"Once there was a tree . . . "
October 6, 2014 9:30 AM   Subscribe

‘The Giving Tree’: Tender Story of Unconditional Love or Disturbing Tale of Selfishness?
Anna Holmes and Rivka Galchen reconsider Shel Silverstein’s classic, published 50 years ago.
posted by Fizz (130 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
 
Also, Zits.
posted by Fizz at 9:31 AM on October 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


Not a big fan of this story ... Kinda gives me the creeps. Like his other stuff, though.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 9:32 AM on October 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


Here is, perhaps, a somewhat darker take on the tree and its nature.
posted by mhoye at 9:38 AM on October 6, 2014 [37 favorites]


Tender Story of Unconditional Love or Disturbing Tale of Selfishness?

Yes.
posted by narain at 9:40 AM on October 6, 2014 [20 favorites]


I recently reread this and was struck again by how brutal it is. It's a weird weird book to be a children's book.
posted by OmieWise at 9:42 AM on October 6, 2014 [7 favorites]


Relatedly, posted just today. (NSFW language)
posted by adamrice at 9:49 AM on October 6, 2014 [6 favorites]


Rivka Galchen is great. Atmospheric Disturbances really blew me away in it's way of exploring morality and it's story-telling and I like her take on the Giving Tree here, which seems consistent with her own literary style of observing human behavior, not without judgment, but without the expectation that it will change.

I don't love the Giving Tree or the Missing Piece, which are both more weirdly messagy than Silverstein's poetry, and agree with Galchen that more humor would have made the story better. It's just kind of bleak and awful really, although the illustrations are compelling.

This was a cool link. Thanks for posting it Fizz.
posted by latkes at 9:49 AM on October 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


"I am sorry" sighed the tree. "I wish that I could give you something... but I have nothing left. I am just an old stump. I am sorry..."

"I don't need very much now" said the boy. "just a quiet place to sit and rest. I am very tired."

"Well" said the tree, straightening herself up as much as she could, "well, an old stump is good for sitting and resting. Come, Boy, sit down... and rest."

And when the boy sat down, the tree gave him what he deserved: a bunch of termites straight up his ass. And the tree was happy.
posted by 23skidoo at 9:49 AM on October 6, 2014 [34 favorites]


This book is gross and I bristle when I see its illustrations as tattoos.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 9:49 AM on October 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


I like to give my kid all the classic books I never knew about as a kid. This is one I kept off my list along with "The Rainbow Fish" and the craziest of all, The Story of Babar".
posted by beccaj at 9:51 AM on October 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


The Co-Dependent Tree
posted by overeducated_alligator at 9:52 AM on October 6, 2014 [24 favorites]


beccaj, you beat me to "The Rainbow Fish" by mere seconds. That book is awful. It's like the author took "Harrison Bergeron", inserted peer pressure and dismemberment, and decided that added up to a happy ending.
posted by The Tensor at 9:54 AM on October 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


This thread brought to you by DISTURBING PHOTOGRAPH OF SHEL SILVERSTEIN'S FACE.
posted by Artw at 9:55 AM on October 6, 2014 [13 favorites]


Um, I really don't see what the big deal is. Metaphors gonna metaphor.

Kids start out pretty selfish. It's part of their normal emotional development. As they grow and mature they develop their empathy for others, and that empathy expands over time to include family, friends, and eventually strangers (unless you're a Republican).

As a kid I remember being baffled that giving presents would be better than getting them. As an adult, it's totally true. Both the tree and the kid are getting what they need, and they both love each other.
posted by leotrotsky at 9:56 AM on October 6, 2014 [16 favorites]


I recently reread this and was struck again by how brutal it is. It's a weird weird book to be a children's book.

The '70s were a weird time.
posted by leotrotsky at 9:57 AM on October 6, 2014 [5 favorites]


Epo-trotsky-sterical.
posted by Curious Artificer at 9:57 AM on October 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


leotrotsky: The kid doesn't develop at all, though. He stays exactly the same selfish little ass to the very end, without ever even giving so much as a thank you.

It's a metaphor for how sociopaths behave, if anything.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:58 AM on October 6, 2014 [14 favorites]


I vividly remember reading Giving Tree in the late 70s (making me a pre-teen then) and thinking "that guy is a JERK". As an adult, I can sorta see what Shel was getting at (I think), but I don't think he did a very good job of it.
posted by kjs3 at 9:59 AM on October 6, 2014


Kids start out pretty selfish. It's part of their normal emotional development. As they grow and mature they develop their empathy for others, and that empathy expands over time to include family, friends, and eventually strangers

The boy in the story never stops being selfish.
posted by 23skidoo at 9:59 AM on October 6, 2014 [6 favorites]


Where The Sidewalk Ends is both delightful to read to kids and has a non-disturbing author photo, FWIW.
posted by Artw at 10:00 AM on October 6, 2014 [3 favorites]


A children's picture book doesn't have time to illustrate the full emotional development from childhood to adulthood. It's a metaphor between child and parent. Just because the 'child' grows up doesn't mean that it's supposed to reflect the relationship between an adult child and parent.
posted by leotrotsky at 10:00 AM on October 6, 2014 [3 favorites]


I don't think the boy in The Giving Tree is intended to be admirable or even sympathetic. I always saw the tree's selflessness as a metaphor for (a certain kind of) motherhood.
posted by The Tensor at 10:01 AM on October 6, 2014 [6 favorites]


I actually think The Guvinv Tree is pretty great exactly because you can have this kind of conversation about it, and would credit it with that not being entirely accidental.
posted by Artw at 10:02 AM on October 6, 2014 [6 favorites]


This is Silverstiens true masterpiece.
posted by jonmc at 10:03 AM on October 6, 2014 [5 favorites]


Being raised by a parents, scouting leaders both, with a fair bit of structure, I found the Giving Tree incomprehensible as a child. That simply wasn't the way the world worked! How the hell did that little kid get away with never being told: "You've had enough." Even worse, it violated a core scouting value: "Leave no trace."

