I’m going to say something possibly unpopular and perhaps a bit strange. I hate the children’s book The Giving Tree, even though oddly, it was my favorite book. I remember being five and reading the story and just weeping for the tree, feeling devastated. Understanding what she was feeling. I recall hating the boy and the self-centered narcissist he grew up to be. Taking and taking and never giving.
Why did the narcissist cross the road? Easy. She thought it was a boundary.
As a child I was obsessed with most of Shel Silverstein’s work, memorizing poems from Where the Sidewalk Ends. But maybe my early fascination with Silverstein highlights what good writers do for their audience, no matter the age.
While many people love The Giving Tree and hail it as a wonderful tale of unconditional love, there is also the other camp who finds the tale remarkably disturbing. But look at what this simple story says about its audience.
Point of View
First of all, I wonder if the story is much like those images we see in self-help books. One person sees an old hag and the other a beautiful young woman staring in the mirror. Does the child who comes from a kind and loving family see the maternal tree as a caretaker who loves no matter what? No strings attached? Or is the child seeing a reflection of the dance of codependency and narcissism around them?
Children are very smart. They see with much more honest eyes than most adults.
Reflection of Self
I’ve talked about this before in my post, Drop the Donkey. I honestly believe that stories we gravitate to as children says a lot about our fundamental nature, our strengths and weaknesses.
I always loved the parable of the Tortoise and the Hare, namely because one of my strongest traits is my persistence. I loved the parable of The Crow and the Pitcher because I was always good at finding clever ways to solve seemingly impossible problems. The stories I loved possibly reflected back personality qualities that even at a very young age, I possessed and was even proud of.
But then there was my dark side, a side I noticed even by the tender age of four when I was sounding out the words And the tree was happy. My tendency to people please (Old Man Whickutt’s Donkey) and my seeming inability to set a boundary with those who would take and take until I had nothing left to give (The Giving Tree) and me happily enabling my own self-destruction. The anger I felt toward the tree being a fledgling anger I felt for myself.
Why did the boy feel the need to take all the apples? All her branches? Why couldn’t he just take some? Why did the tree feel the need to offer all her apples and all her branches? Couldn’t he see he was killing her? Did he even care?
When it came to her trunk? Why didn’t she tell him to just go pound sand?
God, how many times have I done the same?
Less is More
As writers we are often guilty of too much brain-holding, of coaching the reader. We want to control every emotion, perception and description yet often less is more. When we leave blank space for the reader to fill in, the fiction can have room to blossom into something unplanned for. The story becomes richer and the experience more visceral because it transforms into an echo of the audience’s self-projection. Thus instead of one fixed interpretation, we get countless.
We end up with a story that is told and retold for generations simply because we all disagree about what it’s even about.
Shel Silverstein didn’t write The Giving Tree with plans that it was a cautionary tale against toxic relationships. He didn’t write it to be some Christ-like example of selfless love. He wasn’t writing a tale of capitalism run amok or misogyny. According to him, he simply wrote a story about the complicated dynamics of human relationships. We, as the reader, assign whether this is a tale of warning or wonder, horror or hope.
Good Stories Make Us Look at Ourselves
One of the reasons humans gravitate to stories is we learn through them. There is even scientific evidence to support that learning becomes far more embedded in memory when it is delivered in the form of story. We are wired for narrative. This said, we all struggle in certain areas and stories are a great way that we can experience cause and effect, trial and failure through others. We have a safe place to learn the hard lessons.
Often if I encounter something that upsets me or makes me angry I know it is because it is something that is bothering me about myself. Instead of avoiding the feeling or dismissing it, I have learned instead to explore it and ask why.
I think this is why good fiction is so vital. Yes there is a place for the fantasy character we all long to be. The market is filled with beautiful tough heroines who know Kung Fu and bake cupcakes the Navy SEAL men who love them.
But then there are the other kinds of stories.
Great fiction will not just tell our story (the one we plotted), but it will tell the story of our readers, too.
