Symbols can be a shorthand authors use to say a lot in a short space of time. As in the case of the white and black hats, the symbol can be a concrete item, or it can be a color, a word, a number, even a gesture (the salute grew out of the knight raising his helmet to prove he was a friend).
It isn’t just adult literature that uses symbols. Even small children are capable of distinguishing between what a word is and what it conveys.
They love the lions in Disney’s THE LION KING, and from that, they buy into the cultural notion of the lion being “the king of the jungle.”
The objects and ideas that some authors have used have become so ingrained in the cultures where it is familiar that they slip into the category of symbol. Think “Peter Pan” as the symbol of eternal youth.
Cinderella’s godmother, and those of other princesses, can be seen as the mentor (or any one of several other interpretations, such as a mother substitute).
Here are three picture books that rely heavily on symbolism.
Dr. Seuss’s THE LORAX is an entire book representing the destruction of the environment.
In GRANDFATHER TWILIGHT, Barbara Berger uses a pearl to signifiy the moon.
In Jacqueline Woodson’s, THE OTHER SIDE, two girls sit on a fence which separates the black and white sides of town. The girls become friends, overcoming what the fence represents—racial segregation.
In my story, “The Case of the Missing Mascot,” Grizzly, the scruffy old stuffed bear has been the symbol of the school for several generations. He is thought by some students to bring good luck.
And I used the traditional “throwing down the gauntlet” (in this case a napkin thrown down in the lunchroom) as the challenge for my story, “Gum Fight at the Circle K Quick Stop.”
Including symbols in books and stories for small children adds another layer of interest to your stories; if not for the kids, then for the parents and teachers who read to the kids. You can do it concisely with a descriptive word, a character, or phrase. Sometimes a symbol grows organically out of the story.
Or you can develop the entire story around a symbolic concept. Have fun with your emblematic language.
In your comments, I would be interested in hearing how you have used symbols in your writing.