Study Guide

Dicey's Song Themes

By Cynthia Voigt

  • Family

    If ever there was a book that proves that families come in all shapes and sizes, it’s Dicey’s Song. Just because Dicey and her siblings lost their parents doesn’t mean they can’t create a new family on their own. It may seem like a big cliché, but it’s true anyway: love is what really makes a family, no matter how messy things get.

    Questions About Family

    1. Do you think Dicey is afraid that if her younger siblings go up into the attic, where the memories of Gram’s past family are stored, Gram will kick them out? If so, how do you think it makes Dicey feel when Gram brings down the coats? 
    2. Is Dicey’s restoration of the boat a way of asserting her individuality from her siblings, or do you think she plans to take them with her if she sails away? What is it about Mr. Lingerle that allows him to become a part of the Tillerman family? 
    3. What are the characteristics a friend would have to have to make you accept them as honorary family?

    Chew on This

    Mr. Lingerle is the saddest character in the book, because he clearly lacks a family of his own.

    It's only after Gram officially adopts her that Dicey slowly starts reaching out and making friends. She needs to know she has a stable home with a trustworthy adult before she can start trusting others.

  • Coming of Age

    All four of the Tillerman kids are struggling with friends school, and identity, either because they’re smart (James), timid (Sammy), learning-disabled (Maybeth), or, like our heroine, grouchy about having to take home ec instead of mechanical drawing. If you’re older than thirteen, you’ll probably look back on that time and give thanks it's all over while reading Dicey’s Song. If you’re still in junior high, trust Shmoop: it won’t be this awful and awkward forever.

    Questions About Coming of Age

    1. Why is Dicey so surprised when she finds out Jeff likes her? Did you figure it out right away? And why do you think she doesn't want to go to that dance? Do you agree with her choice?
    2. Dicey mentions the permanent changes that make her feel "edgy and not like herself." What changes do you think she’s referring to besides the ones going on with her body? How can you tell?
    3. Dicey's not the only one growing up here. How do the other characters grow up throughout the novel? What about Mr. Lingerle and Gram?

    Chew on This

    Dicey doesn't want to grow up because she's afraid that in doing so, she'll be betraying the memory of her mother.

    Dicey's Song shows us that adults come of age, too. Just look at how far Gram and Mr. Lingerle come by the end of the novel.

  • Madness

    Dicey’s Song isn’t all boats and aprons and piano lessons; there’s a dying, mentally ill mother hovering in the background the whole time. Although we never find out the specific mental illness from which Dicey’s mom suffers, it seems to be something like catatonic depression. In other words, she’s so depressed she can’t move, and spends her days lying in bed staring at the wall. When she dies, it’s one of the saddest moments in YA lit, but luckily Dicey has Gram, her siblings, and a new life in a new state to keep her from falling apart.

    Questions About Madness

    1. Is there less stigma in having a mentally-ill family member today, or having a mental illness yourself, than there was back in Dicey’s day? What might the book have been like if everyone at school knew her mother's story?
    2. How much of Momma do you see in Maybeth? Do you think Maybeth has a mental illness, or just a learning disability?
    3. Why do the other people in Crisville think Gram is crazy? Does she seem crazy to you in any way?

    Chew on This

    The book connects Momma's mental illness with their poverty, which isn't quite fair. It's clear from the beginning that she's sick, which has nothing to do with how much money she's got in the bank.

    The real fear Dicey experiences in the novel is that she, or her siblings, will end up just like their mother.

  • Poverty

    Poverty wears on Dicey and her family like nothing else in the novel. Throughout Dicey's Song, our heroine implies that they lost their mother to poverty, and are in danger of losing each other to poverty, too. Nevertheless, with Gram's help, the family manages to trudge through the difficult times, and to accept help when it's offered by kind friends.

    Questions About Poverty

    1. Why does Gram go on a spending spree with Dicey, when she’s so worried about money all the time?
    2. Do you think Dicey actually wants anything in the mall, or is she so shut down to her own desires, due to the necessity of taking care of others, that she wouldn’t recognize materialism if it hit her in the face?
    3. Why does Gram accept piano lessons and money from Mr. Lingerle despite her distaste of charity? 
    4. Can we really chalk up Momma's breakdown to poverty and poverty alone? Or was there something else afoot?

    Chew on This

    Momma’s life might have had a much different outcome if she’d been wealthy.

    Pride is more dangerous than poverty, and that's a lesson Gram sorely needs to learn.