Empathy, Injustice and Grief
Our culture is guilty (my POV) of assuming that every child’s story is to serve as a role model. Don’t bully. Be a good friend. This is what happens when you learn to share. But literature serves a higher purpose.
Isn’t the point of being a parent to rear a fully developed person more than simply being an activities director? That we are charged with rearing a grownup with fully developed empathy and a sense of injustice? Doesn’t it say something when a child reads a story like this and is incensed at the injustice of it all?
The children’s movie Inside Out explored how dysfunctional we have become regarding human emotion. We aren’t permitted to be angry, sad, disappointed, jaded or hurt. We can be depressed (because there is a pill for that). Yet these “negative” emotions serve a purpose. It is okay to be angry and sometimes it is downright warranted. It is all right to be afraid.
Our culture has become obsessed with never being offended and yet being offended is vital. There are things that should offend us. That is when real change is possible.
Insulating entire generations from ever experiencing negative emotions is in a word? Psychotic.
Silverstein didn’t believe in happy endings being a necessity. He felt that set children up for failure, that things didn’t always work out. That if every book had an HEA then children would wonder what was so wrong with them. They didn’t always get an HEA in their lives. What were they doing wrong?
Nothing, my Wee One. It is life. Fair is a weather condition.
Good stories also serve as catharsis. We need to watch comedy because we do need to laugh, but you know what? Sometimes what we need is a good cry, too. And maybe we aren’t yet “evolved” enough to cry over what is going wrong in our own lives, but we can cry for a beautiful tree that was rendered a stump.
And that makes us all just a little bit more human.
What are your thoughts? Did you love or hate The Giving Tree? Do you find yourself reflected in that story? Have you, too, struggled with not allowing people to take every single apple and branch? What other works of fiction left blank spaces you were allowed to fill? Or allowed you to be angry or maybe even cry?
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You’ve written a novel and now are faced with the two most terrifying challenges all writers face. The query and the synopsis.
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***NOTE: DO NOT PUT GLITTER IN YOUR QUERY.
Good question. We will cover that and more!
But sometimes the query is not enough.
Most writers would rather cut their wrists with a spork than be forced to write the dreaded…synopsis. Yet, this is a valuable skills all writers should learn.
WEDNESDAY October 5th Your Story in a Sentence–Crafting Your Log-Line
Log-lines are crucial for understanding the most important detail, “WHAT is the story ABOUT?” If we can’t answer this question in a single sentence? Brain surgery with a spork will be easier than writing a synopsis. Pitching? Querying? A nightmare. Revisions will also take far longer and can be grossly ineffective.
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SATURDAY, October 8th Blogging for Authors
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I doubt I will read anything more valuable today. Well said. Thank you for you keen insight!
So at first I was freaking out a bit because my first book was I WIsh That I Had Duck Feet by Dr. Suess and thought, “What does that say about me?” I mostly remember the boy wishing he was something else. I completely forgot about him feeling happiest being himself at the end.
But once I remembered the ending, I felt a lot better. That has been my struggle and my journey.
It IS kinda spooky how we gravitate to one story or another when we are young and how ACCURATE it can be. Another one of mine was “Are You My Mother?” Yeah more people-pleasing and trying to find my own identity stuff. I am sure a shrink would have a field day with me, LOL.
Thank you! You are not alone. I HATED that book for pretty much the same reasons. I thought the boy was terribly selfish and uncaring and had no thought beyond his immediate need and no care about how what HE had to have might affect someone else. I didn’t read that book as a child. I read it to my children. Once. I cried at the end, then gave the book away and told my children to never, ever be so caught up in themselves that they couldn’t fathom what anyone else might feel. Or need. And while I had the wherewithal to explain to them that life didn’t always have a happy ending, there wasn’t any reason we can’t try.
Geez Louise, I hated that book…
Well Said. Reblogged on chaosbreddschoas.com
To this day, The Giving Tree is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. I love it for the same reasons you hate it. Children need to learn that it’s not okay to be utterly selfish. The book is a useful tool of reflexion for any adult who has the courage to evaluate their own behavior. Also, as a Christian, I can say it is a perfect description of how blind many of us are to the depths of the love The Savior has for us.
