As part of my job, I’ve been reading The Giving Tree many many times lately, and my formerly rosy opinion of this tale of an apple tree’s friendship with a boy has changed a bit.
At the start of the book, we should take it more seriously when the boy plays “King of the Forest”. It’s foreshadowing, because that’s how he’ll act later in the book. But this is just me taking the story of a childlike moment too seriously. Greater issues occur as we get deeper into the book.
For instance, to show his love for the tree, the boy carves his name into the tree’s flesh: Me + T. An odd way to show affection for a tree, but he’s just a little kid. Any parent knows that kids can be aggressive in their love, right?
It’s when the boy grows older that things get really strange. He wants money, and the tree gives him apples to sell. Nothing wrong there (except that he’s disappeared until he needed something, as he’ll do throughout the story, but let’s set that aside) except that in his young love (for someone else) he has once again taken to carving into the tree’s flesh.
And then things get serious. When he’s old enough to want a house and a wife and children, he asks, can the tree give him a house? It’s not clear whether the boy or tree is to be blamed (or the author) but instead of simply taking that year’s apples and selling them, and building a house with the money, the boy removes the tree’s limbs. A little weird, but trees can grow new limbs, can’t they? Forget the fact that the limbs of one tree would never be enough to build any house. This is, of course, a fable, a children’s story. I get that. But at a moment when the book could teach a real lesson about sustainability, it chooses to go for the one time “gift” or sacrifice of the tree simply giving its branches. Why doesn’t the young man (who loved trees as a child) start an orchard?
And though the boy/man is gone for a long time, the tree chooses to grow no more branches. And when he returns, he is sad. Fair enough. Sad enough that he wants to escape. Perhaps he should’ve thought to escape into nature for solace—back to the tree that seems to have had a large part in raising him. But instead he makes the choice (or takes the tree’s gift) to cut down the trunk, the main body, of the apple tree he once cherished. He makes a boat and sails away to an undisclosed location. This doesn’t really seem like the best way to tell kids to deal with their problems, in my humble and respectful-of-Shel opinion. (Note: I’ve only read the first few paragraphs of this link. Full disclosure). Another opportunity missed.
Finally, the boy and tree come together once more at the end of the book in a very zen moment where the tree has nothing to give and the boy (finally) needs nothing. Convenient that the boy is in fact the one who has taken everything, “enabling” the tree to be in this reduced state. And before you say it: it’s immaterial whether the tree offered or the boy took. That’s called co-dependency, isn’t it?
Of course I’m over-reading everything here. And it’s easy to second guess a classic piece of children’s lit. Still, I think these can each be real discussion points and learning moments with our kids. And I honestly think the book shows a bias to an old way of thinking that I, for one, don’t want my child to espouse. And what makes this the most poignant is that the book seems so touchy-feely pro-nature & warm fuzzies.
Look, I get it. We’re all careless about green things sometimes, aren’t we? Maybe I’m too tired to put each little thing into recycling or whatever. My personal eco-sin is that I’m horrible about using too much water, for example. But by and large, I try. On the whole, I do make an effort to show my daughter recycling and cleaning up litter on a regular basis. I try to give to nature, too, in other words. Do I do as much for it as it does for me? Maybe not. But I try.
It’s too bad Shel Silverstein isn’t still with us so that he could perhaps give us a more modern and enlightened picture of a tree-loving boy, don’t you think?