The Giving Tree

I think Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree is the most terrifying of all the “beloved” children’s books ever written.

If you have never read The Giving Tree, I’ll have Wikipedia break it down for you:

The Giving Tree is a tale about a relationship between a young boy and a tree. The tree always provides the boy with what he wants: branches on which to swing, shade in which to sit, apples to eat, branches with which to build a home. As the boy grows older he requires more and more of the tree. The tree loves the boy very much and gives him anything he asks for.

In the ultimate act of self-sacrifice, the tree lets the boy cut it down so the boy can build a boat in which he can sail. The boy leaves the tree, now a stump. Many years later, the boy, now an old man, returns and the tree says, “I have nothing left to give you.” The boy replies, “I do not need much now, just a quiet place to sit and rest.” The tree then says, “Well, an old tree stump is a good place for sitting and resting. Come boy, sit down and rest.”

The boy obliged and the tree was happy.

My mother used to read me this book about once a week.  She read it to me so often that she’d tell other people that it was my favorite book.  But, really, it wasn’t at all.

I think…I think it was her favorite book to read to her children.   She would read it to me night after night because she wanted me to understand that she was my Giving Tree–that she would give me anything I wanted of herself so I could be happy.  That she was prepared to do it.  Maybe, sadly, that she was doing it all the time.

But no child wants to be responsible for making their mother into a stump to sit on–no matter how much that tree loves us.  No child wants a martyr mother–no matter how much that mother thinks we do.

The Giving Tree teaches a false moral.  It makes you think that the only way to love someone fully is to give yourself up completely and subsequently diminish and die.

But that’s not the story I read in the Bible.  I read about a love that lets you give yourself up completely and subsequently become a fuller, greener, grander, taller, beautiful redwood tree.

So this is my late, anonymous Mother’s Day message to my own mom:

“I’ll never cut you down.  You can offer me your love, but I will never abuse it.  I will never expect you to stop growing so I can use you.  I love you as a different kind of Giving Tree–one that I’ll come back and visit again and again.  A big, strong, beautiful Giving Tree that gives me the greatest gift of all: an example of what it means to be spiritually whole, physically complete, and always intellectually growing.”

Happy Mother’s Day and down with that gol darned children’s horror story!


  1. Oh I made up my own ending to that book, and it turns out really well. A human life is much shorter than that of a tree, after all. The man dies and his family buries him beneath the tree that he loved. The stump sprouts forth new limbs and fruits, and the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the boy play in the shade beneath its boughs, climb in it, and remember the adventures of their forefather and how much he loved and was loved by that tree. The end.

    The standard perspective is okay as far as it goes, I think, but it’s too short-sighted. I think the tree is sort of a Christ figure and you have to include the part about the resurrection and the granting of eternal life to make the story complete.

  2. I agree – I’m horrified by ‘The Giving Tree’. Being able to nourish others is a wonderful thing, but self-abnegation and self-destruction isn’t proper. People who have been cut to stumps aren’t usually very good at caring for others.

    If you want a good Shel Silverstein story, try ‘The Missing Piece and the Big O’. It’s about a wedge sort of shape who wants to be someone else’s missing piece. You see, when you’ve been fitted with your missing piece, you can roll around together, and feel complete. Then it meets an O who helps it learn how to do some rolling around of its own.

  3. When I was a kid, I loved this book. And then I got older and became a mother, and now I get it. It’s a horrible little book. The tree gives and gives, and the boy takes and takes without thinking about anyone but himself.

    My mom bought a copy for my son because I had loved it so much when I was little. I hid it in the garage.

  4. I also hate this book and think there is something a little (or a lot?) sick about it. I absolutely do not understand the popularity of this book.

  5. Tatiana: not me.

    I am not an advocate of book-burning, but this is one book I would like to have all copies of destroyed. E: sick is right.

  6. Tatiana, that’s what I always assumed.
    If you don’t read it that way and instead read it in terms of human to human relations it does become disturbing, but I’d never thought of it that way.