I come from generations of teachers – and one of the grades I taught was Kindergarten. The Giving Tree provides a tremendous opportunity to open up a dialogue with children about why we should not expect the people who love us to give us everything simply because we know we can persuade them to part with whatever we desire. Co-dependence and good old entitlement are prevalent behaviors in our society; both of them are damaging to any soul.
You want to know what children’s tale I ‘hate’? Disney’s Cinderella. She is a terrible role model for girls everywhere and yet, we keep seeing movies rehashing versions of her story. Gag me with a shovel. I would NEVER read that story to a child! “Oh, my fairy godmother used her magic to make me look stunning and provided a way for me to get to the ball and dance with the Prince, who fell in love with me instantly.” PLEASE spare me!
And THIS is a perfect example of beautiful literature 😀 . And don’t get me started on Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast. So he is horrible and cruel and abusive, but if you love him enough he will change? *bangs head*
That’s exactly how I feel about Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, which is the opposite of Grimm’s Beauty and the Beast in which Beauty saw beyond the Beast’s ugliness and loved him for his kind heart.
I didn’t discover Shel Silverstein until I was an adult with a young child and married to a sociopath. I saw the boy’s utter selfishness and his unwillingness to learn and the tree’s endearing love for the boy. My daughter didn’t like it because she saw the boy’s selfishness. My son saw it from the tree’s perspective and likes it. I like the story because of the complexity of relationships told very simply. Interestingly, my daughter grew up to be a narcissist while my son, is very gentle, sensitive, and cares about the needs of others. Psychologically, I find it fascinating that the child who hated the character’s narcissism is like that herself, and the child who loved the tree is very much like the tree.
“Shel Silverstein didn’t write The Giving Tree with plans that it was a cautionary tale against toxic relationships. He didn’t write it to be some Christ-like example of selfless love. He wasn’t writing a tale of capitalism run amok or misogyny. According to him, he simply wrote a story about the complicated dynamics of human relationships. We, as the reader, assign whether this is a tale of warning or wonder, horror or hope.”
Thank you 🙂
I’ve never read The Giving Tree, but I’ve certainly had the experience of liking a book as a child but then changing my mind about it later on. Conversely, I didn’t really get into Roald Dahl in my childhood but I love reading him to my own kids now. Anyway, an interesting post, thanks, and a reminder to all writers of the dangers of seeking to control our readers too much, of being afraid to let them fill in some blanks.
I never read The Giving Tree, and I don’t think I ever will.
Based on what you said, however, I’d hate the boy and be annoyed at the tree. And it would make me cry. I avoid tear jerkers. Just like I avoid scary. *shrugs * my free time, so I won’t feel guilty about spending it in ways I enjoy even if it’s not in the most enlightened ways.
While I agree that fair is a weather forecast, I also want a HEA. Reading is a hobby for me, an enjoyable past time.
Staying abreast of current events teaches me how unfair life is. And how short. Often completely out of our control.
I did watch Inside Out. So, you can learn stuff even with a HEA. Just don’t watch it with your friend who happens to be a child psychologist!
I wanted The Giving Tree to turn into one of the Oz trees and pound that kid’s head with a few rotted apples.
The stories we respond to, reveal who we are.
As an avid player of on-line games, I have pondered the mystery of why my first gaming love, EverQuest, had me so enthralled. Compared to the awesome games today, EverQuest is a biscuit on the floor that has been stepped on by your crazy aunt, while games like Battlefield, World of Warcraft, and the upcoming Star Citizen are the mountains of delicious food on the table.
Yet, no game has ever touched me, terrorized, frustrated me, brought out the best and worst of me like EverQuest. So why is that? The easy answer is “you never love a person like that first love” and maybe that’s true. But there is more…
EverQuest’s power came from the fact that is was so underdeveloped, the player’s imagination filled in the gaps. Take Kaladim (EQ) and Ironforge (WoW). Both are dwarven cities. WoW’s city is awesome. Rivers of lava, shops, auction houses. Kaladim? A few buildings and a mine with a single passage.
