Written and Illustrated by Shel Silverstein
Once there was a tree, and she loved a little boy.
What makes this book so dangerous? It is sexist and promotes an abusive relationship.
The boy and the tree love each other. He spends lots of time with her, eating apples, climbing up the tree and swinging from the branches. But as he gets older, he starts wanting things and the tree is always happy to provide. When he wants money, she gives him her apples to sell. When he wants a house, she offers her branches as building material. When he wants a boat, she offers her trunk for him to hollow out. Years later, the boy comes back as an old man and the tree is sad that she has nothing left to offer him. He tells her that all he wants is a place to sit and rest and the tree offers up her stump, which is all she has. The old man sits to rest and the tree is happy.
Here you have it, folks…one of the most divisive and hotly debated books in the picture book community. There are many who believe author/illustrator Shel Silverstein meant the book to be a subversive parody of the nature of relationships. Some feel it’s a political or environmental statement and others feel it was meant as a cautionary tale to the hippie culture of the 60’s. It’s said to depict the unconditional love of God for his followers, but others interpret it as a mother/child relationship, a romantic relationship or an allegory for friendship and the way it often falls apart when one friend ‘grows up’ and leaves.
The Giving Tree was banned in a Colorado school system for being sexist, since the tree is depicted as a female and there have even been multiple allegations that this book, like The Lorax, criminalizes the foresting industry (since we feel sad at the end when the tree is just a stump). Mr. Silverstein was said to have been seriously annoyed at having to defend this book and answer questions about the different interpretations people have taken over the years. As for myself, I have always liked this story and have always felt sorry for the boy, who seems to have lived an entire unfulfilled life, than for the tree, who spent most of the book happy to be able to take care of the boy she loved.
And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that the joy of giving to the people we love is its own reward.