The “Giving” Tree or Something Else?

The message offered in the “kids” book, The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, is surprisingly debatable. Some people think it’s a beautiful story of love and self-sacrifice, the mother-child relationship. The most common summary of the symbolism I find in a quick search on the Internet is, “The Giving Tree is about a mother and son. The Giving Tree is about the relationship between a mother and son. The relationship between the boy and the tree is almost exactly like a mother and son, or child. The son takes from the mother, and she gives.”

Some people think it’s a grim story of selfishness and exploitation.

A student gave the book to me when I was a teaching assistant in grad school. At first, I loved the book. When I looked at it again — putting it on my shelves here in my house when I moved in — I thought, “What a sick and miserable story.” Sometime not long after I read an essay in the NYT that put it out there, The Giving Tree: Tender Story of Unconditional Love or Disturbing tale of Selfishness Quoted in an Op Ed about the book, “We need to Talk About The Giving Tree” one of the book’s editors, Phyllis Fogelman, expressed her opinion. “I have had qualms about my part in the publication of ‘The Giving Tree,’ which conveys a message with which I don’t agree,” she said in an interview. “I think it is basically a book about a sadomasochistic relationship.”

Yikes!

I now see the story as a parable about human’s relationship with this planet.

In The Giving Tree, the tree sacrifices itself so the boy can have what he wants. The tree gives the boy her apples to sell, her branches to build a house, and her trunk to make a boat. Pretty soon, she’s nothing but a stump, and IF she is NOT the kind of tree that reproduces through cloning (as do Aspen trees), well, that’s the end of it. SO…if the tree IS our planet — which does NOT reproduce through cloning or in any other way — (I’m not sure Shel Silverstein thought of that at all) it’s a very sad story. One of the most disgusting things I’ve seen in the litany of disgusting news is that we’ve left some of our trash on Mars.

A reader pointed me to Wikipedia’s entry on this book, and there I found this WONDERFUL (IMO) article: “That Insufferable The Giving Tree”

If you don’t know the book, it’s here in an animated version.

42 thoughts on “The “Giving” Tree or Something Else?

  1. I don’t know this story but it immediately made me think of “The Happy Prince” by Oscar Wilde. Not quite the same but the outcome for the prince and his little helper was the same. Nobody cared.

  2. ‘sadomasochistic relationship’ might be taking it a bit far (who am I to say), but Wikipedia is very interesting about this book and the author. It’s been years since my kids read this, but in light of all that is going on here in Florida, with math books being rejected for no one knows what (DeSantis and his minions will not provide examples of being ‘too woke’), this is not surprising.

    • DeSantis is a scary man. Thanks for pointing me to Wikipedia lots of interesting stuff there. I remember the first time I read the book, I got the normal idea of the story, but I felt sorry for the tree. As I got older I began to identify with the tree and I wanted the man to leave the tree alone. 😀 I like the idea of the tree teaching the boy to plant seeds to grow more trees. That really was one stupid tree. ❤

  3. I’m not sure that 60-some years ago Shel Silverstein was thinking about SM relationships. Or if he was, then arrogant enough to try and depict one in a children’s book. And I’m not sure that I believe Phyllis Fogelman truly believes what she said a couple of years ago and isn’t simply trying to protect her reputation now. Looking at the story with 2022 eyes, I like the idea of the story being a parable of our relationship with the planet. But I think in 1964 it was a simple story that told children of unconditional love and how beautiful and special that is/can be, and how dangerous it can be to react selfishly and to take that special commitment and devotion for granted. Or maybe it’s just a silly story about a stupid tree. Like the Fighting Trees in Oz who were too stupid to stop fighting against someone chopping at them with an ax!

    • I’m pretty sure Silverstein wasn’t writing about SM relationships. That’s (IMO) way off target. It’s intriguing to read about all the different ways it’s used in various school curricula, though. And, it’s definitely NOT a very smart tree. I like your interpretation very much. “Look what happens when you take love like that for granted?” But I don’t think the “boy” gets that.

  4. I always thought this book was a bit off…a bit odd. Creepy…the way the tree is destroyed. Your post has provided some clarity. From the tree’s point of view, all is not well At All. Fascinating. I read the link “The Insufferable…” which I really liked. Wow. Well done.
    I didn’t get this as a wedding gift, but my kids got at least one copy at some point. My son really liked it and deemed it a favorite.

