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Lit Crit: The Giving Tree

Lit Crit: The Giving Tree

The plethora of children’s literature is nothing short of overwhelming. There is no shortage of fantastic books, both classic and contemporary, that remain beloved dog-eared favorites among those awarded with Newberry and Caldecott Medals. And I admit, there are specific books that I have passed along to my child (albeit in the form of crisp new editions) that hold a deep romantic nostalgia for me.

One of these books, The Giving Tree, comes from an author for whom I have great respect and regard, Shel Silverstein. I read this 1964 classic over and over to my son, and then, slowly, the message started to sink in after the fifth or sixth reading. A message that, while not entirely reprehensible, seemed significantly misguided and disturbing in light of our current dysfunctional relationship with Mother Nature.

Let me back up a bit, I love this book, for reasons that may be wholly sentimental, but I love it nonetheless, which makes my critical read of it all the more problematic and troubling. This got me thinking about some of the sacrosanct works of children’s literature, and how I wanted to take a fair, but critical, approach to some of the more notable titles. So, like a bottle of bubbly smashing ceremoniously against a sacred cow of children’s literature, I christen this as the first of a periodic series of inquiries into the moral message, and profundity of specific children’s books.

The first cow led to slaughter being Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. Unlike much of Silverstein’s other works (Light in the Attic, Where the Sidewalk Ends, etc.) The Giving Tree is uncharacteristically somber without much evidence of humor or subversion, qualities celebrated in Silverstein’s other work.

The story follows an epic relationship between a tree and a boy, a relationship that is noted by a deep sense of love and generosity stemming (forgive the pun) from the tree. It is a tender and sorrowful tale that raises complex questions and disconcerting truths about our self-serving relationship with nature. In summary, the book tracks the boys ever increasing demands of the tree to provide material wealth, escapism, and opportunity to the detriment of the tree.

At the end, the boy is an old man, unable to make significant demands on the tree, and the tree is left a lifeless stump, happy for a gesture of attention. So touchingly sad, but also considerably perturbing.

This book has been interpreted in many ways. Some see it as a Christian parable, celebrating selfless generosity. Gender theorists have noted that the tree is a stand in for a feminine figure that is literally stripped and used by an ungrateful male figure. And then there is the environmental interpretation, which reveals humankind’s selfish and unsustainable interaction and ultimate exploitation of the natural world. Whatever your interpretation, the prospect of reading this story to your children may require a bit more rigor than just turning pages and reading words off the page.

This is not to say that this book should be omitted from your personal library, avoided, or banned. I still contend that this book is of great value, if not essential, but its message (or many messages) beg to be discussed with children in depth. Here are some suggestions.

Ask the child about how they think the tree feels, if they think the ending is a happy one, and what he or she might have done if he or she were either the boy or the tree. This gesture may not change the world or alter the reckless course of humanity, but it might be a literary baby step towards a more thoughtful, enlightened discussion about empathy, selfishness, and the greater good.

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

Read more: Blogs, Babies, Behavior & Communication, Children, Parenting at the Crossroads, , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

9 comments

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1:20PM PST on Jan 31, 2012

I always thought the point of the story is how the one-sided relationship didn't really make the tree happy, thereby teaching children how not to live, whether it be in human relationships or in relation to the Earth. I think the bittersweet feeling we get at the end of the book is proof of this. I suppose it may be a bit much to expect a small child to understand this or catch the subtitles but I still think it is a wonderful book.

9:43AM PDT on Jun 14, 2009

thanksss...
Kabin

Konteyner

7:27AM PST on Jan 15, 2009

I liked your critique of this book! I was at a talk given by Jane Yolen one time, and she had remarked that she disliked this book, but I don't think she had time to explain why. I imagine her reasons might be similar to yours.

11:02PM PST on Nov 18, 2008

I'm ok with cutting some trees down for wood and all, but if you're going to anthropomorphise the tree, well, it's like that parody ad of a chicken farm with a cartoon chicken as a mascot, then we see the cartoon chicken get beheaded and plucked, etc., all while singing and clucking and funky-chickening away.
But this book is supposed to be heartwarming, and the tree is a person, and yay, our hero gets to sit on "her" corpse, so even though she's dead, she's still giving, and that's what she existed for, so yipee. Ewwww.
Christopher, I would agree with you if the ending seemed other than "it's all ok because she's still useful!". Charlotte's Web is a great example of good mind-soiling. Also Cat in the Hat.
This is not that.

3:14PM PST on Nov 18, 2008

While I understand the concern shared by Catherine, I see this book's value in it's fable quality. That it is "negative" message does not render it's value to children null. Rather it points out that things as they are need not be what they ought to be. The message of Silverstein's fable functions on every level of relevance, gender ecological, economic (Eric you left out the Marxist and class-conscious critiques!) and it's critical that children be exposed to that notion. There's a real danger in the owning-class American theory of parenting, a disturbing avoidance of "soiling beautiful minds" that allows middling and upper class children to remain woefully ignorant of the suffering children of lower classes have no choice but to experience. The Giving Tree is a slap in the face of that desire to avoid soiling children's minds because it demands critique and an examination of motivation. That's what good literature does, challenges our presumptions. I would argue that along with modeling what should be, children's literature MUST include fables that tell us to sit with something uncomfortable and work it all out as well.

6:22AM PDT on Oct 2, 2008

I always felt as though this book helped to teach me to not take nature for granted.

Also, in the end of the book I do feel like the boy, albeit an old man at the time, is grateful for what the tree gave him. The ending is sad but it's about the cycle of life. Nothing could stop me from continuing to share this book with the younger generations of my family.

3:43PM PDT on Sep 25, 2008

Well put Catherine, I totally agree.

4:41PM PDT on Sep 24, 2008

I have been displeased by the popularity of this book for quite awhile. I think that it would be far better to read a book to children about learning to receive and give back, than to just keep taking. Since the tree is indeed referred to as 'she', I do not think this is a healthy book for girls or boys, since it presents 'her' giving until self destruction as 'tender'? Tender is your word. From a book, whether it be about a tree, nature in general, men and women in relationship or society as a whole, I'd rather children hear about, learn about and be in relationships that present mutual caring, receiving and giving back as tender, healthy and alive.

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