And yet…I get chills thinking about Kaladim. Ironforge…is a yawn. An impressive yawn (like a lion’s yawn) but still a yawn.
Less is more. Allow your reader to fill in the gaps, and they make it their story and they will fall in love.
Beautiful comment. Thank you.
“Why did the narcissist cross the road? Easy. She thought it was a boundary.”
is so true, it hurts.
Word to that *fist bump*
I always identified with the boy, knowing that my parents would give until they had nothing left. As a child, you can’t help but feel a little guilty about that, and grateful all at once. My sister gave the book to my mom as a gift, and I guess it never occurred to me to associate it with any other relationship.
I remember distinctly when I read the giving tree as a child and I hated it. It was my most unfavorite book and in fact I cried for the tree. Your post is magnificent.
In this blog you ask the question “Isn’t the point of being a parent to rear a fully developed person more than simply being an activities director?” People I knew who went to and supported every event with their children considered me a lousy parent because I didn’t. When I asked my children if they wanted me to go, they would say no, that it wasn’t important to them.I taught them to do chores and how to do their own laundry. I taught them that if they wanted something, it was their responsibility to get it. So what if I was a lousy mom! I still raised great kids!
I disnt read *The Giving Tree* as a child, though other Shel Silverstein books graced my shelves. As I read about the tree with my son, I cringe. You aptly described the multi-faceted opportunity we have as readers and writers to think about literature through different lenses based on our changing experiences. Particularly striking to me was the connection you made between a writer’s temptation to over-control the reader experience and the enduring value of books and stories that leave room for interpretation. When I think of why this book makes me cringe, I believe it’s because it reminds me of my own contribution. Am I giving all I have to give in the best way I know how? (Without withering away.) Can what I have to give be enough? I don’t have to like the book, as you say, to appreciate the opportunity it provides to wonder. I devoured this post, thank you!
Both love and hate The Giving Tree. Another great post!
I first read the giving tree only a few months ago; my husband loves it and gets choked-up. I, like you hated it. I wanted the tree to lay down some boundaries so the boy couldn’t walk all over it. Loving someone doesn’t mean you enable them to destroy you!
I felt the same way you did about The Giving Tree. The boy was a selfish jerk, and the tree only made things worse. I think a story about a hanging tree would be more enjoyable.
Great post that speaks to something I’ve recently been thinking about in regards to my own work. At this time I just have two short stories that I did for a creative writing class a few years ago. Both feature childhood, but one of them was written as a way for me to work through a painful experience as an adult. It’s a flawed story, but also one I’m very proud of.
I actually never read “The Giving Tree” as a child, but if I had, I’m pretty sure I would have hated it. One of my favorites as a 5 year old was “Harold and the Purple Crayon.”
Which… actually does kind of resonate with my adult beliefs, in a weird way. Interesting to think I might have always been curious about the idea that you largely create what you experience through your perception of it. Any individual event can be empowering or destructive, depending on the way we view it (and I say this as a trauma survivor myself, so I’m not denying the impact of events… just that the results are not always predictable).
I think with my own kids, I focused on raising them to be resilient and to be able to look beyond the easy and obvious explanations for what happens in their lives, and to try to understand the messages and lessons presented in the hard times.
Neither of them has grown up to assume that life should be easy or expect that they won’t ever be offended. And they both seem to relish the idea that they’ll have to work to get what they want. They see that work as an adventure, for the most part, in the philosophical sense. Though, when they’re in the middle of having to deal with one of life’s huge piles of crap, they certainly don’t enjoy it.
I also have always loved “Fox in Socks.”
Damn, I was a weird kid…
Very interesting. Children pay attention to things we don’t realize. My grandchildren, all under the age of 11 were discussing the movie Frozen. The middle one (about 7 at the time) mentioned that she liked it because the girls didn’t have to have a man to save them. They saved themselves. I asked them about their other favorite movies. They said Brave because that heroine saved herself as well. I was shocked that they understood the theme of these movies. They were just little kids at the time.
