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The 101 Picture Book Challenge: The Giving Tree

Posted 4 months ago by Eric P

Posted in Children & Parenting, eBooks & eAudiobooks, Fiction, Literature, Poetry & Graphic Novels and Movies, Music, & Audiobooks | Tagged with 101 Picture Book Challenge, picture books, poems for kids, reading recommendations and shel silverstein books
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

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Full Disclosure:

I’m not the biggest fan of Shel Silverstein’s "The Giving Tree." Like a lot of kids, I bonded more thoroughly with his now-classic illustrated collections of quirky verse.


Books by Shel Silverstein I Liked More Than "The Giving Tree"

Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein
A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein
Falling Up by Shel Silverstein

Also, for the record, my favorite Silverstein book was "Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book," a parodic primer in which Silverstein encouraged his readers to skip school, send him money from their parents’ wallets, and notice that “ink” sounds like “drink.” That was more my speed. Don't get me wrong: I didn't hate "The Giving Tree." I was sort of indifferent to it.

Some People Really Hate "The Giving Tree"

Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book by Shel Silverstein

They hate the way the boy returns again and again to the tree, asking first for companionship and then for money and then for lumber. She gives him everything of herself until (SPOILERS!) nothing’s left of her but a stump. Which he sits on. The end.

Some object to the way the tree is magnanimous to the point of self-destruction, and the way the boy never gives her anything in return. He seems like a jerk; she seems like a patsy. This is one of our 101 favorite picture books?

But consider: what if the boy is a jerk? And the tree is a patsy? And that’s just the way the story’s supposed to be?

As adults, we don’t expect the characters in books we read always to be nice, or smart, or virtuous. Otherwise we wouldn’t read about Becky Sharp or Humbert Humbert or Macbeth. Milton would’ve totally skipped over all that Satan stuff in "Paradise Lost." Consider the people in the TV shows we watch: Don Draper, Walter White and Hannah Horvath -– none of them stellar role models. Even kids, shortly after they graduate from picture books, find themselves reading about Mary Lennox in "The Secret Garden" and Greg Heffley in "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" and Lewis Carroll’s Alice – all of them kind of jerky.

Pages from The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

It’s hard to let go of our idea that literature is supposed to impart moral, spiritual and behavioral lessons. We think characters are supposed to be admirable and likable -- or, at least, if they start out flawed, they get better.

Modeling virtue and growth is among literature’s purposes, but it’s not its only purpose. Sometimes characters behave badly because it’s entertaining, or because that’s how the world works sometimes, or because it’s sad. Books, especially for young readers, can be an opportunity to practice feeling sad. Or mad, or complicated. 

Other Picture Books That Aren't Instruction Manuals

And once you start looking around, you notice there are lots of picture books about characters who are dumb or wrathful or selfish or annoying – people no one aspires to be.

Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems
Marvin K Mooney Will You Please Go Now by Dr. Seuss
Egg Drop by Mini Grey
The Stupids Die by Harry Allard
This is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen
XO, Ox by Adam Rex

The (Un)Happy Ending

Once I started thinking about the reasons that people dislike "The Giving Tree," I realized there’s actually a lot that I like about "The Giving Tree:" the fable-like storytelling; the elegant, kinetic simplicity of its black-and-white drawings. But I also love the way its final assertion – “the tree was happy” – feels like it may not be true.

Because also consider: an article in The New Yorker reports that Silverstein hated happy endings. And when describing "The Giving Tree," he said, “It has a pretty sad ending.”

Besides, don’t forget he’s the same person who unleashed "Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book" on the world. So whatever he was trying to do with "The Giving Tree," it probably wasn't entirely warm and fuzzy.

Pages from Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book by Shel Silverstein

What is the 101 Picture Book Challenge?

The 101 Picture Book Challenge is a list of recent and classic picture books that we think are great and want you to read. This is the latest in a series of blog posts exploring some of the things we love about these books.

Give 3 Get 3 : Personalized Recommendations

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Give 3 Get 3: Personalized recommendations from library staff

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