Every Tuesday in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.

It’s the 50th anniversary of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree—that iconic staple of children’s libraries and perennial baby shower gift. The milestone has prompted a maelstrom of reflections on the text, many from adults whose contemporary re-readings of the text disrupt the nostalgic memories of childhood storytimes. Ruth Margalt, in The New Yorker, reflects “The dismay I felt on rereading the book soon gave way to something else. Finding that a childhood favorite wasn’t at all what I remembered carried with it a peculiar thrill, a kind of scientific proof that I’d grown up and changed.” Margalt concludes, “Maybe it’s enough to take Silverstein’s own reading of it. ‘It’s about a boy and a tree,’ he once said. ‘It has a pretty sad ending.’”

It is about a boy and a tree, but what else readers bring to the interpretation is a matter of some debate. Writing a debate for Brain, Child, Lauren Apfel sums up “the poignancy—and pain—of the story is the changing nature of the parent-child relationship,” while her respondent, Kristina Cerise, resists the comparison to parenthood, exhorting: “Unconditional love causes no harm. Unconditional giving, on the other hand, leads to dependent, ungrateful children. Healthy relationships are mutualistic, not parasitic. Mothers should love unconditionally; they should not give unconditionally.” My own reading tends more toward Cerise’s here, and my thoughts turned back to the book when our pastor recently discussed the passage on giving good gifts.

As part of a First Things symposium on The Giving Tree, Marc Gellman writes, “In the end I am convinced that the tree was a well-meaning but foolish giver,” because of the ways the tree failed to morally and spiritually instruct the boy (as good parents ought to at least attempt). Gellman’s comment reminds me of a feeling I often associate with bedtime—those tense moments followed by a nutritious dinner, a stack of storybooks, family prayers, and round upon round of “one more hug.” It seems sometimes like my husband and I will never be able to close our girls’ doors and rest, because there’s always another question, another “I love you,” another request for water. It’s that exhaustion at the end of a long day that always reminds me that giving, or giving more, does not satisfy.

It’s why sometimes it feels like the best parenting advice comes from Machiavelli, as I wrote over a year ago. We don’t please more just because we give more, and while Silverstein’s tree (rooted and immobile as it is) expresses happiness at being used (until she admits “…but not really”), I feel mostly frustration. I’m not talking about the inherent dependency of children who are, by virtue of being children and human, deserving of love and respect and care. It’s that I agree with Gellman in finding the tree deficient as teacher, who instead of giving to the point of self-destruction (and enabling the boy’s self-destruction), ought to have aspired to instruction in character and spiritual fortitude.

Re-reading The Giving Tree now reminds me of listening to Neil Gaiman’s “Troll Bridge,” where after three delays to be eaten by the titular monster, submits to being consumed and takes up the troll’s refrain “Fol rol de ol rol.” Gaiman suggests that his protagonist finally agrees to having his life “eaten” because he has wasted it so completely; like the boy in Silverstein’s picture book, Gaiman’s character comes back because there’s nowhere else to go and no one else to go to. Yet in Gaiman’s story, readers recognize the boy and troll as interchangeable by the end; his self-destruction and reckless living are monstrous. Why do so many readers resist recognizing that same monstrosity in Silverstein’s boy?

What if a story about a boy and a tree is really a story about monstrosity, not martyrdom? Or, what if assuming the mantle of parenthood as martyr is itself a kind of monstrosity? Matthew 7 reminds us that we as parents strive to give our children good gifts—but it also prefaces by stating that we are evil. We give and give—our time and our bodies, our talents and our teaching; we strive to give generously even when our emotional, financial, and physical resources are depleting by the ceaseless giving. But there are some gifts we can’t give, because those only come from God’s gift to us, the Holy Spirit. And so I read a story about a boy and a tree and apply it to my own stories, happy or sad, nostalgic or cynical, yet in the end, as I close the book, I feel so worn out with giving that I can only look upward and keep on taking—though I hope, with a thankful heart.


2 Comments

  1. I have a friend who uses Silverstein’s book as a litmus test for you belief in the Gospel. If you think the tree is an accurate representation of Jesus, you’re in. If you think the tree misrepresents Jesus, you’re a legalist or worse. Of course, I’m worse.

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