Was it supposed to be a warning? It didn't seem like it. It was a very confusing book to me as a kid in the 70s.
posted by bonehead at 10:03 AM on October 6, 2014 [9 favorites]


I always saw the tree's selflessness as a metaphor for (a certain kind of) motherhood.

See the Zits comic I linked to above. You'll notice that the MOM is the tree.
posted by Fizz at 10:04 AM on October 6, 2014


"No, go have fun with your friends. I'm fine here.
No, really.
I'm happy."
The Guilting Tree
posted by overeducated_alligator at 10:04 AM on October 6, 2014 [43 favorites]


The Giving Tree is a damn sight better than Love You Forever, I'll tell you what.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:06 AM on October 6, 2014 [14 favorites]


This thread brought to you by DISTURBING PHOTOGRAPH OF SHEL SILVERSTEIN'S FACE

That's the only kind there is. The man with hair looked like a cross between forest troll and a serial killer.
posted by leotrotsky at 10:07 AM on October 6, 2014 [6 favorites]


I'm still not coinvinced he wasn't some form of goblin
posted by The Whelk at 10:07 AM on October 6, 2014 [1 favorite]




The Giving Tree is a damn sight better than Love You Forever, I'll tell you what.

Wait, so your mother didn't creep into your apartment while you were sleeping well into your 20s?

Scarier question: why is the mother always wearing gloves? What else is she doing on her stealthy nighttime drives?

Killing, that's what.
posted by leotrotsky at 10:09 AM on October 6, 2014 [15 favorites]


I'm still not coinvinced he wasn't some form of goblin

The boy or Shel Silverstein?
posted by Fizz at 10:12 AM on October 6, 2014


The Giving Tree is a damn sight better than Love You Forever, I'll tell you what.

Good lord that book needs a restraining order in itself!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 10:12 AM on October 6, 2014 [3 favorites]


both work.
posted by The Whelk at 10:13 AM on October 6, 2014


Never read this, Love You Forever, or Rainbow Fish to my kid.

Actually, I didn't read him a lot of fairy tales either, not till he was older. Because they are messed up if you think about them for the tiniest second.

I did read him lots of better stories with dragons and magic and what-all, so he didn't miss out. Also the Silverstein poems.

For lessons on selfishness and patience, I much prefer This is Actually My Party with Charlie and Lola.
posted by emjaybee at 10:17 AM on October 6, 2014


A perfect metaphor for climate change and resource depletion. Both the Earth and Humanity die in the end.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 10:18 AM on October 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


Any love for Lafcadio?
posted by jmccw at 10:24 AM on October 6, 2014


jmccw, The saddest line in that wikipedia entry:

"Lafcadio has not been heard from since."
posted by Fizz at 10:26 AM on October 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


My wife feels the same way about this book. Strongly.

Taken together with Dr. Hook's "Sylvia's Mother" (lyrics by Silverstein), I must admit Shel's approach to relationships does not come off well.
posted by duffell at 10:28 AM on October 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'm still not coinvinced he wasn't some form of goblin

either a menacing kobold or chernobog himself, prolly.
posted by poffin boffin at 10:35 AM on October 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


In this piece Shel describes how its justified to hunt down and kill a parent because you don't approve of the name they gave you.

But yeah, Giving Tree is a pretty awful tale.
posted by el io at 10:35 AM on October 6, 2014


God, I hate The Giving Tree. My kids read it, but I don't like to have it around. What I got out of it was not that the boy was an asshole but that the tree refused to accept that the boy was growing up. She wouldn't understand that what he needed she couldn't provide, so she martyred herself trying to do it anyway. And we're supposed to feel bad for her because that mean old boy went and selfishly matured.

The moral of the story seemed to me to be "how dare that boy grow up and need things the tree can't provide! Doesn't he love her? How dare he want a wife and children and a home and to be a grown man!"

There's an entire subgenre of children's books that are odes to the suffering of parents and the sadness of being unappreciated by your kids. I always resented those books. You feel unappreciated? Unloved? There's a term for that. It's called "the human condition." Accept that your job as a parent is emotionally draining and tough, and stop dumping your resentment of this fact onto your children. They're dealing with their own shit. Don't add yours.

"My kid doesn't appreciate all that I do!" No shit, fucknut. Your kid is a fucking young child. She can't understand it yet. You want her to appreciate you? Whining about it and guilting her is not a winning strategy. Demonstrate how you appreciate people for their own efforts towards you. She'll figure it out.

To conclude, a quote from Haruki Murakami: "Don't feel sorry for yourself. Only assholes do that."
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 10:36 AM on October 6, 2014 [24 favorites]


Trees just like getting cut down. Just like the grass in Stranger in a Strange Land likes getting trampled on, or that one animal at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe that points out the choiciest cuts of itself.
posted by ckape at 10:40 AM on October 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


In catholic grade school The Giving Tree was used as an example of Christ's love for us and how we could emulate his example. I remember at the time thinking, "...boy, that kid is a selfish jerk ... maybe someone should tell him to act like Christ". As an adult, it reads as a straight-up cautionary tale about becoming entangled with someone who is a narcissist or sociopathic. Definitely not a book that's on my kid's reading list.
posted by echolalia67 at 10:43 AM on October 6, 2014 [9 favorites]


If you are a parent, this story makes perfect sense. Also, if you are familiar with the teaching of Jesus.
posted by Nevin at 10:44 AM on October 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


I disagree. The boy is not really in need. He's not a leper. He's a spoiled kid who just takes and takes without any real need.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:46 AM on October 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


I am a parent, and I have to disagree with you, Nevin. most kids are not completely self-centered little shits, like the boy in the book. They take but they give back, too. Parenthood is not a endless slough of self-denial, nor should it be.
posted by echolalia67 at 10:49 AM on October 6, 2014 [8 favorites]


It seems like a book that parents would hate but that some kids - if they could see the twistedness in it, anyway - might love, precisely for the light it shines on the parts of human nature that adults don't like to talk about.

