In observation of the upcoming holiday spirit that must be a daunting figure in our lives, it seems appropriate to bring up a children’s book that is all about being thankful (wait… is it?)—it’s called The Giving Tree.
(If anyone finds themself unfamiliar with this story, here is a brief synopsis: One upon a time there was a boy who was best friends with a tree, and although trees do not talk, this one sure did. From childhood, the boy grew up playing with the tree, but as the boy grew, he came to visit less, and the tree stayed (as most trees usually stay in one place), always waiting for the boy. The boy would return to the tree, taking pieces that it willingly gave to the boy to help him become a man. Until one day the boy gets old, and all that is left of the tree is her stump, and he sits on the stump without ever saying “thank you.”)
Not only is this book an interesting topic to consider with Thanksgiving right around the corner and reminding us of what we feel gratitude for in certain aspects of our lives, but the NCSCL’s very own Dr. Joseph T. Thomas has a forthcoming book from Make Now Press entitled Shel Silverstein, The Devil's Favorite Pet, which we are anticipating with great earnestness (like a kid on that “one day”).
The Giving Tree, by Silverstein, is a book that lives on the shelves in many households today. And while children seem to still be captured by the pictures and words on the pages, parents reading it to their children today often feel a sense of nostalgia, because it is a book that lives within their own childhoods. However, as much of Dr. Thomas’s work teaches us, Silverstein was much more than just a simple children’s author. In his article, “A Speculative Account (with Notes) of the Development and Initial Deployments of Shel Silverstein’s Persona, Uncle Shelby, with Special Care to Articulate the Relationship of Said Persona to the Question of Shel’s Ambiguous Audience(s),” Thomas suggests that perhaps the children’s poet and author becomes more of a multi-faceted persona when we really discover all of his different types of accomplishments that might have not been as children’s author-y as he has made his name out to be. He was a songwriter, singer, poet, adult comic strip author, illustrator, and, of course, children’s author—the latter formed at his own hand (25). So with such careful attention to his establishment as a child’s book author, what’s with all the fuss over a book like The Giving Tree as anything less than a great children’s book…?
When looking into how this book is being talked about in current online media, one Huffington Post writer paints a vivid picture of how the book scarred her children when she read it to them in her article, “Thanks But No Thanks, Shel Silverstein” (April 2015). Nicole Jankowski writes about how her children went as far as to punch the picture of Silverstein on the back cover because they were traumatized and upset by the story. She even begins to question her own happy childhood memories with the book because of this carnivalesque reaction (a term used to describe children’s more crude and improper behavior when parents are away) of her own children right in front of her.
In another Huffington Post article, “Was The Giving Tree A Chump?” (April 2015), Robert Levy discusses the ridiculousness of parents who find issues with the book, and points out that a common theme of many current online blogs is that The Giving Tree should be kept out of children’s hands. In his article, Levy questions: “How could Silverstein's parable be misinterpreted as a straightforward tale extolling the virtues of selflessness and sacrifice? Does anyone really think Silverstein intended his readers to happily accept that the tree, reduced to a mere stump at the story's conclusion by the boy's relentless taking, should truly be pleased by the boy's actions, and that we should be as well?”
And while there are so many feelings that follow this book over the last 50 years of its publication, there are also a variety of interpretations that also follow it. Most common would be that the tree character is often suggested to be a representation of God, and so some believe that The Giving Tree holds a religious agenda that discretely asserts itself upon the reader. Others say it is a commentary on parenting and how a child will be the person that uses their parents all up, until they have nothing left. Another interpretation suggests that it is a sexist text that weaves a story where men are allowed to use women, since the tree is referred to as a “she.”
But what I find as the most interesting interpretation for the story is that it suggests a hidden commentary on the ways capitalism runs our society. The bond between Silverstein’s art and poetry and the public audience, may even provide an even more curious suggestion to the workings of this book.
And while these popular scenarios hold sad and problematic interpretations of this story, it is undeniable to ignore that it is still a popular story, and its author a topic of contemplation. Thomas notes, “Silverstein is often some- thing of a one-note poet. But we shouldn’t dismiss Silverstein out of hand, nor should we dismiss his aesthetic achievement. Shel’s here, and, rest his soul, he’s here to stay—or at least his poetry is—filling up bookstore shelf space, delighting young readers, and providing an easy target for academics” (Reappraising Uncle Shelby 283).
- “Thanks But No Thanks, Shel Silverstein” by Nicole Jankowski
- “Was The Giving Tree A Chump?” by Robert Levy
- Joseph T. Thomas Jr. "Reappraising Uncle Shelby." The Horn Book Magazine. May/June 2005: 283-93.
- Joseph T. Thomas Jr. “A Speculative Account (with Notes) of the Development & Initial Deployments of Shel Silverstein's Persona, Uncle Shelby, with Special Care to Articulate the Relationship of Said Persona to the Question of Shel's Ambiguous Audience(s).” Children's Literature Association Quarterly. 36.1 (2011): 25-46.