The Giving Tree

Shel SilversteinThis is pretty topical, given Mothers’ Day just passed, right? (On which note, happy belated Mothers’ Day!)

I read Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree for the first time recently upon recommendation, and I’m still (a couple of weeks later) extremely conflicted regarding how I feel about it. Going by the comments on Bibliocommons, it seems like this is one of those books that people feel very strongly about, whether they love it or hate it – I would say this is one of the signs of a good book – and I’m no exception. I love it, because it is such a powerful book, and the story and the illustrations complement each other incredibly well to create a multilayered reading of the story. However you read it, it is still incredibly sad. But reading this for the first time as an adult, I can’t help but view it as being problematic in some ways. Shortly after I read the book and waffled over what my verdict was (I really, genuinely, love it while at the same time finding it troubling, in part precisely because it’s such a childhood favourite), an article on LitHub came up in my feeds, the author of the article being someone who loved the book in her childhood and recently reread it, only to view it now with distaste. So I’m glad I’m not the only one (though perhaps I shouldn’t be glad, because if it was, it could have just been me).

I’m pretty convinced that many children who have been read this book or who claim it is their favourite book probably have some inkling, in their heart of hearts, that there is something insidious about it, and that, viewed from the perspective of unconditional parental (read: maternal) love, the story barrels downhill, exacerbating the damage it does to your heart. That being said, I might just be ascribing a cynicism to readers that does not actually exist – it’s a… I’m not sure “touching” is the right word, but I’ll settle for calling it a touching story, and that might just be that. Anyway, I’ll do my best to outline why under the cut.

(I know it’s a childhood favourite of many, and I don’t want to rock too many boats*, but either way, I am exhorting everyone to either read The Giving Tree for the first time or reread it once more. We’ve got it in book format, kit format, as another kit (not sure what the difference between the kits is, exactly), as an e-book, in Korean, and in Hebrew. So there’s no reason to not pick one up, or to put yourself in line!)

As a cautionary tale regarding unsustainable environmental practices, this doesn’t hedge at all. If we’re reading it in that light, then I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. The tree as Mother Nature and the boy as a representation for all humankind. We take and take and take, without thought for the fact that even nature does not have never-ending resources, and this is what is going to happen: we are left alone, Mother Nature is satisfied with herself for having given all she has to offer (or so we are told), and it is implied we will have nowhere to turn to in the future. (Granted, the boy is already an old man when we leave him, and perhaps the next time he needs help it’ll be beyond the grave, besides which I’m sure the tree would be more than willing to offer up the ground into which she is rooted, if the pattern continues beyond the storyline. But I digress.)

How I personally read it though, was as the expectation for unconditional maternal love manifested in physical form, almost as a manual. Once I thought about it a little bit, I realized my reflex criticism might have been a bit harsh, and that it could very well simply have been a product of its times (1964)**, and perhaps had nothing to do with the author’s ill intentions of propagating unrealistic expectations for mothers. Speaking of which: what was Silverstein’s message? According to the LitHub article, he had none in particular. Asked to defend The Giving Tree, he would repeat, “It’s just a relationship between two people; one gives and the other takes”. If that’s really, truly, all, then I’m tempted to say that it makes this even worse. Because the casual reader also “just” takes away from the story that the Tree is “happy” (is she though? just look at her and the despondent, hunched back of the boy and tell me whether it is the picture of happiness! perhaps they are though – who am I to judge?), and that the child/man is entitled to take what he wants, to carve his name into the tree and claim ownership of her, without ever thinking to give anything back.  Or is the unquestioning nature of the story something that is supposed to be questioned by the reader? There is too much to interpret into this story (and I say into because I feel like all interpretation is adding meaning rather than a simple “oh, I get it”) to enumerate here, so I’ll settle for this: has anyone else read The Giving Tree? What did you think?

I have yet to read Shel Silverstein’s other works, but I’m hoping they can help guide my reading of The Giving Tree!

And if you’re interested in reading more depressing (and not-so-depressing, some nonsensical; all sensitive) children’s books, I’ve compiled a list of some picture books that talk about death (as I’ve mentioned above) here: For Everyone: The Bell Tolls. I’ve written at length about one of them prior to this also, if you’d like a more in-depth review: Duck, Death, and the Tulip.


*Who am I kidding? I definitely want to rock some boats here. Not with rock-crashing waves, but the type of waves that carry you far, far away from where you thought you were without you even realizing.

**Not that I’m familiar with parenting from the 60s. And in which case, the (non-)issue would be more that it’s still such a favourite. But the thing is, it’s still a really good book. It’s well laid out, it’s well written, and I struggle a lot with it because I do love it, and I would recommend it (as I am doing currently), all the while throwing it under ten buses (as, again, I am currently doing).


About Karen

Karen (she/hers) is a Culinary Literacies Specialist at the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre library. When not in the kitchen, she can be found knitting, reading, and repeating.  |  Meet the team

2 thoughts on “The Giving Tree

  1. I have issues with this book too. I had an instructor once who was convinced the book ended with the words “But not really”. He couldn’t believe the tree was truly happy either…

    1. I honestly don’t think anyone might actually believe the tree is truly happy at the end, what with the hunched back of the boy turned old man as our only indicator of the tree’s emotional state. At the very least, I suppose this book opens up a forum for discussion due to the various interpretations one can draw from it?

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