One of my favourite books as a kid had these illustrations, with stories to match. And I was a pretty happy, active kid.

It seems like something happened in the 1980s to completely sanitize what was for centuries the gruesome world of tales for children. If anyone could point to something specific that explains it, I'd love to know.
posted by clawsoon at 10:51 AM on October 6, 2014


Related, previously.
posted by obloquy at 10:52 AM on October 6, 2014


Melodramatic as this might sound I'm really glad we're talking about this; that poem is creepy and unpleasant and I hate everyone in it and it gets dragged out with surprising frequency as this great positive inspiring thing about love and virtue and sacrifice and whatever. The book itself is bad enough but tolerating the inane chatterings of people (even people who I like and/or who are smart in other areas) drives me crazy because I don't want to be the douche who's like "uh, actually..." but seriously that book is creepy and unpleasant as shit and if that's your model of a positive, loving relationship of any sort you need to get your head checked.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 10:56 AM on October 6, 2014 [9 favorites]


When I was little I thought, "How nice of the tree..." As I grew up, I thought, "What a jerk of a guy..." While I don't know if I would buy this book for children in the future, I do think it obviously serves as a great book for discussion. It can be interpreted multiple ways and it might be worth possessing only for the conversation one can have with a kid about it.
posted by Atreides at 10:58 AM on October 6, 2014 [4 favorites]


I am a parent, and I have to disagree with you, Nevin. most kids are not completely self-centered little shits, like the boy in the book. They take but they give back, too. Parenthood is not a endless slough of self-denial, nor should it be.

I tend to think that parenthood is indeed all about "giving" and I think if you are a parent, concepts such as "self-actualization" etc should move down the hierarchy. Your kids are your life. Period.

I didn't see the kid as a self-centered "little shit", exactly. I saw the deterioration of the tree as more of a metaphor for life. We are all going to die. Not even a stump will remain.

Still, I think this story works more as a Christian metaphor for Christ's sacrifice on the cross. I quite like the Giving Tree. It provides something to think about and discuss.

As a children's story, though, I don't think it works these days if your family does not go to church on Sundays (our does not). As a parent where would you even start?

Probably Bart, Lisa and Maggie Simpson would get what this story is about, though.
posted by Nevin at 11:02 AM on October 6, 2014


if that's your model of a positive, loving relationship of any sort you need to get your head checked

I'm not particularly religious or devout, but is that the takeaway from the Crucifixion? As mentioned above, I don't think the story really works as something you would read to your children.
posted by Nevin at 11:03 AM on October 6, 2014


Respectfully, jonmc, The Great Smoke Off is Shel Silverstein's masterpiece, and until very recently it was pretty hard to find. Thank you, Internets!
posted by The Bellman at 11:05 AM on October 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


Nevin, as my sister pointed out to me one day, the Crucifixion is all about God demanding human sacrifice and then killing his own son.

So not a bad analogy for The Giving Tree after all, I guess. :-)
posted by clawsoon at 11:08 AM on October 6, 2014 [3 favorites]


It pleases me to find out that I'm not the only one who thought the Giving Tree was an incredibly depressing story, no matter how you interpret it, and that the Rainbow Fish is just an awful story.
posted by jferg at 11:08 AM on October 6, 2014


I tend to think that parenthood is indeed all about "giving" and I think if you are a parent, concepts such as "self-actualization" etc should move down the hierarchy. Your kids are your life. Period.

No. People who make their kids their entire life and do nothing for themselves rapidly end up resenting their kids, or their partner, or themselves, or end up needing treatment for mental health issues.

The Giving Tree's a lousy book, a lousy metaphor for parenting and a whole heap of Bad Example.
posted by FritoKAL at 11:13 AM on October 6, 2014 [11 favorites]


My favorite Shel Silverstein tree piece (sorry I couldn't find a more direct link)
posted by Mchelly at 11:16 AM on October 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


I prefer this Shel Silverstein piece about trees.
posted by jferg at 11:21 AM on October 6, 2014


sexy back cover of the giving tree, the best sexycostume possible
posted by Ennis Tennyone at 11:21 AM on October 6, 2014 [12 favorites]


Anyhow, I guess I am having a hard time with all the people painting this book as all good, or all bad. I always loved it, and it also always made me uneasy. I don't come from the Christian tradition, so self-sacrifice was never taught to us kids as anything worth emulating. And maybe that's why Galchen's take on it is so similar to my own. This is a sad story. There's love there, and there's selfishness, and there's probably - though it isn't stated - regret.

Children's books aren't always fun romps, and they aren't always moral lessons. Sometimes they can serve the same purpose literature does for adults - they make you think. They give you a chance to decide who you root for, and why, and how you would act in the same circumstances. Picture books are generally not for reading on your own - they're mostly for kids being read to by adults. You can talk about them together. You can form your own conclusions - and watch as your child finds their own way through the knots (they usually do).

I think it's a disturbing book. But I think that's intentional. And I don't think it has to be considered a terrible book because of it.
posted by Mchelly at 11:23 AM on October 6, 2014 [20 favorites]


Your kids are your life. Period.
posted by Nevin at 1:02 PM on October 6


Don't you want your kids to grow up to be full-fledged people? Don't you want grandchildren? Under this rubric, you can't have both. That's horrifying.
posted by joannemerriam at 11:24 AM on October 6, 2014 [3 favorites]


I'm so happy that this is getting talked about now.

I was a camp counselor a few summers back, and usually, in the last 15 or 20 minutes or so between when the activities were done for the day and the kids went home, we would read them a story.

One day, I read "The Giving Tree", and then proceeded to ask the kids what they thought of the little boy, and what they should say to a friend who treated them like the boy treated the tree (with me very strongly insinuating that (1) he's a jerk, and (2) know your limits and say "no" when they're asking too much).

