Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree is a polarizing book.
To some people, it’s “heartbreaking, moving and truly inspiring,” while others have called it a “horrible book” and “total misguidance wrapped in Marshmallow” (yes, that’s a quote).*
This classic children’s book features a sweet little boy who turns into a selfish adult. He exploits the love of a generous tree, who sacrifices her fruit, branches, and, ultimately, her trunk to satisfy the short-sighted desires of her friend. By the end, she is reduced to a lonely stump.
My daughters have three copies of this book: one in English, one in Spanish, and one in Latin.**
They love it, and have asked to read it several times (in all three languages), even though the story saddens them.
As one of my six-year-old twins said, after we had finished reading one of the versions yesterday, “The boy took so much and never even said ‘thank you.’ He might say ‘thank you’ to people, but not to trees. That poor tree!” This comes from a little girl who, as I’ve mentioned on this blog before, laments the bare branches of the magnolia in our front yard, even though it will bloom again this spring.
However, the generous tree at the heart of Silverstein’s book will never bloom again. What transpires between the man and the tree is a cautionary tale that does not glorify selfishness. The tree gains happiness from her generosity, but, when the boy has taken too much without reciprocity, she isn’t really happy. This story shows selfishness as a heartbreaking, destructive force that exploits the good will of others.
This book teaches young children a harsh truth about human nature in an age-appropriate, gentle way. Human beings are selfish creatures who have exploited the planet in unconscionable ways. The sooner children learn this truth — and see it for what it is — the better off we will all be.
Not everyone sees it this way, though.
As the recent one-star “misguided Marshmallow” review on Amazon.com said:
This book is a total misguidance wrapped in Marshmallow. This is not a story about giving. It is a story about abuse, one sided relationship and lack of gratitude. People believe it is about unconditional love, but it is NOT. Unconditional love is a state of mind, not being someone’s doormat and feeling gratitude for him allowing you to be his doormat. You can love someone, yet firmly say “NO”.
I did read the giving tree to my children when they were young, but only as a basis to raising a debate and discussion on the basic need for self esteem and self worth and how at no price ever, should any one of them allow themselves to become someone’s doormat! (emphasis added)
Is the giving tree a “doormat,” as the critic quoted above claims?
It is true that the tree sacrifices itself to keep an undeserving person she loves happy. Sometimes, I find myself wishing the tree would say “No” to each of the man’s increasingly exploitative demands. Or, wishing that, after the man has reduced the tree to a stump, the tree is clearly dead when the man returns. The first alternative would teach us about the importance of standing up for ourselves, while the second would teach us about the consequences of destructive behavior.
However, I know that the lessons we would gain from these alternate endings would come at the loss of others in the book: that even grown-ups make mistakes, that love is unconditional, and that generosity is a powerful tool for happiness. The tree teaches us that even when we believe we have nothing left to give, there is always companionship and love, which are the most important gifts.
Like the author of the one-star “misguided Marshmallow” review, I use this book as an educational tool. It has been the basis of many interesting conversations with my daughters. Unlike that reviewer, though, I believe that the fact that this book raises issues for debate and discussion makes it a five-star book that deserves a place in my children’s library and in their hearts.
*These are quotes from Amazon.com reviews.
**Their Aunty Na (who is a Latin teacher) gave my twins The Giving Tree and El Árbol Generoso for their birthday, and Arbor Alma for Christmas. When reading the Latin translation, I’m doing my best to use the classical pronunciation, but certain diphthongs really get me. I didn’t take Latin in school, but it’s never too late to learn it!