As a woman who grew up with Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, I was overjoyed my grand daughters understood these messages. We need to offer a wide variety of stories to children. They’re so much smarter than we know.
Re-blogging on cpd-inc.com
Reblogged this on Swamp Sass and commented:
I’m sure there’s a deep, personal root to my observation, I think this is the best post from you I have ever read. Very powerful.
Reblogged this on Rick Amitin's Blog and commented:
This is written by a friend of mine. Well worth the read
One of my most favorites was Where the Wild Things Are. If I think about it, going out into the unknown just to prove I can, conquering monsters/personal fears in the process, but still being able to come home to the comfort of a hot meal really is pretty appealing to my grown up self.
I’m sure I read The Giving Tree as a kid but hadn’t thought much about it until we had story time while I was still working at Half Price Books. My coworker who had a young son commented how she thought it was horrible that the coworker running story time was reading The Giving Tree. She said being a parent didn’t mean you had to give up everything. My first thought was, Wow, you had a kid too early. Probably not fair, but it was a gut response. I was also pregnant at the time.
The Giving Tree was always a favourite of mine to read to children (I’m a preschool teacher)- but I don’t think it was because I saw the book as having a positive message- I always felt a little sad by it. I just loved it because it makes children think, really think about big concepts in life. It’s great to find books that do that. At the end of the day, young children are human and will take what they want want from stories. Positive, negative, happy, sad… And hopefully as adults we can allow them them to be disturbed or appreciative, without clouding their view too much by imposing our own. What a great blog post though. It’s something I have thought about many times!
I didn’t see the book until I was an adult, but I thought it was pretty creepy.
Honestly, I’ve never read *The Giving Tree*. Mary has, and didn’t like it, precisely because of the codependency and narcissism involved in it. This comes up every year, when our parish puts up the Giving Tree at Christmas.
This was an excellent article and I think every English teacher needs to read it. They tend to subscribe to the “it means what I say it means!” school of thought.
My favorite book as a kid was *Max und Moritz* by Wilhelm Busch. They were horrible little boys who played terrible practical jokes and ended up being ground into meal at the end. I almost taught myself German by reading it and the other stories in the book with it, which were just about as grisly (the German and English were side-by-side). Guess that says something about me, doesn’t it?
I first read The Giving Tree when I became a librarian. I thought the boy was a jerk but didn’t think too much about the tree. Your analysis of the reader’s role is excellent. Books are open to interpretation, and books that deal with such complex issues are best discussed with children. Discussion can teach them there’s more than one way to read a story, something I didn’t consider. (I heard a prominent children’s author say she wanted to tell the boy to get his rear off the tree trunk and do something for himself. She didn’t care for Rainbow Fish, either, a story that makes me uncomfortable.)
I love Katherine Paterson’s books for young people–she doesn’t provide happy endings but hopeful ones. Her characters have to make difficult decisions, but they learn that they have the strength to do what must be done, and that giving and receiving love is central to life. Paterson says she writes for the “invisible child.” There’s also plenty of humor in her books.
Violet, have you read Jane Yolen’s Sleeping Ugly or Ellen Jackson’s Cinder Edna? Cinder Edna doesn’t need a fairy godmother to outfit her for the ball. She put a dress on lay-away well in advance, wears comfortable shoes, and as for the handsome prince… (Do we still have lay-away?)
PS One of my favorite stories was Nebuchadnezzar and the Fiery Furnace. New Testament stories were not nearly so interesting. My mother thought I was impressed by the angel, but I was really fascinated by the mean king and the furnace. And what that says about me is…
My favourite childhood stories, as far as I can remember, were “Big Max” (showing an early interest in detective stories) and “My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes” – foreshadowing a future as a cross-cultural cat-lady?
I love this post because I have always HATED The Giving Tree. Even as a kid, I despised the selfish boy and the stupid martyr tree. But it did evoke strong emotions in me, and that’s what good writing is supposed to do. It’s funny, though. I still feel mildly queasy every time someone raves about or says they love this book.
