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.