Disclaimer: I don’t usually go on rants. But I’m about to go on one now. You have been warned.
Though I’m not always successful, I try really hard not to be judgmental about what books people like. In most cases, even if I don’t like a book personally, I can understand the appeal it might have for someone else.
Not so with THE GIVING TREE.
I hate THE GIVING TREE. Except for the pretty green color of the cover, this book has zero redeeming qualities, and if provoked, I will tell this to everyone who comes within a ten-mile radius of me. (This once happened inside my favorite indie bookstore in Woodstock, NY, and I hereby publicly apologize to the proprietors for the fifteen-minute rant in their children’s section.) I’m not even going to touch on what happens if you take this book as a metaphor for martyrdom in romantic relationships or parenting. Because even if you just take the relationship between the tree and the boy at its most basic level–as a simple friendship–this story is A HORROR SHOW.
For those of you who haven’t read THE GIVING TREE since you were kids, here’s the story. When the boy is little, he plays in and around the tree all the time, and they’re very happy together. Then the boy gets older and asks the tree to give him some money, so the tree gives him her apples to sell at the market, and this makes her very happy. Then the boy grows up and wants a house, so the tree lets him cut off her branches to make one, and again, she is happy. Then the boy wants to sail far away, so the tree lets him chop down her trunk and make it into a boat. When the boy finally, finally returns to her, he’s an old man. The tree apologizes that she has nothing left to give him (and politely does not mention that this is because he has TAKEN IT ALL.) The old man says he’s tired and that all he wants is a place to rest, so the she lets him sit on her stump. AND THE TREE IS VERY HAPPY. (The full text is here if you’d like to see the madness for yourself.)
Guys, WHY do people think this story is sweet? Allow me to demonstrate the utter insanity by writing you a similar story in which both characters are people. We’ll call them B and T. To avoid getting caught up in a discussion of gender roles, we’ll say they’re both girls.
Once there was a writer named T
and she loved her friend B.
Every day, they would work in the coffee shop together.
They would read each other’s writing
and encourage each other
and eat cinnamon rolls
and drink coffee,
and they were very happy.
But time went by
and B got a book deal,
and because she was busy with deadlines,
T was often alone.
Then one day, B came to the coffee shop in a panic.
T said, “B! It’s so great to see you!
Sit down and tell me what you’ve been up to!”
“I don’t have time for that,” B said.
“I’m on deadline, and I can’t figure out how to fix this book.
I need you to help me.”
So T read the manuscript
and helped B fix her plot problems,
and when all the ends tied up nicely,
B went home to call her editor,
and T was happy.
B was out of touch for a long time,
and T was sad.
But one day B showed up on her doorstep,
and T was overjoyed to see her.
“Come in!” she said.
“Tell me about your book launch! What’s it like to be published?”
“Sales have been really bad,” B said.
“I don’t have any money, and I can’t pay my rent.
My landlord’s kicking me out.
Can I stay with you for a while?”
“Of course you can,” said T.
So B moved in for months and months
and filled up T’s living room with her boxes
and finished T’s ice cream without buying more
and hogged the shower
and fell asleep in front of the TV with the lights on every night,
but T was happy to have her friend back.
Then one day, B moved across the country.
She stayed away for a long time.
And when she finally called,
T was so happy she could hardly speak.
“How are you doing?” she breathed.
“Not so good,” B said.
“I’ve been really depressed,
and my editor is expecting another book next week,
and I haven’t even started it.
I really need you to come help me.
Oh, and I’ve been drinking so much that I’ve damaged my liver,
so I’m going to need half of yours.”
So T sold all her belongings
and canceled her lease,
and she polished up her work in progress–
the novel she’d been writing for years–
so she could give it to B
to publish under her own name.
And B sent off those gorgeous pages to her editor
and then she went out partying all night
while T checked into the hospital to have half her liver removed.
After a long time,
B finally showed up in T’s hospital room.
T was on a lot of pain medication,
so she was only half lucid,
but she could still see the sad look on B’s face.
“You look awful,” she said.
“God, I’m so hungover,” B replied.
“I could really use some coffee.”
“I’m so sorry I can’t make you some,” T said.
“Come here, lie down on my bed and get some rest.
You’ve had such a hard time. You deserve it.”
And she used her last bit of energy to scoot over in the narrow hospital bed
so B could lie down next to her,
and B did.
And T was happy.
Let’s just take a minute to reflect on how completely fucked up that is.
GUYS. WHY are we teaching our children that it’s okay to empty themselves out for their ungrateful friends and then APOLOGIZE for not being able to give more?? Which part of this message is helpful or acceptable? People spend years in therapy learning NOT to do this. It’s one thing to be generous, to help your friend fix her plot problems or lend her a few dollars. But it’s quite another story when you start sacrificing body parts.