My co-counselor looked slightly horrified, but didn't say anything to me afterwards; I *hope* it was because she realized then that it was a bit of a messed up story too.
posted by damayanti at 11:25 AM on October 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


No. People who make their kids their entire life and do nothing for themselves rapidly end up resenting their kids, or their partner, or themselves, or end up needing treatment for mental health issues.

While I understand where you're coming from, I don't agree that we can make blanket statements like this. Every family is different. The most important thing we can do as parents is to make sure our children are fully prepared to spread their wings at some point. There's different ways to do it, and no one "right" way.
posted by Nevin at 11:26 AM on October 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


damayanti, what did the kids say?
posted by clawsoon at 11:27 AM on October 6, 2014


Because I am a children's librarian, people are always surprised when I DON'T love this book. You want a book about selflessness, read Extra Yarn.
posted by Biblio at 11:28 AM on October 6, 2014 [4 favorites]


sexy back cover of the giving tree, the best sexycostume possible

the noise i just made can only be described as "furious donkey fighting off amorous goose while monkey spectators jeer"
posted by poffin boffin at 11:29 AM on October 6, 2014 [6 favorites]


Here is the Jean Shepherd album cover from Artw's link above.
posted by bendy at 11:32 AM on October 6, 2014


The Tensor: I don't think the boy in The Giving Tree is intended to be admirable or even sympathetic. I always saw the tree's selflessness as a metaphor for (a certain kind of) motherhood.

Not just a certain kind of motherhood, a certain kind of parent. I know parents who work 2 or 3 jobs each to give their kids a better life than they had, and at points, the kids were selfish jerks, because they compared themselves to their classmates who had more. Kids are selfish, and at some point, some of them change and can see how other people feel and what they do for others. Some kids never change.


clawsoon: It seems like something happened in the 1980s to completely sanitize what was for centuries the gruesome world of tales for children. If anyone could point to something specific that explains it, I'd love to know.

It was earlier than that. For example, Disney has been sanitizing fairy tales since the studio's beginning (see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) versus "Snow White" from the Brothers Grimm).
posted by filthy light thief at 11:40 AM on October 6, 2014 [4 favorites]


I read The Giving Tree as a kid, and I always found it sad and upsetting. I sorta thought that was the point. It certainly demonstrates that a book doesn't need to be capital-L Literature to be challenging.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 11:42 AM on October 6, 2014 [3 favorites]


The boy in The Giving Tree seems like he'd have a tantrum if you ever said "no" to him. Here's an idea: Perhaps the real sacrifice you make as a parent in that situation is saying "no" despite the tantrum threat. Saying "yes" like the Giving Tree keeps doing is, ironically, a failure to make the most worthwhile sacrifice (sacrificing your short-term peace of mind) for the greatest long-term gain (the child's growth and self-reliance).

Like Nevin says, "the most important thing we can do as parents is to make sure our children are fully prepared to spread their wings at some point", which you can't do if you're not ready to sacrifice your peace of mind in the face of a tantrum-ready toddler.
posted by clawsoon at 11:43 AM on October 6, 2014 [3 favorites]


I'll take this opportunity to plug Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book as the funniest thing Shel Silverstein ever produced.
Example
posted by matrixclown at 11:47 AM on October 6, 2014 [14 favorites]


The boy in The Giving Tree seems like he'd have a tantrum if you ever said "no" to him. Here's an idea: Perhaps the real sacrifice you make as a parent in that situation is saying "no" despite the tantrum threat.

I think that comes to the difference of providing treats and presents on demand, to sacrificing your own happiness and free time to provide more for your children. The tree isn't giving the boy apples until he's obese, it's providing something larger.

Except I forgot that the boy became a man, and still asked (and received) from the tree. Wood for a house, then wood for a boat, all at the cost to the tree.

And somehow, that message gets mixed up in my head with Cat's in the Cradle, in terms of kids growing up to be the same thing they are as children, but bigger.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:52 AM on October 6, 2014


I have been known to give Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book to new parents. Now that is the joy of giving.
posted by ckape at 11:52 AM on October 6, 2014 [5 favorites]


I think it is deliberately transgressive and amoral, a pitch-perfect satire of a children's book, a more sophisticated take on what he did in the ABZ book, and the only tipoff is that Silvestein, a skilled artist, included an image of himself so terrifying that the father in Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw uses it to control his child.

He actually was opposed to happy endings, saying that the cause unrealistic expectations in children. "The child asks ‘Why don’t I have this happiness thing you’re telling me about,’ and comes to think when his joy stops that he has failed, that it won’t come back."

So that's what he gave. A book that hammers away at one simple idea (he himself expressed distaste for how simple it was), masquerading as a simplistic homily, but ending badly.

His preferred children's book? Lafcadio, in which a lion becomes a hunter, and finds himself lost. He was also partial to ABZ.
posted by maxsparber at 11:59 AM on October 6, 2014 [18 favorites]


The boy in The Giving Tree seems like he'd have a tantrum if you ever said "no" to him. Here's an idea: Perhaps the real sacrifice you make as a parent in that situation is saying "no" despite the tantrum threat.

I don't know, tantrums are not particularly fearsome to contemplate. They happen, and for various reasons. At the moment my son wants me to buy him an iPhone. Not an iPod, but an iPhone. He's 12. All the other kids in his class have one (or so he says). We live on the cusp of an affluent, WASP-y enclave. We don't have the beans to buy an iPhone and a contract at his young age. An iPod is within the realm of possibility.

But I said no. There was a lot of drama, and there still is a lot of drama.

But the Giving Tree is, in my mind, not about providing your children with material things. It's about being an adult and coming to terms with your mortality, and passing the torch, so to speak. The younger generation is always going to be selfish. Being selfish is part of the human condition. We all were and still are selfish. Many of us understand this as we age, just as the boy, transformed into an old man, understands when he sits on the stump.

