How to lead a book discussion without really trying, part 1: The motif journal

Often the best way to do discuss books effectively is to not plan it all out ahead of time. Megan’s family started a motif journal and was surprised to discover how many times Calvin and Hobbes appear on the lists!

Red shoes

Several years ago I was reading my boys a variant of “Briar Rose” (popularized by Disney as “Sleeping Beauty” in the best animated feature film they ever created, in my humble opinion) in Old World Echoes and I noticed that the fairies wore red shoes.

“Isn’t that interesting?” I asked. “How many other stories can you think of that has a character wearing red shoes?” I grabbed a kraft dotted notebook and added it to my leather travel journal. Quickly we brainstormed:

cover image of the red heels
  • The Wizard of Oz (the movie; in the book Dorothy wore silver slippers, but red was more impressive on the newly developed color film)
  • The Red Heels by Robert D. San Souci, illustrated by Gary Kelley. (A beautiful, romantic story. I prefer to think of the young woman as an American fairy rather than a witch.)
  • The Red Shoes by Hans Christian Andersen. I like the version illustrated by Chihiro Iwasaki. (Like other Andersen stories it has a sad ending, but the color of the shoes signifies magical powers.)
  • Calvin wears red shoes in Calvin and Hobbes. (This was a later addition to the list, and you only notice in the Sunday comics. Are Calvin’s shoes also magical? Perhaps…)

After jotting down a few titles, I resumed reading. That was enough for me.

Talking animals

Another day I was reading Aesop’s Fables and our conversation turned to talking animals stories. We had plenty of ideas!

  • Aesop’s Fables
  • Chronicles of Narnia
  • The talking fish in “Briar Rose” (see above)
  • Richard Scarry books
  • Balaam’s donkey
  • Calvin and Hobbes series
  • Charlotte’s Web
  • The Wind in the Willows
  • Elephant and Piggie books
  • Gator Gumbo by Candace Fleming

See how much fun we were having?! The lists aren’t meant to be exhaustive, but when we think of something to add, a journal of literary relationships develops naturally.

cover image of calvin and hobbes

Short heroes

The next category is a fun one: Short heroes

  • Ranger’s Apprentice series (John Flanagan)
  • David vs. Goliath
  • The Queen’s Thief books (Megan Whalen Turner)
  • Reepicheep in Voyage of the Dawn Treader
  • Hobbits
  • The children who come to Narnia
  • The Tale of Despereaux
  • Feechies in The Wilderking trilogy
  • “Tom Thumb”
  • Calvin and Hobbes (Yes, they show up in just about every list. Our family considers them foundational to literary appreciation.)
  • Charlotte’s Web
  • Urchin in the Mistmantle series

These are simple lists in what has become our family motif journal. You could use index cards or any simple notebook you have available. I never plan to add to it, but now when we’re reading we notice recurring themes and it’s a rewarding game. Often the boys want to add books or stories I haven’t read, or on a whim they’ll mention a motif they’ve noticed in their own reading, and we may or may not remember to add another list to the book. Movies are full of motifs, too.

The Saben motif journal (thus far)

motif journal

If you would like to jump start your own collection, here are some ideas to get you started. (Can you guess how many of the following include Calvin and Hobbes?)

  • Red shoes/heels
  • Talking animals
  • Short heroes
  • Travel to another world
  • Animal helpers
  • School stories
  • Dislike of school
  • Betrayal by a friend
  • Dragons–evil
  • Dragons–friendly
  • Amateur detectives
  • Evil witch or wizard who tries to take over the world
  • Conscience
  • A stranger who comes to the house in mother’s absence
  • Rivalry with secret attraction between boys and girls
  • Helpers on a quest with special powers
  • Rabbit stories
  • Mouse stories
  • Losing one’s home
  • Evil corporations
  • Dehumanizing people
  • Owl fascination
  • Sick/dying/dead mother
  • Absent father
  • Absent parents
  • Childless family

Please share your ideas in the comments! Did you try brainstorming titles for one of the above motif categories? What new motifs can you suggest?

Coming soon… How to lead a book discussion without really trying, part 2: Book mapping with the teen book club

Stay Up to Date!

Get the information you need to make wise choices about books for your children and teens.

Our weekly newsletter includes our latest reviews, related links from around the web, a featured book list, book trivia, and more. We never sell your information. You may unsubscribe at any time.

Something went wrong. Please check your entries and try again.

Support our writers and help keep Redeemed Reader ad-free by joining the Redeemed Reader Fellowship.

Use code Redeemed15 for 15% off!

Stay Up to Date!

Get the information you need to make wise choices about books for your children and teens.

Our weekly newsletter includes our latest reviews, related links from around the web, a featured book list, book trivia, and more. We never sell your information. You may unsubscribe at any time.

Something went wrong. Please check your entries and try again.

Megan Saben

Megan is Associate Editor for Redeemed Reader, and she loves nothing more than discovering Truth and Story in literature. She is the author of Something Better Coming, and is quite particular about which pottery mug is best suited to her favorite hot drinks throughout the day. Megan lives with her husband and five boys in Virginia.

We'd love to hear from you!

Our comments are now limited to our members (both Silver and Golden Key). Members, you just need to log in with your normal log-in credentials!

Not a member yet? You can join the Silver Key ($2.99/month) for a free 2-week trial. Cancel at any time. Find out more about membership here.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.