A Discussion of Shel Silverstein's THE GIVING TREE

I feel certain that most of you reading this right now own a copy of Shel Silverstein's 1964 book, The Giving Tree. If you don't own it, I know you have read it or had it read to you at some point in your existence. I still  have the copy that was given to me by my brother on my 11th birthday in 1979 and I have memories of reading it as a kid and watching the animated version made in 1973 (narrated by Shel himself) and loving it very much. As a kid reading it, I knew there was something different about this book, that it stood out among the other picture books of the time. Recently while talking about this book with a customer, I had a very interesting experience that allowed me to express my adult feelings about The Giving Tree and contemplate how they have changed since I read it as a child. As Ruth Margalit wrote in her piece for the New Yorker that marked the 50th anniversary of the publication, "The Giving Tree at Fifty: Sadder than I Remembered," discovering that her childhood favorite "wasn't at all what I remembered carried with it a peculiar thrill, a kind of scientific proof that I'd grown up and changed."

This got me thinking. Many, many copies of this book are sold every year.  Many, many adults have fond memories of it. But do the people who love it so deeply ever read again it as adults? And if so, what do they make of it? In an interview (which Silverstein rarely gave) with Publisher's Weekly in 1975 when asked to explain the popularity of  The Giving Tree, Shel said, "Maybe it's that it presents just one idea." But what idea? Readers of mine, I want to know what place this book has in your lives? Do you own it? Do you read it to your kids? What do they think of it? What do you think of it? PLEASE COMMENT!

Here is my story of the story:

I do not read The Giving Tree to my kids. In fact, I think I have actually come to loathe this book. These feelings came to the surface the other day when I was helping a customer who was new to the book and did not know the name of it, only the plot, find it on the shelf. This tiny, older Asian woman was so enamored of the book that her grandson had read to her that she could not stop gushing about it. I shared with her that I had my copy from when I was a child. She asked me if I loved the book too. I paused then decided to tell the truth (since she asked.) I told her I hated the book. I hated how selfless the tree was and how selfish the boy was and how sad it was that they both ended the story old, broken and with nothing left except themselves. I was a bit surprised by my reaction, but I think I know where it was coming from. As a mother, on a bad day I sometimes feel like these life-sucking little beasts are draining me of my own self and turning me into nothing more than a function, much like the boy and the Tree (who is identified as a SHE) in the story. I think I have been over identifying with the Tree and been feeling a little too angry at the selfish boy. While discussing this book with the customer, it occurred to me that it is possible to read this book from a Buddhist perspective. One Buddhist concept, simply put in American terms, is the idea that you always have more to give, even when you feel like you have nothing left. You are always the least important person in the room. Perhaps the Tree is exemplifying this quality? Perhaps she is selfless in the best way possible and not the doormat that she seems to be? As the customer pointed out to me, readers of the book can look at the behavior of the boy and make a conscious decision not to be like him - another positive reading of the text. Knowing that my interpretation of the book changed as a grew from a child to a mother, I became interested in other people's interpretations of the book.

I read it to my kids.  My seventeen year old, on the verge of starting her own adult life away from home, broke down in tears after reading the book. My six year old said (when asked) that it was sad and when was his macaroni and cheese going to be ready? My thirteen year old son believes that it is a message about how we keep taking and taking from nature, depleting her resources. My husband, who had it read to him as a child, feels that it represents the bittersweet nature of love and the way that the people we love are sometimes unable to love us back or love us in the way that we want to be loved. A friend of mine said she felt it should be called The Taking Boy instead of The Giving Tree. Whatever you take away from the book, however you feel about it, clearly Silverstein wrote a timeless, powerful book that stays with readers as they grow and become adults.

I look forward to hearing how you interpret The Giving Tree, what you take away from it. and if you read it to your children.

Out of interest, I did a little poking around and found that The Giving Tree is pretty well entrenched in our cultural consciousness some three generations after publication.  Below are some of the ways that the images and ideas from this book are popping up...

As an Apple person, this is my favorite.

Naturally, there are many tattoos of images from the book.

Shirts and Clocks, of course.

The wedding ring has to be the most fascinating to me...  I want to say that it misses the point.  But does it?


Obviously, some people are upset by the book.

And, last but certainly not least, as a 30 Rock fan, there was no way I could leave out this picture of Tracy Morgan reading the book and sobbing.

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