Still, the only way to really understand this story, I think, is by taking Communion (I am not a Catholic, and do not come from a Catholic background, though...)
posted by Nevin at 12:00 PM on October 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


For a somewhat healthier take on codependency, there's Silverstein's The Missing Piece.
posted by gottabefunky at 12:00 PM on October 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


i loved shel silverstein when i was a kid. his little poems made such great images in my head.

but i tried to go back and A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends a few years ago...and man, those were some depressing poems. so dark but i can see how as a kid, i would find them fun, but my life has made the same poems have dark twinges now and make me think of different things.

i remember reading The Giving Tree as a kid and really not understanding it all. why did the boy keep asking the tree when it was obvious the tree could not give? i only read it a few times at the doctor's office and just recall being so weirded out by it that i never even asked anyone about it. teachers and kids seemed to love it but i didn't so i just kept my mouth shut because i was already weird without dissing everyone's seemingly favorite book.

i am so glad to find out i am not the only one thinks Shel Silverstein is a bit weird.
posted by sio42 at 12:02 PM on October 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


Nevin

You keep saying over and over that the message of the Giving Tree conforms to Christian (or at least Catholic) beliefs, but I think you're wrong.

I'm not particularly religious or devout, but is that the takeaway from the Crucifixion?

I don't think so. ""For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life", and Jesus accepted and embraced the sacrifice of Himself.

But a Christian is supposed to also be thankful and grateful for what was done, not take the Redemptoin for granted. The kid in the book seems to just keep taking from the Tree without ever once showing any kind of appreciation or thanks.
posted by Sangermaine at 12:08 PM on October 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


He did write that inteicate, sprawling , epically pornographic poem for playboy tho.
posted by The Whelk at 12:09 PM on October 6, 2014


My wife feels the same way about this book. Strongly.

Taken together with Dr. Hook's "Sylvia's Mother yt " (lyrics by Silverstein), I must admit Shel's approach to relationships does not come off well.


Guess who wrote the lyrics to "A Boy Named Sue"? Also do not, I repeat, do not, look up the lyrics to the sequel, also written by Silverstein, "The Father of a Boy Named Sue".
posted by nooneyouknow at 12:10 PM on October 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


Nevin: I don't know, tantrums are not particularly fearsome to contemplate.

They are fearsome for some parents. For some, the imagined disapproval of other adults is suffocating; for others, the exhaustion of dealing with the drama is overwhelming. These are not the healthiest parents, mind you, and they probably didn't have the healthiest parents themselves. You seem like - and apologies if I've got you completely wrong - you maybe don't relate to that; maybe you haven't had many examples around you of unhealthy parenting, so you're able to have a surprisingly positive, healthy take on the message of The Giving Tree. E.g.:

But the Giving Tree is, in my mind, not about providing your children with material things.

That's such a blatant disregard for the text that it makes me think you've maybe re-written the book in your mind as much healthier reading (and parenting) fare. The only thing that the tree does is provide the boy with material things; it's not offering any guidance, growth, challenges. It's just giving him stuff, and being heartbreakingly codependent.

Not that your take is a bad thing, mind you; you sound like a better parent for it.
posted by clawsoon at 12:32 PM on October 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


My friend and I, in middle school, wrote and illustrated The Taking Tree, about a tree who endlessly demands blood, limbs, etc from an uncomplaining man.

Still makes me laugh, many years later.
posted by town of cats at 12:32 PM on October 6, 2014 [36 favorites]


We humans, we try to be cool. Along the way we ruin everything. Then we die.

That was my take on ye olde tree of gifts. True cynic, that's me.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:34 PM on October 6, 2014 [6 favorites]


It is a relief to know that other people do not like the Giving Tree. I loathed the book finding it represented cruel, oblivious selfishness. That sort of selflessness gave me the heebie-jeebies. I don't want to make it gendered, BUT it reminded me of the role that was expected of me if I wanted to be considered a "good" wife, mother or daughter in my mother's heavily patriarchal culture.
posted by jadepearl at 12:44 PM on October 6, 2014 [6 favorites]


If you are a parent, this story makes perfect sense. Also, if you are familiar with the teaching of Jesus.

I am a parent, and I am reasonably familiar with the teachings of Jesus. I think what is missing here is that good parents are willing to make enormous sacrifices to give children what they truly need and to help them grow to maturity. But there is a world of difference between "Mom worked hard and scrimped and saved so that I could have the medical treatment I needed/a safe home/a chance to go to college" and "Mom worked hard and scrimped and saved so that I could have a Gameboy/ a house just handed to me/ a yacht until I bled her dry and never said thank you."

Similarly, the whole point of the teaching and sacrifice of Jesus is to equip humanity to be better--to in turn become peacemakers and givers. If people accept the gifts of grace and forgiveness but don't learn to mature as disciples and extend those gifts to others, then the whole thing was pointless. Jesus made that explicit in the story of the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, about a guy who had a large debt forgiven and then refused to forgive the tiny debt another person owed him. Accepting a gift and then refusing to offer one isn't really something that Jesus approved of. I find it kind of bizarre than anyone could see the Giving Tree as Jesus and the boy as a human unless it is a cautionary tale about what some have called vampire Christians, who say to Jesus, "I'd like a little of your blood, please. But I don't care to be your student or have your character. In fact, won't you just excuse me while I get on with my life, and I'll see you in heaven." Even reading it that way, it makes no sense that the tree would be happy in the end, because that kind of behavior clearly isn't something Jesus was remotely happy about.

I used to really like the Giving Tree because I am kind of sucker for self-sacrifice stories, but that only holds up if the sacrifice is meaningful and inspires others to be similar lives of service that make the world a better place. Giving every part of yourself for the selfish whims of a boy who never shows gratitude and never emulates your kindness makes the world a worse place by encouraging the basest character traits.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 12:49 PM on October 6, 2014 [20 favorites]


jadepearl: I don't want to make it gendered

In the book, the tree is a "she" (and the boy is a "he"); it's already gendered.
posted by clawsoon at 12:51 PM on October 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


clawsoon, I did not want my initial impression of the book to be about the gender roles of the characters but of the behaviors of those characters. It just made me sad, profoundly sad, because I saw those giving relationships (always women to the men in their lives) and felt guilty for having a sense of self-preservation.
posted by jadepearl at 12:56 PM on October 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


Guess who wrote the lyrics to "A Boy Named Sue"? Also do not, I repeat, do not, look up the lyrics to the sequel, also written by Silverstein, "The Father of a Boy Named Sue".

