I haven’t taken a poll, but I’m pretty sure Shel Silverstein is still widely understood to be a straight-up genius; I don’t think his work is in any danger of being undeservedly neglected for the foreseeable future. But I think it is a thing in 2018 to hate on The Giving Tree a little bit—-because in 2018, we like to believe that in 1960something we didn’t know about boundaries and healthy relationships, but now we know. Perhaps because of the sort of pall of apocalypse around us, we’re ALL ABOUT living our best lives #onhere: we denizens of the internet love lifehacks, space efficiency, and healthy healthy relationship ~*~boundaries~*~.
The tree in The Giving Tree, as some have noticed, severely lacks the latter.
Why on earth, you might think, would I ever want to read my kid a book that equates generosity with literally dismembering yourself for someone who doesn’t care about you? Especially if my kid is a girl, because damn?
Well……..what if I told you that not every book is prescriptive?
What if you realize as an adult that a story you always thought was happy is actually sad, but instead of throwing it out, you just let it be a sad story now?
I don’t believe we were ever intended to sigh with happiness when the boy finally, after years of cruel neglect, gives the Giving Tree the time of day by plopping his wrinkly ass on her face.
Rather, The Giving Tree is about what it means to give, give, give to a boy who is an emotional Benjamin Button: the older he gets, the less wise he becomes, until it’s—-well, whether it’s too late or not is up for debate. The tree isn’t a role model here, but rather a simple creature whose strength is in her endurance: she was there before the boy was born and will remain there after the boy is gone.
Because loving the boy is often painful for the tree, but being the boy is painful for the boy. The boy hardens as he grows older for reasons we’re not told, but that hardness doesn’t bring him wealth or happiness. He’s ungrateful and demanding of the tree, but every time he returns to her, he’s angrier and sadder than the time before; his selfishness drains her but doesn’t feed or fill him.
The boy’s resignation at the end—-the humility of his desires now, and the softness with which he communicates them—-leaves room for readers to bring something to the story. The boy doesn’t actually apologize to the tree and he still seems maddeningly bewildered by how unpleasantly his life shook out. It’s possible he hasn’t learned the lessons we wish he would have. In the tree’s position, would we have offered him a seat?
The story doesn’t tell us whether we should. Instead, it simply shows us that the tree did. Unlike Rainbow Fish (ugh), in which the ending explicitly praises its title character’s dismemberment and humiliation as an ideal outcome, The Giving Tree simply tells us what happened and leaves us to our own thoughts.
I think this is what sets Silverstein apart as a children’s author: he tells stories with simple symbols and fun and often funny prose, but doesn’t use those stories to boss his audience around or influence its morality.
Books can be great teachers. But does every book need to be one? Is reading a story with your child in which the ending isn’t necessarily happy and characters persist in being flawed, even at the end, really the worst thing in the world?
Good on you, Adult in 2018, for recognizing that The Giving Tree is a sad story: that means that you’ve grown. But it doesn’t mean that The Giving Tree is a bad story.
What if you trusted your kid to figure that out, just like you did?