Sarah Meadows says
I was always a fan of "The Giving Tree" growing up, but only because I was a little reading hipster and I preferred to stick to one "obscure" author at a time. (Yes, in my time, Shel Silverstein was already a bit obscure. I'm a young one.) Anyway, after "Where the Sidewalk Ends" and "Falling Up," I devoured "The Giving Tree" over and over. I always admired the tree…but now that I'm in college and living with a roommate, I agree with you. My roommate is nothing like the boy and I'm nothing like the tree (or vice versa) but this grown-up take on "The Giving Tree" is actually quite accurate. Sadly, children aren't really raised with realistic values. "Fibs" are bad, you should always give, and you should always put others first. Which is all true–to an extent. But sometimes little white lies are best (ask any married person or any best friend of an insecure girl), and you have to take care of yourself before you can even think about taking care of others. The tree should have stood up for herself and called Greenpeace.
If you can handle a teensy dose of inappropriate humor, watch this short video on "The Giving Tree." It's quite hilarious! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XYQavD9mSIc
carey farrell says
Tim Canny says
I've never read it so I always deferred to my wife's opinion which is exactly the same as yours.
How do you feel about Rainbow Fish?
jennie englund says
I'll never forget my first reading of The Giving Tree. I was 6 or 7, growing up in Northern California.
At first, I read the few words on each page, and thought, "Yes! This is a whole book I can read all the way through, all by myself!"
But on page ten or so, the sentences got longer. They turned into paragraphs.
I did read through, but it took me forever, on that little wooden stool in Seva Books.
Whatever about content; I thought format was one cruel trick.
So happy I found this post. I HATE the giving tree. My sister gave it to me with high hopes. I ended up making up my own dialogue while I read, the original words so diabolical.
This was fun to read, thank you
Its a book about unconditional love giveing of your all without wanting anything back . Not unlike a parent to a child , they would give you all they could for your happiness and not want anything back .
That being said I do hate this book too.
I like The Giving Tree. Wait! Stay with me here.
I like the unconditional love that the tree has for the boy, but it always made me sad, even as a kid, that the boy never did anything for the tree. I think that we should all strive to be like the tree and the book should be used as a tool to teach children how to give and share without the expectation that their generosity will always be reciprocated. But there should also be the understanding that the majority of the world is going to act and take like the boy, so do not give so much of yourself to someone else that at the end of the day there is nothing left of you.
The book can also be used to teach children, well anyone really, the importance of taking care of our planet. If we continue to take and give nothing back, there will be nothing left.
Either way, greedy people or killing the planet, it is an incredibly sad commentary on our society, but I like that The Giving Tree could be used as a tool to teach young children to be generous and to take care of the planet. Plus there's that sentimental element where I remember reading the book with my mom when I was little.
I was first introduced to this as a kid but ever since, I've never really viewed it as a "children's book". The theme is a considerably mature one presented in a format that appeals to children as well as adults. But, frankly, the lesson in this book is one we all learn eventually: some people in our lives will take and take without thinking about reciprocation. It's not sweet and sometimes the action is passively, even assertively, sociopathic but we need to realize what our boundaries are when this happens. It's so situational that I really don't think there is a guideline for how to react when an individual is realizing this behavior is going on in their lives, as each person we deal with is so different.
It is an incredibly sad story but illustrates an important lesson in a more palatable way. I don't remember ever viewing the tree's behavior as particularly "good"-it was giving so much that it couldn't properly meet it's own needs; what kind of lesson is that? What I've derived from this book is primarily to take care of those you love, yes, but to also take care of yourself at the same time. Walking that fine line can possibly be among most difficult journeys ever for some of us.
It is my daughters favorite book. She is 9 and we've talked about themes and metaphors and all that. She likens it to learning how to give of yourself, but not to your detriment. I do believe she learned quite a lesson in that. Then she pointed it out to me that I work too hard.
This is why tomorrow, she will be dressing up as the "tree" for her character dress up day at school.
This book was totally lost on you as youre reading it from the wrong perspective. It is my favorite book and Ive used to to teach my children, and any other child I can read to, to NEVER give too much of yourself. Along with that message comes, dont be like this little asshole kid, who continues to take and take and take and never give back. Shel is a genious. The reader has to take responsibility for hearing the message.
I agree with the last comment. It made me sad to read your posting because you are missing the point. This is one of the best books about unconditional love that has ever been written and I don't know how old you are or if you have kids but I think until you're a parent you don't see the whole message in this book
As a preschool teacher, I hate this book. I hated reading it to the kids and always wanted to finish the reading by saying "see kids, when you only care about yourself, you hurt everyone around you. Now please stop wiping you boogers on the rug, you are going to hurt it."
But seriously, I hate this book.