Challenge accepted!

Huh well yeah I can see why you'd advise against it there's a lot of homophobic stereotypes in here and OH MY GOD WHAT THE FUCK SHEL
posted by prize bull octorok at 12:59 PM on October 6, 2014 [11 favorites]


A lot of people seem to be expressing the idea that because a story makes you uncomfortable or upset, that that makes it somehow bad. I'm certain that Silverstein intended the story to be dark, and to make people fill uncomfortable with the amount that the mother is giving and the child is taking. I think he was trying to say that children take too much from their parents, and that parents give too much, and that yet the parents rarely regret it.
posted by empath at 1:00 PM on October 6, 2014 [10 favorites]


damayanti, what did the kids say?


It was a few years back, so I don't quite remember; I'm pretty sure there were some comments of the "The boy was mean" variety, but I think enough of them had heard the story before/had heard the "You should all be like the giving tree!" explanation to be a little confused at me saying "Well, you should be nice to your friends, but don't give them everything".
posted by damayanti at 1:01 PM on October 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


el io: In this piece Shel describes how its justified to hunt down and kill a parent because you don't approve of the name they gave you.
Johnny Cash had very similar advice. A severe beating instead of outright murder, but close enough.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:09 PM on October 6, 2014


Some relationships aren't symmetric, can't ever really be symmetric, and still offer opportunities for both parties. If *all* your relationships in your life (or even more than a few) are like you being the giving tree, then obviously that's pretty terrible, and everyone should be careful about where they take up asymmetric roles, and there are limits. But as far as I can tell, the kind of love talked about in this story really does make the human world go 'round.

Also, at the end of the story, some people read it only as the tree offering more utility (stump as seat). I think there's a reading where what's really offered is a chance for both of them to simply share and enjoy each other's company, which may be the only other thing the tree wanted other than the chance to make another's life through its gifts. In that reading, the overall account still isn't balanced (and never can be), but the moment almost is.
posted by weston at 1:11 PM on October 6, 2014 [3 favorites]


This book is the only gift that my father ever gave me that required any thought at all (i.e., was not a stuffed animal of some sort).

I don't know if it will come as a surprise to anyone that we have had no relationship at all for the last 6 years.
posted by Fuego at 1:13 PM on October 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


The two most singularly disturbing stories from my childhood were The Giving Tree, which my grandmother read to us each Christmas, and Genesis 22 (God tells Abraham to murder his son), which was read in the Catholic church each spring.

I had a similar reaction to both: I'd look around at the adults, who seemed to think that these horrifying stories were perfectly normal, and wonder what the hell was wrong with them.
posted by kanewai at 1:13 PM on October 6, 2014 [10 favorites]


Shel Silverstein was a poet and a trickster. Do not approach this stuff literally. I think this book is trying to mess with you, but at the same time people can read into it what they want.
posted by cell divide at 1:15 PM on October 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


nooneyouknow: Guess who wrote the lyrics to "A Boy Named Sue"? Also do not, I repeat, do not, look up the lyrics to the sequel, also written by Silverstein, "The Father of a Boy Named Sue".
Dammit, I forgot that. Still, Johnny preached the sermon Shel wrote!
posted by IAmBroom at 1:16 PM on October 6, 2014


As an under-5, I thought this book was creepy and horrifying. I think it was the earliest thing I read that (in my current idiom) made me want to bleach my brain. My mother seemed to think it was about love. This is, in retrospect, not surprising. I waited until my own kid was well old before I showed it to her, in the context of 'you have GOT to look at this fucked up book FOR CHILDREN. ABOUT LOVE'.

Then again, I also had huge problems with the idea of someone being tortured and killed on my behalf, resurrection or not, scaled up to all humanity or not. (my understanding of theology was a bit undeveloped at the time.)

When I was about 8 I was also disturbed by The Missing Piece. I had a few books of his poetry, which I don't remember if I actually liked or if I just kept getting him confused with Ogden Nash.

On preview: I think he was trying to say that children take too much from their parents, and that parents give too much, and that yet the parents rarely regret it.

In that case, definitely a picture book for grownups. And when you make sacrifices like that, you do not let the beneficiary of your sacrifices see it. Like Mama's Bank Account, which pushed a few of the same buttons for me when I got older, but was merely scary in retrospect (and encouraging of scaling back one's demands of one's parents and being less selfish) rather than creepy or horrifying.
posted by you must supply a verb at 1:18 PM on October 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


The cyclops at the end of ABZ scared the shit out of me when I was 8.
posted by brujita at 1:31 PM on October 6, 2014


Oh come on. This story isn't any more or less disturbing than other children's books.

Roald Dahl - Every child except the protaganist dies horribly
All Grimm's Fairy Tales - Lot's of murder and incest, and non-consensual transfiguration
(these are actually fairly decent parables about not breaking deals, rather than just death is your punishment for being bratty see above)
THE VELVETEEN RABBIT - 'nuff said

I was raised in the Catholic church, before escaping and Abraham and Isaac and Jesus dying for you are all pretty disturbing.

Children are tiny sociopaths and this stuff flies over their heads until they're older. Which is why we all have these books that we look back on and go "So horrible!," that didn't really affect us at the time.
posted by edbles at 1:41 PM on October 6, 2014 [3 favorites]


Am I just the weird hippie kid that read this as an ecological metaphor? We keep taking from the earth and taking and taking and never giving back and even once the trees are razed, still the earth is there trying to give us stuff?

I mean, it is literally a kid taking things from nature.
posted by chatongriffes at 1:54 PM on October 6, 2014 [8 favorites]


Children are tiny sociopaths and this stuff flies over their heads until they're older. Which is why we all have these books that we look back on and go "So horrible!," that didn't really affect us at the time.