It is so good to hear you say this! The Giving Tree has always haunted me and made me cry and at the same time made me angry. Yet I hear what you are saying about its genius being the multiplicity of ways we can take meaning from it. I am always thrilled to hear of unique interpretations of my writing. Readers seem to think that the author knows best what is meant, but that is not true. The author only knows a piece of the truth. Sometimes what she meant is multi layered and subconscious. But often the reader brings her own truth and that is fun and delightful and often enlightening.
Kristen, I posted my comment on this great post (thank you!) on your blog, but I also wanted to ask you if you would give me a critique of the first two chapters (about 15 pages) of a novel, a paranormal thriller—A rookie detective discovers she’s a witch and that an ancient rival hunts her.
I can’t remember what you charge for this, but please let me know. This is a new genre for me and I need an objective set of eyes!
T.K. Thorne http://www.TKThorne.com
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I read Lassie Come Home, a middle grade novel, when I was 4 and found it wishy-washy. I read many books after that before finding Kurt Vonnegut in 3rd grade. He and his works along with J.R.R. Tolkien were formative. Vonnegut is why I write and why I read sci-fi as social commentary, he is why I love comedy and the study of human nature. A bit of Vonnegut is in most of my short stories while Tolkien still informs my long stuff.Childhood books do stay with me, but not Green Eggs and Ham.
Yeah. The Giving Tree did disturb me. It made me feel like crying for the tree. Then it made me feel defiant. But I squelched that. Now, I feel affirmed by your perspective. It’s good to know Silverstein didn’t expect us to feel all happy the ending.
I read it when I was very young and then never again because it disturbed me in ways I couldn’t really define at that age. Coming from a dysfunctional home full of emotional vampires, I suppose I related the story to issues in the family dynamic that I wasn’t able or ready to face. To this day I can’t see the boy as anything but narcissistic and the tree as anything but enabling. Real unconditional love means loving people despite the boundaries you must set for them. It doesn’t mean giving them everything they demand.
Something else clicked in my head when I read your article, though – the point about HEAs not being necessary and how it sets up a child to wonder what was wrong with them to steal their HEA. I devoured category romances when I was a preteen and teen – and I felt that exact thing: why don’t I get my HEA? Where’s my millionaire and mansion and church wedding with 2,000 in attendance? The writer in me absolutely rebels at the thought of every story having an HEA, because I felt cheated out of the one those category romances promised me, and felt betrayed at their portrayal that this is the blueprint of real love and anything deviating from said blueprint is substandard, lacking. Now I find myself gravitating toward Happily Enough or even Happily Going Their Own Ways.
I don’t think I’ve even heard of The Giving tree until I read your blog. However it does remind me of Oscar Wilde’s “The Nightingale and the Rose” which marked me quite profoundly when I was a child.
A work of genius in it’s simplicity but even now as an adult I still find it a little upsetting and unsettling. I honestly don’t know whether I love it or loathe it. A bit of both I guess, which is very confusing in itself. Great blog.
What an eye-opening article! Thank you for this!
I LOVED this story as a child, and I must have read it to my children a thousand times, but I always felt terrible for the tree and angry with the boy. Growing up in a family that idolized martyrs, this book was how “love” was represented–how a parent should love, how forgiveness should work.
Now that I think about it, it’s no coincidence that I ended up married to a narcissist for a decade. Giving and giving till my heart was empty. Your words hit every point of this conundrum with a laser.
What a fascinating way to look at the stories we loved as children! I’ve been thinking of this book a lot lately – and I had the same reaction to reading it as a child as you, but I still consider it a favorite.
I love everything you said about allowing the reader to fill in some of the gaps, too!
My kids and I loved Shel Silverstein’s poems. I hadn’t read The Giving Tree until about a year ago when I read it to my grandson. It made me sad. Grandson was too young to comment on it. You’ve covered so much in this post, lots of great points for us to digest.
That pic of Spawn and your hubby is a tear jerker in itself. I’m so glad your hubby is home safe and sound, back to being a husband and father. Whew!
Reblogged this on MorgEn Bailey – Creative Writing Guru and commented:
More great tips from Kristen… another fan of Shel Silverstein’s poetry.