Review: The Giving Tree

The Giving Tree
Author & Illustrator: Shel Silverstein

Can you say controversy?
Almost since it was
published, audiences are
divided.

Originally published on October 7, 1964, The Giving Tree has sparked controversy and divided audiences basically since day one. So, why am I tackling this book as my first review on what I hope will be a long-flourishing site? Well, it’s a book that’s on Mr. Alex’s Bookshelf, and it should be on yours. For a few minutes, let’s forget that some think (with good cause) Silverstein turned out to have a less than illustrious personal life, and let’s concentrate on this particular work: at best, the story teaches about unconditional love; at worst, it’s a cautionary tale about a relationship where boundaries are not clearly set.

Quick Rating: Buy & Keep

Summary

The picturebook traces the life of a boy, from toddler to old man, and his relationship with a tree. The tree gives the boy everything, and I mean EVERYTHING she has to give; from her leaves, to her branches, to her trunk. The boy takes and takes, never saying thank you–and always asks for more. The tree is unflinching in her devotion. Always giving.

Illustrations

Clean, simple, sparse. Not a lot going on in the page. There doesn’t need to be. Great for the imagination. A lot of today’s storybooks are too busy. This one is not.

It’s On My Bookshelf

The book, aimed primarily at six-eight year olds has been interpreted and reinterpreted ad nauseum over the last 50+ years. Some people have the tree standing in as a mother figure (she is a she, after all) and have her representing a mother’s unending devotion to her child. This one gets Mr. Alex a bit hot, as even though the tree has been gendered “female” she could easily represent parental or caregiver devotion rather than a mother’s devotion. Caregiving is not exclusively a gendered attribute.

Other’s have the tree representing God and his unending love for his children. OK, the gendered representation bothers me a lot here too. And so does the appeal to religion, to fill what can easily be filled as a simply humanistic trait.

Still others have focused on the narcism and ungrateful nature of the child who just takes and takes and takes without so much as acknowledging the needs of the tree. And, without so much as a thank you. Well, that much is true. The kid is a jerk–well into adulthood. But, let’s focus on the tree for a few.

The tree is always there for the child. Always present, always available. How many of us had caregivers like that growing up? How many of us needed caregivers like that growing up? There is an axiom that is not so old, but quickly gaining ground that I try to adhere to: Be the Parent You Needed as a Child. The tree gives us the perfect example of unconditional love. Yes, the kid in The Giving Tree is a total, unabashed snot. The tree, on the other hand, is accepting, loving and kind. To a fault.

And that fault, does need to be addressed. There is an argument that the book can foster unhealthy relationships as the tree gives and gives and the child takes and takes. Well, dear reader, if that’s the message that is ultimately conveyed by the book, the fault falls squarely on your shoulders. You see, it is your responsibility to actively engage in and read the book with the child. You control the interpretation of the narrative. Ask key questions like: Was it right for the boy to take so much from the tree? Did the boy ever say thank you? Why did the tree give everything to the boy? I defy you to get through the book without crying. I can’t.

The simple act of discussion not only will engage your child in the reading but will also enhance those critical thinking skills that are so essential to their development. And, the tree will be happy. [End.]

If you want to purchase a copy of The Giving Tree, and support my endeavors at the same time, you can click on one of the links below. No extra cost to you, and it will help me out! More books to read, more reviews to do!

Please, leave comments! I love a HEALTHY exchange of ideas. After all, critical thinking is essential to life.

The Giving Tree (Support an Independent Bookstore)
The Giving Tree (Hardcover at Amazon)*
The Giving Tree (El Arbol Generoso) (In Spanish at Amazon)*

If you’d like to preview the book, here’s read aloud by Shel Silverstein himself:

More books for this Age Group can be found here.

*As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

5 comments

  1. Its so interesting, I read this book as an adult and hate it because (to me) it sets up the narrative of unconditional giving as opposed to unconditional love. It idolizes the narrative that women need to give everything they have (to the patriarchy, no less) in order to be deemed worthy.

    I also follow the principles of giving my kids unconditional love, but to me that includes drawing healthy, concrete boundaries, and not giving everything I have (because then I’ll be done).

    Your perspective on being the parent you needed actually resounds with me because in Indian culture women are encouraged to sacrifice their whole selves on the altar of family (and often do) but in return total obedience and conformity is expected of the children. I wish my mom hadn’t sacrificed herself so much or that she didn’t think of my divergent path as a direct insult. Trying to reverse that trend for the next generation.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment!

      I agree with you that the relationship it presents is a very complicated relationship. I love that the book presents an uncomplicated picture of unconditional love I believe is necessary in a parent/child relationship, at least while the child is growing up. And, certainly in the target demographic of 6-8. The tree, to the average 6-8 year-old is showing her affection by giving everything she has. By always being there. By always being present.

      Yes, setting concrete boundaries is important; very important. But, I do think that we sometimes project adult understandings unto things that children understand more simply. Children need to feel safe–part of that safety comes from understanding that there is nothing a parent wouldn’t do or give. The book, as I mentioned in the review, can lead to a continued lesson about how the “snot” kid should have acted. Modeling of a healthy relationship has to happen over time; not only in the context of a story. It looks like you’ve got it all down!

  2. Alex, I appreciate the perspective of parents giving unconditional love to their children, and making them feel safe. It’s the right message for children. But allowing children to keep taking from their parents until there’s nothing left of them is not the best message to give them.
    I would have had no issue with the book if, for instance, after the boy grows up, he brings his family to visit the stump and then he and his family plant new trees around it. SOMETHING to show the kid has an appreciation for the tree’s sacrifice. I mean, once he becomes a parent, what’s HIS message to his children?
    Anjali, although you came at it from a different direction, thank you for expressing some of my feelings. The relationship as shown in the book is not healthy. I do not believe that any parent needs to give away every part of themself in order for their kids to feel safe and loved.

    1. Karen,

      And I think that your discussion points are EXCELLENT points to engage a child in the reading and precisely why the book stays on my bookshelf. Good storybooks are tools to help teach lessons and entertain. For me, The Giving Tree accomplishes both of those objectives.

  3. Hi Alex,

    “The Giving Tree,” is an all-time favorite for me.

    This time, I felt parts of the Prodigal Son story without the hoopla of a huge feast, instead, when the boy (as a man) returns home to the tree, he is given what he needs: a place to rest and be still.

    What comes to mind is also the Hero’s Journey with the young boy in the idyllic Paradise as the book opens – everyone is happy. And, then comes the life journey where egoic / material ideals take precedence. However, the tree, much like the Diivne Creator is always ready to Love – even at the end, the tree becomes happy – complete again as the old man finds peace on the tree stump.

    The joy and happiness of the the boy swinging on the branches is transformed to finding a peaceful space after a rugged journey thorugh materialism. The Hero has come full circle from his creation out of Love to Love, symbolized by the ever giivng tree..

    Peace,

    Karen

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