No. They are not sociopaths. They are just not fully formed. A sociopath can't learn to be empathetic, but children can and absolutely do. It's interesting to watch, because it doesn't happen all at once, but in spurts.

And lots of stuff I read and saw on TV affected me profoundly as a kid, even though I didn't have the language to understand it or analyze it. Do not assume that stuff is going over kid's heads. It might be going straight into their nightmares or feeding their confusion instead. If you're reading them stuff with iffy bits or parts that seem to alarm them or confuse them, then it's good to talk to them and teach them to question the text. I have asked my kid after reading something "Do you think that was fair?" or "Why do you think so and so did such and such?" And I get some interesting answers, and often he then talks about other parts that he was bothered by or didn't understand.

I don't think there's enough "there" there for this book to bother doing that, it's pretty thin gruel, in terms of literature; but we have had to do that with some other books we've read.
posted by emjaybee at 2:01 PM on October 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


Do you know how certain fairy tales (or certain versions) have some awkward happy ending tacked on at the end, just so they don't end up total downers? Like the ending to the Little Mermaid, which is considered to be a late addition?

Well to me The Giving Tree is Oscar Wilde's The Happy Prince without the half-assed happy ending. The point of the story is to feel bad because the tree gives and gives until it's down to nothing. Some people think he shouldn't do that: I think it's more important to realize, as a reader, that the boy didn't respond in kind. But beyond that, the action of the tree exemplifies giving at its most sincere: without asking anything in return and just to see the other person happy. The book is sad because he does something beautiful to the end and the boy never seems to appreciate it (but you as a reader do!).

The reaction of "the tree was a fool" and "you shouldn't be like the tree" is a bit heartbreaking because they punish the tree for the actions of the boy. Much like when people criticize books like Twilight because they encourage girls to devote themselves whole to another person, my takeaway is a bit the same than the one I get from The Giving Tree: giving yourself is the most beautiful thing when the other person also gives him/herself up to you. The boy didn't, and that's why the story is so tragic.

I'd like to think Silverstein could've added a line at the end where the now old man realizes how much of a fool he was. But that would've diminished the point that giving is a reward in itself and doesn't require appreciation or some sort of final vindication.
posted by infinitelives at 2:01 PM on October 6, 2014 [4 favorites]


Didn't anyone find it unsettling that the tree was finally happy once "the boy" was a sad, broken old man who only wanted a place to sit? He's a ruin. But the tree? The tree's happy now. Because he'll never run away again.

That's all the tree cares about.

Tell me that's not creepy.
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 2:02 PM on October 6, 2014 [3 favorites]


Also, at the end of the story, some people read it only as the tree offering more utility (stump as seat). I think there's a reading where what's really offered is a chance for both of them to simply share and enjoy each other's company, which may be the only other thing the tree wanted other than the chance to make another's life through its gifts. In that reading, the overall account still isn't balanced (and never can be), but the moment almost is.

"Giving/sacrifice" and "seeing the boy again" are the two things that make the tree happy. For me, I'd be more willing to have a positive reading of the ending if we were ever told that the boy was happy. But after every encounter, the boy gets something from the tree, and we're explicitly told that the tree is happy, and it seems like it'd be easy to throw in a "and the boy was happy, too" or something, but we never get that.
posted by 23skidoo at 2:04 PM on October 6, 2014


It doesn't mean anything. It's just got a particular kind of abstract structure that makes it easy to project all kinds of meaning into, like a lot of allegories. But it seems to describe something with awfulness in it no matter how you parse it.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:04 PM on October 6, 2014 [3 favorites]


You can't mention Shel Silverstein's "Boy Named Sue" lyric without acknowledging his own response song: "Father of a Boy Named Sue".

Nor can you bring up Liar Town's variation on The Giving Tree without Shel's similarly worded song.

and for the kids, there's also "You're Always Welcome at Our House".

but the ultimate Shel Silverstein has to be represented by the surprisingly most popular song from his "Freaking at the Freakers Ball" album on the Dr. Demento show: "Sahra Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take The Garbage Out" (although much of the album was not allowed on the air at the time) (the rest of the album is here)
posted by oneswellfoop at 2:10 PM on October 6, 2014


23skidoo: "Giving/sacrifice" and "seeing the boy again" are the two things that make the tree happy.

There's one point when:
And the tree was happy. But not really.
...and that's when the tree's sacrifice (letting the boy, now an old man, build a boat and sail away) fails to keep the boy near. That's what tips the story for me from, "Well, maybe the tree just likes giving!" to "Nope, it's all about keeping the boy close."
posted by clawsoon at 2:15 PM on October 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


Maybe this book's (ironically) for the parents? I hated this book as a kid and wanted to give the boy a swift kick up the backside. Seriously? You want a house, kid? Make some bricks! Mud and stone all over the place! Hit up a Home Depot and pay, like everyone else!

And when I was very little, I thought that Shel Silverstein was a pirate who wrote on his off hours, when he wasn't swinging around the deck of a big ship with a cutlass between his teeth.
posted by droplet at 2:17 PM on October 6, 2014 [7 favorites]


We actually had one of these trees in our back yard when I was a kid. It would come into my room at night because it "liked to watch me sleep". Utterly terrifying. I still wake up in a cold sweat whenever a branch scratches against my window.

It was insanely jealous. I couldn't have anything that wasn't made from that damn tree. Well, almost, stuff that was entirely metal was OK, so I had an erector set. Yay, I guess. But anything made of wood, or paper, or fibers, had to come from that tree, or it would destroy it. Plastic? Not a chance. "That's made of other old, dead trees. Old, dead trees that don't love you." Oh, the "fun" I had, playing with leaves and branches, with that tree watching me every moment.

