The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
The Giving Tree is a children’s picture book written and illustrated by Shel Silverstein. First published in 1964 by Harper & Row, it has become one of Silverstein’s best known titles and has been translated into numerous languages.
Despite the recognition that the book has received, it has been described as “one of the most divisive books in children’s literature.” The controversy concerns whether the relationship between the main characters (a boy and a tree) should be interpreted as positive (e.g., the tree gives the boy selfless love) or as negative (e.g., the boy and the tree have an abusive relationship). Scholastic designates the interest level of this book to range from kindergarten to second grade.
Silverstein had difficulty finding a publisher for The Giving Tree. An editor at Simon & Schuster rejected the book’s manuscript because he felt that it was “too sad” for children and “too simple” for adults. Tomi Ungerer encouraged Silverstein to approach Ursula Nordstrom, who was a publisher with Harper & Row.
An editor with Harper & Row stated that Silverstein had made the original illustrations “scratchy” like his cartoons for Playboy, but that he later reworked the art in a “more pared-down and much sweeter style.” The final black-and-white drawings have been described as “unadorned… visual minimalism.” Harper & Row published a small first edition of the book, consisting of only 5,000-7,500 copies, in 1964.
The book follows the lives of a female apple tree and a boy, who develop a relationship with one another. The tree is very “giving” and the boy evolves into a “taking” teen-ager, man, then elderly man. Despite the fact that the boy ages in the story, the tree addresses the boy as “Boy” his entire life.
In his childhood, the boy enjoys playing with the tree, climbing her trunk, swinging from her branches, and eating her apples. However, as the boy grows older, he spends less time with the tree and tends to visit her only when he wants material items at various stages of his life. In an effort to make the boy happy at each of these stages, the tree gives him parts of herself, which he can transform into material items, such as money (from her apples), a house (from her branches), and a boat (from her trunk). With every stage of giving, “the Tree was happy”.
In the final pages, both the tree and the boy feel the sting of their respective “giving” and “taking” nature. When only a stump remains for the tree, she is not happy, at least at that moment. The boy does return as a tired elderly man to meet the tree once more and states that all he wants is “a quiet place to sit and rest,” which the tree could provide. With this final stage of giving, “the Tree was happy”.
Interest in the book increased by word of mouth; for example, in churches “it was hailed as a parable on the joys of giving.” As of 2001, over 5 million copies of the book had been sold, placing it 14th on a list of hardcover “All-Time Bestselling Children’s Books” from Publishers Weekly. By 2011, there were 8.5 million copies in print.
In a 1999-2000 National Education Association online survey of children, among the “Kids’ Top 100 Books,” the book was 24th. Based on a 2007 online “Teachers’ Top 100 Books for Children” poll by the National Education Association, the book came in third. It was 85th of the “Top 100 Picture Books” of all time in a 2012 poll by School Library Journal. Scholastic Parent & Child magazine placed it #9 on its list of “100 Greatest Books for Kids” in 2012. As of 2013, it ranked third on a Goodreads list of “Best Children’s Books.”
To say that this particular apple tree is a “giving tree” is an understatement. In Shel Silverstein’s popular tale of few words and simple line drawings, a tree starts out as a leafy playground, shade provider, and apple bearer for a rambunctious little boy. Making the boy happy makes the tree happy, but with time it becomes more challenging for the generous tree to meet his needs. When he asks for money, she suggests that he sell her apples. When he asks for a house, she offers her branches for lumber. When the boy is old, too old and sad to play in the tree, he asks the tree for a boat. She suggests that he cut her down to a stump so he can craft a boat out of her trunk. He unthinkingly does it. At this point in the story, the double-page spread shows a pathetic solitary stump, poignantly cut down to the heart the boy once carved into the tree as a child that said “M.E. + T.” “And then the tree was happy… but not really.” When there’s nothing left of her, the boy returns again as an old man, needing a quiet place to sit and rest. The stump offers up her services, and he sits on it. “And the tree was happy.” While the message of this book is unclear (Take and take and take? Give and give and give? Complete self-sacrifice is good? Complete self-sacrifice is infinitely sad?), Silverstein has perhaps deliberately left the book open to interpretation. (All ages) –Karin Snelson
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