This Sunday's book is 'The Giving Tree' by Shel Silverstein.
We need to talk about 'The Giving Tree.'
When I saw a picture of the cover on someone else's Instagram, I wanted to review it because I was reminded that it is quite possibly the most depressing children's book ever written. I mean it's on the Artax in the Swamps of Sadness level of soul-crushing despair.
But you already knew that. And I'm not here to discuss the plot of the book because I'm going to assume you know that, too. What we need to discuss is the message 'The Giving Tree' sends to children, and whether it's a good one. I used to think the book was all about being selfless. But now I'm worried it's a misogynistic tale that reinforces the patriarchy. First of all, the name is all wrong. It would be more accurate to call this book 'The Taking Man.' The tree loves the boy, but the boy only loves the tree insofar as the tree provides for his immediate satisfaction. As the boy grows into a man all he does is take and take and take and take until the tree is like:
This is abuse. The motherly tree's sole purpose is to make the manboy happy, in hopes that he'll spend a little time with her. Does the manboy give anything to the tree? No. Does she have any sort of interior desire other than to serve the manboy's needs? Nope. Does she have other tree friends or forest creatures to commiserate with or to give her life meaning other than to provide for the manboy? Of course not. Trapped in her clearing, she is isolated, hostage to the manboy's whims and rapacious greed. This is a terrible interpretation of the mother/son dynamic. And it sends the awful message to young boys that they have no need of a conscience, that they can just take from women whatever they want without repercussion or reciprocation. And it tells young girls that this is what they should expect and accept. That makes me furious, Shel Silverstein. Shame on you. I want justice for the tree. I want arboreal revenge:
Now, we should all strive to be like the tree and give to and help others without thought of praise or reward. Like:
Giving is good. It helps the world be a better place. But there are limits, and the person who is taking should be a giver, too. We've all had the friend who never buys a round of drinks or only chips in their share on the dinner bill to the exact penny. Nobody likes these people because they are only takers like the manboy. Bar tabs and dinner checks all even out in the end, Scrooge. Then there are the people for whom giving is transactional. Nobody likes people who use social interactions to keep score, either:
'The Giving Tree' was one of the most influential books from my childhood (the photo is of my copy from back then that I still have) along with 'Tawny Scrawny Lion' by Kathryn Jackson, 'Mickey Mouse and the Haunted House' by an uncredited Disney writer, 'A Ghost Named Fred' by Nathaniel Benchley (I DARE YOU to read this to your kids) and 'Harold and the Purple Crayon' by Crocket Johnson. (I have some feelings about that violet nihilist, too, but I'll tackle him in another review.) And I still have fond memories of 'The Giving Tree.' But revisiting it after so many years had me like:
Parents need to be sure that if they read 'The Giving Tree' to their children, they do so with the caveat that the manboy behaves badly, and they should never be like him. Maybe this is obvious. But it's always worth repeating.
'The Giving Tree' by Shel Silverstein was originally published by Harper & Row in 1964.
** If you enjoyed this review, please forward it to a friend. **
What's next? In the coming weeks Books on GIF will review 'The God of Small Things' by Arundhati Roy, 'The Power' by Naomi Alderman and 'The Shipping News' by Annie Proulx, among others.
Support Books on GIF! Tell your friends, your book club, or even the person sitting next to you at the coffee shop about us, and help BoG grow. Here's the subscription link: tinyletter.com/BooksonGIF. Here's an archive of reviews.
Got a book you want me to review? Got an idea to help me improve BoG? Shoot me a note at email@example.com.
Thanks for reading!*
* Thanks especially to Donna for copy editing this review!