Of course, the big breakdown didn't come until I tried to leave for college. We kept it from the tree for as long as I could, but of course it eventually found out. And it. Flipped. Out. It tried to trap me in the house. It slashed the tires on the car. You know how BIG a mature tree is? You know how much one WEIGHS? Looking back, I think I'm lucky I'm alive.

A few months into my freshman year, I found a leaf in my dorm room. I moved into off-campus housing the next week, and didn't get my mail forwarded. It ended up costing me thousands of dollars. For all I know, that leaf just came in stuck to someone's shoe. But no way in hell was I going to risk it.

So, sure, get mad at the boy for being a "selfish asshole". Blame the victim. I wish I'd had the brains to say I "wanted a boat", and the guts to chop that thing down if it fell for it. If you want, you can read this moving story about fighting back against your worst nightmare, finally winning, and coming back at the end of your life to SIT ON THAT STUMP, and say, "Ugh, that boy, so cruel and heartless." Think whatever you like.

But those of us who grew up with a Giving Tree in the yard ... we know what it means.
posted by kyrademon at 2:46 PM on October 6, 2014 [26 favorites]


I love this story. I'll echo empath in thinking that the discomfort this story brings is a mark of its genius. I also agree with Nevin that the love seems very Christ like. The parable it actually reminds me of (and the only parable I think of with any regularity) is the prodigal son. Killing the fatted calf to welcome back a loved one who left you is a beautiful thing, the giving tree does that over and over again.
posted by macrael at 2:55 PM on October 6, 2014


I figure that the tree's happiness at the end is not intended to placate the reader. Rather, it twists the knife to drive home how horrifying the boy's behaviour is. Taking advantage of someone is bad, but seeing the victim trustingly encourage the attacker makes one seethe at the injustice of it all.
posted by CaseyB at 3:21 PM on October 6, 2014 [3 favorites]


Since re-reading this as an adult, I've always thought of it as "The Tree That Needed to Get Some Fucking Boundaries."
posted by Squeak Attack at 3:36 PM on October 6, 2014 [7 favorites]


Shel seems like a complicated guy with a good heart and a dark streak. Its a fraught tale but not about the boy; its The Giving Tree and not Some People Just Take and Take and Sometimes They Are Your Children. Also, its dedicated to an ex-girlfriend in case you need an alternate take not yet discussed.

We received a bath-friendly version of The Rainbow Fish and it's a lot tighter with less bullshit.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 4:00 PM on October 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


It's just got a particular kind of abstract structure that makes it easy to project all kinds of meaning into, like a lot of allegories. But it seems to describe something with awfulness in it no matter how you parse it.

Maybe this is it. In college I was surprised at how many people had loved the book as a child. I rarely heard anything bad about it. For me it was -

- and Ogre Lawless just hinted at this while I was typing -

- a metaphor for abuse. And I don't know why my childhood brain would have gone there; I didn't come from an abusive family. But we heard whispers about some of the other families in the neighborhood, and I saw the tree as a stand-in for those housewives who would suffer now, but would eventually find love when the man was too tired and weak and decrepit to wander further.
posted by kanewai at 4:04 PM on October 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


I always thought the moral of The Giving Tree was "unconditional love will destroy you," and that it was a cautionary tale.
posted by Ndwright at 5:16 PM on October 6, 2014 [3 favorites]


I think the book is creepy and sad and I don't know enough about parenting to say whether it's an appropriate thing for a child to read.

But I like it.
posted by brundlefly at 5:20 PM on October 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


Random Shel Silverstein trivia: he was also friends with singer Judy Henske and wrote the liner notes for at least one of her albums.
posted by eviemath at 7:06 PM on October 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


I love shel silverstein's work and this is a book I adore with all my heart. I don't know why I loved it as a child but as an adult it speaks to me deeply. I think of all the things I've taken without realizing what it costs the other person. My actions were self-centered but I never meant to be malicious. There is a kind of beauty in that depth of love, even as it eats your own heart. And there is a person in my life I tried to give every part of me to, tried to save him with every breath in me, but he killed himself and I wish I could still give to him, no matter the personal cost.
posted by Aranquis at 8:10 PM on October 6, 2014 [5 favorites]


"Since re-reading this as an adult, I've always thought of it as "The Tree That Needed to Get Some Fucking Boundaries."

Well, even if the tree said no, eventually the kid will get bigger, chop it down and TAKE WHAT HE WANTS.

(yeah, let's make the metaphor even worse.)
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:31 PM on October 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


I think it's a great read for adults. But definitely on the darker side. Kind of like Kafka.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:11 PM on October 6, 2014


If the sacrifice of the Giving Tree maps to the Crucifixion, you could justify the boy's action with the extreme version of the antinomian heresy: Sin the more, that grace may abound!
posted by clawsoon at 1:51 AM on October 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


/keanu

Forrest Gump is the giving tree. I'll let you guess who Jennay is.
posted by aydeejones at 3:06 AM on October 7, 2014 [3 favorites]


A guy I dated a long time ago gave me this book and read it to me meaningfully. Boy did I feel like a piece of crap. I still wouldn't sleep with him, though.

Ah, youth.
posted by onlyconnect at 7:28 AM on October 7, 2014 [6 favorites]


I think that tree is running some type of long con.
posted by malocchio at 7:40 AM on October 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


No one's linked to the Toast's take/parody/satire/what-have-you yet?

What The Giving Tree Gives
posted by RainyJay at 7:45 AM on October 7, 2014 [3 favorites]


Oh that is glorious.
posted by Artw at 7:57 AM on October 7, 2014


Oh, shoot, mhoye totally already linked to it. Reading is hard.

But seriously. Good piece, much better take.
posted by RainyJay at 9:06 AM on October 7, 2014


I fucking hate this book. It my mother's highly-skilled guilt trolling distilled into paper form. I once received it as a passive aggressive Christmas gift. Years of of expensive therapy to figure out that I'm not the greedy, self-absorbed ass she believes I am.

I may still have some issues...
posted by Fezboy! at 8:08 PM on October 7, 2014 [3 favorites]


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