Sunday, August 01, 2010

The Giving Tree?

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein is a book I really used to enjoy when I was a kid.  It made me sad in a happy kind of way.  It was bittersweet.  The tree loved the boy and gave everything she had for him.  The end. Isn't the tree wonderful?  Don't you just love that tree?

During a recent trip to the library, my son added the book to the arm-load of books we checked out for summer reading.  I was not thrilled when he asked me to read it because as I've gotten older I have found the book more and more irritating.  For the longest time I really couldn't say why I felt this way.  The more I'd read it, the more I'd want to roll my eyes. Why, when so many people think it's a wonderful story?

The first time I noticed my feelings for this book were changing, I was 20-something in full "I am woman, hear me roar" mode.  I read this book and found the tree to be a doormat.  I thought, "What is it with this tree, anyway?  Clearly she doesn't learn.  This boy is a selfish little punk, but the idiot tree keeps giving him everything he wants.  Tree, I will never be like you.  I am not a pushover and I will not keep giving to a bottomless pit of a person, like this boy."

Years later, I realized that it might be a metaphor for motherhood: selflessly giving to one's child.  It's true that we mothers are always doing or giving or sacrificing something for our children.  We do it, not expecting anything in return, because we do it for love.  However, let me tell you, as a mother of 4 children under 8 years-old there have been days when I want to yell, "I give and I give and I give!  All you kids do is take and make me crazy.  Ungrateful little punks."  Not for nothing, but I doubt there is a woman alive who hasn't felt like that at some point in her life as a mother.  I understand the tree's sadness at the boy's unappreciative attitude.

Still, I haven't been able to warm up to this tree, even if I do understand and want to give my children their heart's desire and hope for their happiness.  Why?  Well, I'll tell you.  Happiness doesn't come from apples, houses, money, boats, getting away from it all or even places to rest in our old age.  The tree gives to the boy but never teaches or reminds him that happiness will never come by way of external means.  Happiness is a desire placed in the heart by God so that we will seek Him.  As a consequence, the tree has a selfish, ungrateful and restless boy who cannot see what he has been given and cannot appreciate the love he has been shown.  Perhaps, if the boy looked outside of himself and thought about others as much as he thought of himself, he would have learned that collecting worldly treasures is meaningless if you don't do what God expects of you.  What is it God expects?  He expects us to love Him with everything we've got and love our neighbor as ourselves.  Did the boy do that?  Did the tree teach him these truths?  I doesn't look that way.

Am I asking too much from a children's book?  Maybe.  I know some people will disagree with my assessment of this book or accuse me of having a "holier than thou" attitude.  Rest assured I know that I have a far distance to go to reach holiness.  But I do feel this book misses the mark- by a lot. This is why whenever I read it, I have to add my own epilogue.  "Kids, happiness is not found through taking or acquiring of things.  It is not found through others.  It is only found through God.  Give your heart to God and he will give you the happiness that satisfies your soul."


  1. I don't remember the book from my own childhood but I've always read it to my own children. I like how the simple drawings are yet discernible even to young eyes: my kids can make out the boy climbing the tree and swinging and eating apples, all without color. Compared with many children's books today that feature actually photographs, this book inspires the imagination.

    I also appreciate the resourcefulness of the tree. The boy's needs change as he grows older, yet she's able to apply what she has - and she doesn't have much! - to what he needs. That requires creativity and it's something I try to do for my own children's requests.

    There are some children's books I don't appreciate, like those by Margaret Wise Brown, but I still read them. My daughter loves Carry Me! by Rosemary Wells because she loves "Max & Ruby" on TV ... I've learned to like that one a little bit.

  2. The tree is resourceful, true. And the drawings are good. I enjoy a lot of Shel Silverstein's books and art. This one has always left me feeling unsettled, though. The boys self-centerdness bothers me. Maybe I am looking at it too hard. It is a childrens book, after all.

  3. If you'd like to read a nice book with good,simple art, read The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf. Cute story.

  4. Hi, I found you thru simplemama (Erika). This is a really interesting post. I haven't read the book for years (my oldest is 2.5, so I still "help" her quite a bit at the library) but another friend did a post similar to this several months back and it got me thinking about it. I think you're spot on. I'm pretty picky when it comes to what I'll read to my little girl, I think books really do send a message, and I know that my Gemma really identifies with them a lot in her day-to-day life, so it's something about which we as moms need to think and be aware for sure!!

    Anyways, good post.

  5. Monica,
    Thank you very much. You lifted my spirits considerably! I absolutely agree that books send a message to our children. I feel it's important to make sure they know our values when reading books(and with my girls, princess fairy tales, especially). I'd be interested to read your friends post on the topic as well.

  6. You are certainly welcome.

    Yeah, my Gemma still doesn't know what a princess is. Just not a huge fan of that whole genre. I'm sure the day will come soon enough, I suppose, but for now our favorites consist of things like Little Bear, Dr. Seuss, Eric Carle and the likes. And that's fine by me. We're reading and learning together and having fun!!

    And here's that post, I was able to dig back and find it on my friend's blog.


"Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person." ~Colossians 4:6 (NASB)