the event that caused the injury, which may be pivotal. Example: Kaz’s gloves and cane in Six of Crows are both symbols of his past.

Clothes: The clothes a character wears often represent something important about them, especially if the author sees fit to mention it. It may represent how they feel, how they want to be seen, how others see them… whatever. Changing clothes represent a change in the character. Examples: Celaena’s different outfits for being assassin and palace dweller, Katniss wearing different things on TV and at home, America’s outfits in the Selctions.

-Themes-

How to spot them: Themes are ideas that come up again and again in a text, whether explicitly or implicitly stated. It often relates to what’s happening in the story, e.g., if a family is a major part of a story and people talk about their families a lot, a theme might be family. Basically a theme is what the book is about that isn’t the plot or characters.

Family: This is a theme in a lot of contemporary YA and also fantasy (because court intrigue) and also sci-fi (just to spice things up). Okay, family is a common theme in YA because families are important to young people.  Family books tend to feature siblings and parents as major secondary characters. Examples: The Art of Not Breathing, Second Chance Summer, A Brief History of Montmaray, Magonia.

Violence: This theme is probably most common in sci-fi and fantasy books, though it can occur in the contemporary realm with more domestic violence. This theme often shows up when characters have participated in acts of violence, particularly murder, and are dealing with those repercussions. When done well, this theme can have awesome moral questions as a background. (I really like it when it’s done well). Examples: Daughter of Smoke and Bone, This Shattered World, Salt to the Sea.

The Price of Love: This is a really common YA theme. It features basically when a protagonist must choose between love, usually romantic love, and success, or affirmation, or peace between the kingdoms or something like that. This theme is just as common when replaced with the phrases ‘peace of mind’, ‘safety’, ‘truth’ etc. If the protagonist must choose, it’s probably this theme. Examples: Carry On, Half Bad, The Winners Curse, Shiver.

Forgiveness: This theme is also really interesting. If a crime has been committed, it’s probably this theme. Often the protagonist has to forgive themselves, but sometimes they have to forgive others, to build relationships and move on. It’s definitely common throughout the YA genre, no specific is more common imo. Examples: Divergent, The Magicians Guild, Heir of Fire, Saint Anything.

Sacrifice: This theme occurs when a character must put themselves, usually their lives, at risk for the greater good. The risk isn’t always physical; it can be the cost of telling the truth. It’s a good choice for everyone, but a hard choice for them. Have you ever seen that extremely sad film Most? If something like that is happening then sacrifice is probably a theme. Examples: The Amber Spyglass, The Night Circus, Under a Painted Sky, The Forbidden Wish, The Goblet of Fire.

~disclaimer: these are generalisations. I hope you found this interesting, even informative, but the best things about themes and symbols is that you can figure it out for yourself. ~

So did I catch some common symbols and themes? Do you have any to add? And tell me about an awesome book you read recently—I’m always up for recommendations, though my TBR won’t thank you.

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11 thoughts on “A Guide to YA Symbols and Themes

  1. Symbolism and themes are so much fun… I think they all intertwine, though, so that symbols help create themes. Like… Hm… One book where cars are a symbol is ARISTOLE AND DANTE DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE. It is a great book, and Ari has a red pick-up truck that is a big deal to him because it symbolizes freedom. At another part in the story, though, the arrival of a different car represents suffering, sacrifice, and a removal of freedom, willing though it may be. And, from that point, the cars eventually come to symbolize acts of love. These pieces of symbolism end up forming a car motif (every time a car appears, it has to do with the theme, basically) which leads to themes of relationship, independence, and change. You really have to look for these things in books so that you can see the big picture of what the author is making for his readers! 🙂

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    1. Oh for sure. Symbols and themes have a kind of symbiotic relationship in stories. Oh yeah, it’s been a while since I read Ari and Dante, but that’s totally true! I love your analysis. Yeah, I love looking for these things in books that the author makes for his or her readers.

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  2. I suck at noticing symbols, but I do KIND of better with the themes?!? And if someone TELLS me about the symbol then I notice it and watch out for it. 😂 But omg sometimes these things just go way over my head unless they’re emblazoned on a 9ft poster and glued to my FACE. ahem. I do like subtle reoccurring themes though. Like the identity theme in The Raven Cycle. How they were really all trying to discover who they were and what they wanted in life. ❤

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    1. I do try to notice them– they add such richness to the book, and I know that I think about it when I write also. Sometimes they’re super obvious, but it’s okay if you don’t see it. (your description is perfect!) Yes, I’ve just started listening to The Raven King and it’s perfect in every way. That identity theme though. Also I identify a lot with Henry Cheng.

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  3. This is a great analysis, especially the one on the presence of injuries in novels. I think they definitely carry to all works of fiction and not just YA alone.
    Philip Pullman’s series is def one I need to get into reading – the theme of sacrifice always resonate strongly with me.

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    1. Thanks Aentee. I was going for the common themes, even though there are way more. I read less adult, but good YA, like good books, should appeal universally. I read those books a long time ago, but I still remember how good they are. Go for it!

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  4. I love this 🙂 I love contemporaries dealing with family, and I’m currently reading Second Chance Summer, I feel like it’s going to be an emotional read, ahah. Oh, and sacrifice definitely is a common theme, especially in fantasy books I think. I loved the Amber Spyglass, but the ending just broke my heart, even if, well, it was needed! 🙂

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    1. Second Chance Summer is really emotional. Sacrifice happens all the time in fantasy– it’s such an interesting theme. I knoooww! I want to reread those books and relive the feels.

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