straightening herself up
as much as she could,
“well, an old stump is good
for sitting and resting.
Come, Boy, sit down.
Sit down and rest.”
And the boy did.
And the tree was happy.
from The Giving Tree
written and illustrated by Shel Silverstein
It was right after I posted last week’s blog that I discovered the United States Postal Service is issuing a stamp honoring Shel Silverstein and his book The Giving Tree. Imagine my surprise. I had just quoted from that book.
Many picture books, old and new, are thought-provoking, silly, informative, or, best of all, some combination of all three. Here’s a list of some my favorites in the order they jumped into my brain. Maybe some of your favorites are on this list, too.
- The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd
- “The Sneetches” written and illustrated by Dr. Seuss
- Harold and the Purple Crayon written and illustrated by Crockett Johnson
- My Blue is Happy written and illustrated by Jessica Young
- Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen
- After the Fall written and illustrated by Dan Santat
- Muncha! Muncha! Muncha! by Candace Fleming, illustrated by G. Brian Karas
- Honeybee by Candace Fleming, illustrated by Eric Rohmann
- Bloom Boom! written and photographed by April Pulley Sayre
On the face of it, the story is about a tree who loves a boy. First he climbs up and takes her leaves and eats her apples. Then he plays in her branches. When he’s older, he asks her for money. She offers her apples for him to sell. When he asks her for a house, she offers her branches to build with, and when he wants a boat, she offers her trunk. “And so the boy cut down her trunk and made a boat and sailed away. And the tree was happy … but not really.”
When the boy came back for the last time, the tree was nothing but a stump. The boy sat down and rested.
I could mention Silverstein’s diction, reminiscent of Biblical passages. I could mention the apple in the Garden of Eden, which was probably a fig. Some people say two trees lived in the Garden, the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The fig tree was probably the second (if the two trees were different). I could mention the Golden Apple of Greek mythology. Or the poisoned apple in the fairy tales the Grimm brothers collected. But Shel Silverstein was not telling any of those stories. He never said what his story meant, but in a rare 1978 article for the New York Times, he he said “happy endings create an alienation” in a young reader. They will wonder why their own life isn’t happy like that.
The ending of The Giving Tree is anything but happy. A boy gets older, but never grows up. He abuses Nature in the guise of a hapless tree. She accepts the abuse wrought on her by the boy for her whole life. She doesn’t learn anything either. She has no boundaries, no love or respect for herself.
The relationship is unsustainable. It is incredibly sad.
When USPS publicist, Eric Alper, let the public know about the upcoming release, I bet he was surprised at the comments he received. They covered the whole spectrum from love to hate. His comment box overflowed with people’s memories of reading and being read to.
The Giving Tree has been used as a model of altruism and used in sermons promoting generosity. It has also been read as a cautionary tale, one with the inevitable sad ending that comes to people who take and don’t give back. It is a warning about what will happen to Earth if gratitude and reciprocity are ignored.
So maybe The Giving Tree has earned the right to be called a classic. It generates strong feelings. It stands up to many readings and re-readings. It provides plenty of food for thought and ample room for discussion.
I used The Giving Tree as a read-aloud when I taught about trees in my Sunday School classroom. Year after year, I had interesting conversations with Kindergarteners about how love means more than giving someone stuff. We talked about the good feelings generated by selfless giving and the good feelings we get from receiving something we love and especially wanted. We talked about what boundaries are and the importance of giving thanks and giving back.
The boy in Shel Silverstein’s classic never grows up. The tree calls him “Boy” even in his last appearance as a very old man. He never learned Nature’s Law of Reciprocity, that taking and taking and not giving back is unsustainable.
He sounds like a modern human.
Maybe the USPS’s choice is an unwittingly wise one, after all.
-—stay curious! (and remember to give back)