In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Friday, December 2, 2011

I'm glad The Giving Tree wasn't my mother

Dear Aunt Debbie,

With your last post, I realized we hadn't seen our complete Nutshell Library in a while (the tiny books tend to lose their covers and become separated, if you're not careful), and also that we had a BRAND NEW one, still unopened, as a recent gift.  So we cracked it open, and pretty much have read nothing else for the last 24 hours.  Plus, Isabel got to take all the new covers off and then ask for my help putting them back on again.  Jeff's aunt told me once that she kept the Nutshell Library in her purse for several years while raising her three kids -- they're the perfect size for pulling out in waiting rooms or on public transportation.  Pierre is our favorite, too, though "One Was Johnny" comes in a close second: all about a boy who lives by himself, and is bothered by a series of animals and a robber who come in to disturb his reading (counting up to 9), then threatens to eat them all if they don't go away, so they do, one by one (counting back down).

I've been thinking about Shel Silverstein again too, courtesy of one of my high school seniors.  At the beginning of each of my classes, a student stands up and delivers Minutes from the previous day's class, then gives the class a "gift": a poem, or an interesting article, or a thought-provoking riddle, or a demonstration of some kind of skill -- sort of a grown-up version of show and tell.  In my Women's Voices class this week, a boy brought in and read aloud The Giving Tree.  It was a sweet moment: the beginning of the seniors looking back at their childhoods through rose-tinted glasses as they focus on the college and adult lives looming ahead of them.  He paused on each page to show the pictures to the class, and you could feel the wave of  nostalgia. 

I tried to feel it too.  Problem is, I hate that book.  Periodically, I'll forget why I hate it so much, and think, Oh, so many people adore The Giving Tree, and adore Shel Silverstein because of it, and I'll read it again, and then I'll remember how much I hate it.

I understand that it's supposed to be a story about being willing to give everything to those you love, specifically, your children.  The tree gives the boy apples, and he swings in her branches, and they have fun.  And then he grows older, and when he wants money, and a house, and a boat, she gives him her apples, and her branches, and her trunk, and she's lonely all the time.  Finally, she's just a stump, and he's old, and he wants a place to rest, and she can still give him that, so they're both happy.

Except she's a freaking stump. 

I said something fairly mild to my class about the fact that I didn't like the book, and connected it to some of what we've discussed in there about female characters in literature: here's the female tree, who sacrifices every part of her being to the ungrateful male character, and it's that total self-sacrifice that makes her happy.  Some of my students looked at me like I was crazy; some nodded.  The boy who brought the book in said that he thought it was beautiful because the tree was like a mother, giving all of herself to her child.  And I said yes, I'm a mother, and that's why I don't like this book.

The boy is ungrateful; the tree-mother is sad and lonely.  Her sacrifices don't lead to any lasting happiness for either of them, and their only relationship is based on her giving him things as she wastes away.  It's not a model I particularly want to emulate.

I think that my gut reaction to The Giving Tree soured me on Silverstein in general, which is too bad.  Maybe when Eleanor's old enough, I'll give his poetry another chance.  For now, though, despite my students' fond memories, I'll be keeping that book out of my house.

Love, Annie


  1. I admit, I also loved The Giving Tree as a child. But you make a really good point; the message isn't a particularly good one. Have you seen The Sassy Gay Friend video about it? It's not the funniest of the series, but it makes a lot of the same points you do here:


  2. I put this book up with The Rainbow Fish as having a horrible message.

    To cleanse the taste, you could try Uncle Shelby's ABZ's, a Silverstein book in a completely different mode.

  3. I also hate The Giving Tree. But I love the rest of Silverstein's poetry. For years I've been reconciling the contradiction by pretending "The Giving Tree" doesn't exist.

    Also, I love your morning routine!

  4. Oh, thank goodness I am not the only one who loathes this book!

  5. It's probably my fault you don't like the giving tree, dear daughter o' mine.
    I think the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, as your wonderful post clearly shows.
    Don't know why any mom would really like this book.
    She is such a sad old abused thing.
    The trouble is that Shel Silverstein here was trying to say something allegorical and profound, as a tribute to his mother, no doubt, and he ended up instead revealing something about their relationship he should have taken another look at. He does have a nice sense of humor and sense of the absurd in some of his kids' poems, but I'm not a fan.
    Love you,
    Mom Tree, still standing