Review: The Giving Tree

The Giving Tree
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book has definitely gotten a bad rap recently.

The generation that grew up with this book is now looking back at it with adult eyes and saying, “Wait. What the fuck?”

And they are right to ask that question, not even softening the blow by saying “WTF” instead. Because it’s kind of a messed up book.

Or…is it?

It’s sort of fascinating to me that people feel the need to constantly talk about how the boy in the book is selfish, the tree is too giving, and that the whole thing models an unhealthy relationship. I’m fairly sure that was the point. I kinda doubt Shel Silverstein was thinking that this was a good model for a relationship. “I’m not so much a give and take guy. I’m a take and take until you’re a stump kind of guy.”

While the book demos that behavior, I don’t think it is endorsing the boy’s ways. While we probably missed the point when we were 4, we also missed the connection of over-picking our noses and blood running onto our shirts too. Some things are pretty clear as adults, not as clear to children.

Silverstein himself:

I would hope that people, no matter what age, would find something to identify with in my books, pick up one and experience a personal sense of discovery.

This book has become the “Baby It’s Cold Outside” of children’s books where everyone is like, “Wait, wait, are we paying attention to this?” And somehow, every person who has this thought is CERTAIN they are the first.

I just think it’s so odd. It’s not like the boy’s demanding nature is subtext. It’s absolutely text. And everyone is really excited to tell everyone else about this fucked up book, but I think what you’re saying is subversive and weird was absolutely the core idea of the book.

My best guess is that a lot of us missed this when we were kids because it’s not the kind of thing a lot of us were prepared for. You see a book with charming, simple illustrations, and you don’t really expect to think about it a whole lot.

I mean, look at Where The Wild Things Are. That book was pretty different to me when I was a kid. I didn’t really look for a message or wonder what the author was trying to convey. I thought there was a bunch of cool monsters and Max was kind of a monster but not that much of a monster, the end.

More than anything, this book is interesting as some sort of weird, giant social experiment. I’d be surprised (and doubtful, frankly) to hear that some kids out there were on to this one, knew what was going on, and that they didn’t feel good about the narrative. And yet, we all seem to arrive at the same place when we’re older. I wish I could ask people in their 20’s, people who haven’t touched this book since they had it read to them, what it was about. I wonder what their memories are.

What can I say, we grew up in different times. I see a lot of kids books in my current job, and for the most part, they’re brightly colored, have positive messages, and if anyone is misbehaving, it’s so they can be gently but effectively corrected. Modern books for kids seem to be closer to cartoons than they once were, and the characters and worlds are set up accordingly.

Could you make Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day today? I don’t know. I don’t think anyone would really care.

But I also think our ideas about what kids like and who they are have really changed.

Alexander is kind of an asshole in that way that kids can be real grumps now and then. And he pays the price. Things don’t go his way. And for the most part, his parents are like, “Deal with it.”

When you’re a little kid, Alexander is understandable. You’re like, “Yeah, it’s really annoying when my brother punches me, I punch him back, and somehow this is my fault.”

As an adult, you’re like, “Damn, Alexander is kind of a shithead.”

Same thing happens to some people with Holden Caulfield, by the way. As teens, they’re like, “Right on, damn the man” and as adults they’re like, “Oh, grow up. Stop having so many feelings and thinking you know everything. You know dick, Holden.”

There was some kind of shift with kids at some point. I can’t imagine that my parents, in the car with their parents, would be able to convince them to listen to a certain radio station. My parents, on the other hand, were convince-able. They were foolish enough to think that they should let me listen to “my” music, that we should share equally. The real solution was staring them in the wallet, and it was called “Walkman.”

Movies for kids, those have obviously changed. “Hey, this movie is about a guy who rips the hearts out of people and is eventually consumed by crocodiles. That’s for kids, right? The first one was totally for kids. Sure, Alfred Molina is horrifically impaled with SPIKES THROUGH HIS BRAIN AND NECK like 5 seconds in, but still. Big boulder!”

Can you imagine if Frozen involved two characters fistfighting and then one was chopped to bits by an airplane propeller? That would be super fucked up, and I would rent it immediately.

Anyway, I’m not making a judgment call here on what’s better or worse. I’m just saying something obvious, which is that things were different. Is helicopter parenting great? Probably not. Was it great that I was just roaming the town with huge boxes of matches they let me buy at the drug store when I was like 9? Also probably not.

I guess all I’m trying to say here is, No shit, you guys. No shit. This is a very different book when viewed as an adult in 2017 versus being a kid in 1980. Save it for your vlog.

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