    • the first time I read it, I thought it was sweet. Then, I almost gave it to the kids up the alley when they moved away then read it again and thought, “I wouldn’t give this to anyone.” I don’t know. I might have to do an exorcism when I get to cleaning out the shelf it’s on! 😀

  5. Silverstein was a satirist. I wonder if he was making satirical points about us humans. Given the widely diverse opinions on it in any case, I think parents should discuss its with their kids.

  6. I haven’t read the story but I guess it depends on how you view the world. From a negative or positive view. Still, I suppose it’s right up there with martyrdom

  7. I wonder what Silverstein himself says about the book. His web page just says, “The Giving Tree is a meaningful gift for milestone events such as graduations, birthdays, and baby showers.” And since he’s been dead for >20 years, who knows whether he agrees or thinks folks are nuts for giving it to each other on such occasions? Do you give it to people when they are dying, to say either “You spent your whole life taking and you’re dead anyway”, or “You gave until you were all used up. Did you mean to do that?”

    • I’ve been wondering off and on all day what he thought of that book. One reader of my blog said Silverstein was a satirist and who knows? Maybe it’s satire.

      I just checked his web page too since you mentioned it. This struck me, “This is a tender story, touched with sadness, aglow with consolation.” Yeah, unless you’re the tree. And this bugged me, “This moving parable for all ages offers a touching interpretation of the gift of giving and a serene acceptance of another’s capacity to love in return.” If the boy is loving the tree in return, and that’s love then I definitely DO know what love is. 😀

      • I think the page illustrated @ 1:43 of the animation gives a hint at what Silverstein thought. On that page, the boy says to the tree (illustrated in large letters) “I want some money.” It’s not a good look for that boy.

        • I just looked at the actual book in a different YouTube video. Maybe what is @ 1:43 is a better indication of what that reader thought. In the actual book, “I want some money” is just part of a full page of text. So as Emily Litella would say, “Never mind.”

          • Yes in the animation I posted, the reader definitely gets across the point that what the boy wants is trivial compared to what the tree has to offer. There is a huge philosophical point there — we live in the moment (climb up me and swing in my branches) vs. I’m too busy to swing in your branches. I want a wife and a family and stuff (some future dream).

  8. After reading all the various comments here…I’m surprised it isn’t on the banned book list. I listened to a discussion on CBC and I learned Canada has a “Freedom to Read Week” and the US has a “Banned Book Week”. Just think of all the wonderful discussion and critical thinking that gets lost when we ban books. Not that anyone here was saying The Giving Tree should be banned. I found it interesting to read everyone’s take on the book.

    • I personally don’t think any book should be banned. Clearly with The Giving Tree some people read one thing and others read something else. One one level, it fits right in with all the superficial, jingoistic, so-called “family values,” unconditional love, Hallmark Cards, self-sacrificing schlock approved by the book banners, though some of our American book banners might ban it because it was written by a Jewish author… Sigh… At 23 I read it completely differently than I do now. I was surprised when I read it at 62 and found it repellant. It’s fascinating. I wish it were possible to ask him what he meant to write. 🙂

      • I agree with you Martha….I haven’t read The Giving Tree in a while, so I will read it again in the next few days, when my head is clear from all the possible meanings. It would be interesting to see what Mr. Silverstein would say. Some of his poems are pretty far out there, but kids love them. They read the silliness. They aren’t always looking for the deeper darker meanings we old people see.

        • True. I wasn’t looking for the darker meanings in that book. It was a pretty depressing discovery. I guess every book will reflect the reader somehow. It was given to me by one of my first students — second class ever!!! — with whom I ended up very good friends for a long time. It was to thank me for taking the time to help her with her writing and not wanting her to be someone else. It was a gift when I got my MA. ❤ She would have been 7 when the book was published. I would have been 12 so past the time for that book to enter my life.

          • I’m sure when she gave it to you, it was based on the meaning of love and giving. Even if you never read the book again, you will have that lovely memory of a gift she gave you to thank you for the gift you gave her.

  9. I read the book way back and haven’t since. I suppose perspectives change, society shifts, and now people look at the story with different eyes. I don’t think we will ever be able to parse the true intentions of the author…

  10. I haven’t read this book, Martha. I read the comment that it is a book for everyone but it is a book that a parent would read to a child? If you were reading it to a very young child, perhaps it is appropriate to emphasise that bond between parent and child and doing everything possible to keep that child safe. If reading to a child who is seven or eight, who can be pretty darn selfish at that age, then this could be the start of a conversation about growing up and the appropriateness of selfishness and taking advantage of someone’s love. You could study this book in high school, etc, etc.
    That is a strange tradition to give as a wedding gift.

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