“Once there was a tree…and she loved a little boy.”
But did the little boy love her?
If you’re like me, you grew up with the red overall-clad boy and a
grieving giving tree. Here’s a brief synopsis: as a child, the boy plays on the tree, as a love-struck teenager he takes her apples to sell, as an adult he cuts down her branches to build a house, as an aging man he builds a boat from her trunk and then finally, as an old man he sits on her stump to rest.
Here’s the complete story if you’re still a little foggy.
As a child, I adored this love story. But as an adult, I’m branching out.
Is this a pink novel?
Not unless you find unobtainable expectations for parents comforting.
Four reasons why The Giving Tree hurts the heart:
- The boy is selfish jerk. Harsh, but it’s true. The tree surrenders herself completely for the boy’s happiness, yet there are no “thank you’s” or “please’s.” The majority of his sentences begin with “I want.” This might seem typical for children, but from an adult? You’re barking up the wrong tree (pun definitely intended). The conviction of the extremely selfish boy is so popular that in 2012, Simon & Schuster published The Taking Tree: A Selfish Parody in which the boy cuts down the tree to build a house that he later burns for insurance money. Low blow man, low blow.
- The tree, acting as a motherly figure, is submissive. Some view the tree’s willingness to sacrifice herself as a gift. I call it unstable. As one Goodreads user commented, “Co-dependent tree needs to set some fucking boundaries.” The nurturing tree provides for the child without expecting anything in return. Apples? Sure, they grow back. Branches? Maybe you can take just a few. But my trunk and the core of my being? Put down the saw before I channel my inner Whomping Willow. Even YouTube’s famous Sassy Gay Friend made a video about his giving tree intervention.
- There are a lack of childhood morals. When asked to defend the book, our man Shelly repeatedly replied, “It’s just a relationship between two people; one gives and the other takes.” That’s like saying, “Watership Down is just a story about bunnies.” It’s so much more. This is the word magician who wrote about sidewalks that turned into meadows and hug-of-wars. I understand Shel isn’t a big fan of happy endings, me neither. But I do think children’s books should offer some variety of morals.
- The ending makes me want to bawl into a box of Kleenex…but then I remember what Kleenexs are made of. The Giving Tree seems to come to a resolution by the final page, but it’s just a cold-hearted trick; the truth is hidden behind the conflicting words and illustrations.
After the boy strips the tree to a stump, the last line of the story reads, “And the tree was happy.” She might be happy, consumed by love and unhealthy devotion, but what about the boy? The last illustration shows a barefoot old man. His back is curved as if he carries an enormous weight and his nose sags toward the ground as he stares expressionless into the forest. Readers are left wondering if he’s replaying childhood memories or if he’s remorseful about chopping up his friend.
We want the boy to realize that happiness can be found in the company of a familiar friend or that people can’t escape their problems with a homemade canoe, but this revelation never explicitly occurs and we’re left with a diminished tree and a dreary old man. In the New York Times book review, Rivka Galchen notes,“Silverstein would have made it funny, if that was what it was meant to be.”
At the end of the story, I don’t think the boy is happy. I think he recognizes everything he took from the tree didn’t lead to utter bliss. The tree may be happy, but only in a constrained half-defeated way; she has nothing left to give and is defenseless if the boy wants more. And the reader? I was happy reading this as a child but now I just want to hug the nearest tree and never let go.
So who’s happy?
There are some hidden take-aways from the book. For one, it (perhaps unintentionally) touches on environmentalism. Say what you will about the annoying boy, but the fella did know how to reduce, reuse and recycle. Every time he looks at his refurbished cottage, he’ll remember his once-leafy friend.
And it’s an unforgettable tale. A quick search on Google will uncover iPhone covers, reimagined comics, literary tattoos (Ryan Gosling, is that you?) and nonprofit organizations that were inspired by the children’s book.
I’ll still read The Giving Tree—maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for a depressing ending. But I also love the whimsical illustrations and will vividly recall the moment when the tree’s leaves shook with joy and her outstretched branches embraced the boy. But as an adult, I’ll also remember the haunting effects of unquestionably giving oneself away until there’s nothing left and sacrificing oneself for a happy ending that’s never published.
BookSmart Nutrition Facts
Cost: $10.40 or $9.99 on Kindle (as if).
Titles by the Author: Where the Sidewalk Ends, A Light in the Attic, Falling Up
First Sentence: “Once there was a tree…and she loved a little boy.”
Awards: 1974 New York Times Outstanding Book Award