  • Home

    Home means a lot more to you when you’ve spent time without one. If you haven’t read Homecoming, the first book in the Tillerman Cycle, here’s what happens: Momma drives her old car to a mall in Connecticut, gets out, leaves the kids waiting, and never comes back. We won’t ruin it for you, but Gram’s not the first relative the Tillerman tykes try to move in with. So when Gram adopts them and gives them a home, it’s a huge deal for the kiddos. Going back to school, taking piano lessons, having a real Thanksgiving dinner, getting new clothes—these are things most kids in America take for granted, but for Dicey's Song just having a roof over their heads is a wonder.

    Questions About Home

    1. How are home and family connected for the Tillerman children? In what ways is a family a home in and of itself?
    2. Why do the Tillermans choose to include Mr. Lingerle in their first Thanksgiving dinner as a family, which, for the kids, is their first Thanksgiving dinner ever?
    3. What do Gram and Dicey do to make their home seem more like a home for the younger kids?
    4. How do the other characters in the novel, like Dicey's friends, or Mr. Lingerle, contribute to their sense of home?

    Chew on This

    Dicey doesn't want to go up to the attic because she's afraid that it will remind her of the home she has lost, and threaten the home she's building.

    Dicey has such a problem feeling at home because she knows that she'll be picking up and leaving it soon enough. After all, there are only five years left until college.

  • Women and Femininity

    Dicey is all about rebelling against traditional women’s roles, which is one of the many things that make her an awesome YA heroine. There’s a reason Dicey’s Song is still being read more than 30 years after publication: we can all relate to her, even the non-girly girls among us. No matter what pressures she experiences, she stays true to herself, refusing along the way to conform to what society tells her a girl should be.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. Would Dicey have put more effort into her apron if Miss Eversleigh had reminded her that boat sails have to be sewn, too? Why or why not?
    2. Gram visits Dicey’s school to find out what the other girls are wearing, and she sees that Dicey’s clothes are different. However, we never see Dicey getting teased for not dressing like the others. Why do you think they leave her alone, despite the fact that she looks so different?
    3. What do you imagine being a girl means to Dicey? How can you tell?
    4. What image of womanhood and femininity is Gram teaching Dicey?

    Chew on This

    Dicey doesn't seem to notice she's a girl, because it makes no difference to her. Yet.

    Dicey already knows motherhood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. After all, she’s had to take care of her three younger siblings, so the idea’s not as romantic to her.

  • Friendship

    Dicey's a hard girl to get to know, which makes it all the more impressive that, by the end of the novel, she's racked up a fair few friends in Mina, Jeff, and even Mr. Lingerle. Throughout Dicey's Song, while she tries to drop friendship like a bad habit, folks like Mina push right back, and break down the barriers Dicey has walled around herself. And thanks to friends like Mina, Dicey learns that friendship really is all it's cracked up to be. After all, who doesn't want to be a part of a Mutual Admiration Society every now and then?

    Questions About Friendship

    1. Dicey’s Song is full of characters who want friends but are, for one reason or another, afraid to have them. What do you think Dicey’s fears are? James’s? Mr. Lingerle’s?
    2. Why does Mina pursue Dicey’s friendship even after her popular African-American friends ask why she would want to be friends with a "honky"? What is it that Mina sees in Dicey?
    3. Why is it important to Dicey that other people know she doesn’t care about having friends? Do you really believe her when she says this?

    Chew on This

    Having friends is one more way for Dicey to become anchored to Crisfield and make it her home.

    Dicey pushes friends away because she's afraid of getting hurt.

  • Education

    It’s time for some real talk: there are some seriously whack educators at the Tillermans' school. Mr. Chappelle accuses the best writer in his class of plagiarism, James’s teacher doesn’t challenge him at all, and Maybeth’s teacher insists that Maybeth keep trying to read through memorization, even though it isn’t working. And don't even get us started on Miss Eversleigh. At least there’s Mr. Lingerle, who may just be saving Maybeth’s life by giving her piano lessons. In Dicey's Song, the true educators are the ones who let you realize your full potential, rather than try to fit you into a box.

    Questions About Education

    1. Which do you think is a better way of learning to read: whole language (recognizing entire words), like Maybeth’s teacher uses, or phonics (sounding out words), like James uses? Why do you think so? 
    2. Do you think Maybeth might be a savant, someone who is learning disabled in one area but a genius in another? 
    3. How does Dicey come to view intelligence—and, for that matter, Maybeth—differently through knowing Millie?
    4. Who's Dicey's best teacher? Who's the worst?

    Chew on This

    Dicey learns that in the end, the only teacher you can rely on is yourself.

    What makes Miss Eversleigh a bad teacher is not the fact that she teaches girls girly stuff, but the fact that she's so cruel while she's at it.