I can clear up the controversy very easily. The "Giving Tree" is a "Bottom." The author is anthropomorphizing an exploitable resource. It's perfectly moral to exploit a tree–it's a tree. It's immoral to exploit a loved one. Mixing the two means you now have a loved one on the same level as an exploitable resource. Teaching children these two very different paradigms should be interchangeable is drop an anvil on your head–potato with a mouth stupid. Then again, so are most parents.
OMG YOU GUIZE says
THE TREE IS JESUS.
The tree is Mother Nature. LOVE this book so much.
since when did a book have to follow the natural way of life?
can you not pick apart and find such fault with every book on this planet?! Nay! every idea on this planet!!
yeah, i mean this book can be looked as having a double meaning. I mean, it kind of shows a sad story parallel to how men always opress and expect their woman to be like servants to them, its a hidden message that I dont think he's advocating, but subtly mentioning (like The Lorax does, less subtly). But also, the Mother Nature thing. I like to think you look at this book FACE VALUE, its a boy giving as much as he can to Mother Nature? and why? because nature gives your pleasure and harmony if nothing else. trees don't pay your taxes, but we love to hike in them in the woods. idk, you're breathing into a message thats not there. if this were a story of two PEOPLE, then it'd be a cynical story about an opressed party, but its about a tree and a person, so relax.
exactly. though you may be able to construe that message it probably is not the intended message and you should look at it more figuratively.
Some of the responding comments hit the nail on the head. Thanks for courageously generating good discussion, your misinterpretation of the work notwithstanding. Shel Silverstein grew up in the era of the pervading consciousness of Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring", published in 1962; it was the birth of the environmental movement. "The Giving Tree", published in 1964, was his response- or offering- to this dialectical conversation; his "Sweet Home Alabama" to Neil Young's "Southern Man", if you will. Although Silverstein here is identifying with the movement- plugging IN, NOT turning on and tuning out. He sees the destruction of nature (the tree) at the hands of infantile, greedy, self-obsessed mankind (the boy) as clearly and obviously a bad thing, but as a brilliant artist didn't feel the need to spell things out for us (the reader). Like any performing artist (he was also a great singer/songwriter), he takes us to a place through story to arrive to and affect our hearts, tapping into the emotional root of our being, and by FEELING the pain and injustice of the imbalanced relationship, we UNDERSTAND the point of the story in a visceral way without having to intellectualize or over think it (as I'm doing here…LOL). The mature reader will naturally identify with the overwhelming bittersweetness of a mother who offers all unconditionally and without filters and a son who does nothing more than take and take and take. Is this not our relationship with the planet? Think about THAT next time you start up your petrol-burning automobile or take a sizable dump in a toilet full of fresh potable water…
Gemma Grace says
I love The Giving Tree. For many years – ten to be exact – the story thoroughly annoyed me. I only related to the tree as a martyr. I could not see beyond the deep sorrow I felt for the giver and I held a quiet contempt for the boy's behaviour. From time to time, I'd ponder the meaning – trusting there was more to the meaning than what I had grasped – for the person who had first read me the story lived in an aspect of Love that I aspired to. I knew that unconditional love is not a barter scratch-my-back negotiation. Yet, no matter how many times I read the book, a thorn-in-the-side niggle remained. Until, one morning, out of the blue, I awoke to a glimmer of the idea that there was perhaps another way of looking at the story. For a minute, forget about the boy. I began to understand that the tree, in the act of loving the boy, had become many things, experienced many depths of her own potential, had lived a life that far surpassed expectations of a 'tree'. All the while, she remained rooted in that which sustained her – Love.
Victor Ayala says
Another batch of folks missing the point entirely.
Karen Dugan says
Sad story for children, its true. Teachable moments? Absolutely! But I feel the author's intention was two fold. To teach what conscious unconditional love is all about AND that ALL life must come full circle. The life of the boy as well as the life of the tree. Even our beloved trees go back to where they began and will "fall" with age… eventually. Our lives do the same. But we live on through children and grandchildren just as our trees renew themselves through seeds and saplings.
Now. " thats" a lesson for for all of us to use this wonderful parable for.
If one sees only greed and dispair, then there's more to learn about greed and dispair for that person. If one sees love and giving, then love and giving is in your divine makeup to learn and teach with. Silverstein is a master … and may never realize what he channeled with this beautiful work.
Have a Heart says
As someone who grew up with this book on his bedside table, I think you are miss understanding the point. This book shows two different sides, unconditional love( the tree) and also how to behave properly and what not to do( the boy). The boy also shows some fundamental flaws in society, that too many people will take without giving anything in return. This book should be used as a tool to teach children to appreciate and be thankful for everything people do for them, and also to give on return. In regards to the author of this article, find a therapist, soon, like right now. I think you might have some unresolved childhood issues, and were not hugged enough as a child. You should also find whoever got that book deal instead of you and tell them how happy you are for then. And, come in as a "young adult" author you should look at it more from a child's perspective. Remember that your parents love you no matter what!