  7. Tatiana – Christ gave up everything for us, but then he was resurrected, gained all power in heaven and in earth, and went to sit on the right hand of God. So he regained everything he’d lost and infinitely more. The Giving Tree doesn’t ever regain what it lost.

  8. Some friends gave this book to our family when my children were young. I think we read it once or twice, but we were all horrified that the boy was so selfish to ask the tree to give its all so that he could have a boat (presumably for his pleasure, as I recall).
    If you apply the story to mothers, it is even more horrifying. It is this idea–that mothers should give up everything for their families–that was the cause of my Mother’s Day breakdown last weekend. This was definitely what I was hearing at church back then (in the 80s) and my husband and I both bought into it. So I gave up a lot–too much–that wasn’t really necessary. My husband understands now (and agrees), but this is not something I can say to other church people without being criticized for being selfish.

  9. My aunt (who is a psychologist of some stripe, I believe working with kids) told me once “The Giving Tree” is a book that can be helpful when teaching kids who lack empathy about empathy and sacrifice. I don’t know that there’s a way to read the book that isn’t problematic, though–both characters are seriously flawed and unlikable.

    I didn’t grow up with it and bought it at a yard sale for $1. So far I’ve lucked out–my daughter gets bored with the book about the time the kid grows into a snot-nosed adolescent so we always stop then. I’m not sure what I’ll do with the book once my child is a little older and patient enough to make it through the whole thing.

  10. I haven’t read – or even thought much about-The Giving Tree since I was a kid, but I do remember finding it very confusing. I couldn’t understand why the boy would want to chop down the tree since they were friends, and since there were presumably other trees to make boats out of. I also wondered if he regretted having chopped the tree down when he was old and wanted a seat, since leaning up against a trunk beneath the shade is preferable to sitting under the hot sun on a stump. Thinking about it now, it does seem a bizarre analogy; I can’t think of any truly comparable human relationship, nor would I advocate one.

  11. What Christ did for us was kind of insane, too, and maybe not worth it. At least for some of us who never repent or accept the gift, it will have not been worth it. Plus, like, he’s so far above us, why would he sacrifice himself? Would you suffer an agonizing death for an ant colony? I mean, even though it turned out well in the end, I think it was still a real sacrifice. He was willing to suffer and give up his life in our place so we’d be spared. There’s something sick and irrational about that, isn’t there? And then the paradox makes it the exact right thing to have done? I don’t know. I just think the book brings up all these questions in a really good way that is even accessible to a child. There’s a reason the book is such a classic, problematic as it is.

  12. Sidetrack: I confess that I snickered when a good friend told me, in all sincerity and innocence, that one of her favorite books was, _The Missing Piece and the Big O.” Not because I don’t like the book, because I think it’s fabulous. Nope. It was because she had no idea that there is a totally subversive way to read the title. Sorry if I’ve just corrupted anyone …

  13. Does anyone else see it as a Christ-figure book? — Yes, though like many trees, the stump should have sprouted and when the boy came back, have been several trees, having regenerated itself through what happened.

    The problem with this, like many other books of its era (think of the mother in “I’ll love you forever, I’ll love you for always …” who creeps through windows on a ladder in the middle of the night) is that they exaggerate to communicate a simple message to small children.

    For older children and adults the exaggerations can outweigh and carry connotations that mar the message.

    I was always perturbed when the tree gets chopped down. But many like the way that carried through the theme of unlimited love and sacrifice. Some children need that message. Some parents want to give it. Some people just get creeped out when it hits that point.

  14. Oh, to be young and naïve again.

    But, having reached that age where sometimes all I want is a place to sit down, let me say:

    Someday, if you are doing it right, you will die, and leave to your children all you ever had. Even your contact lenses, your hearing aid, and that stack of old magazines which you have been meaning to read for years, but never got around to.

    Even your old, withered husk of a physical body, which has been betraying you for decades.

    Despite what you may hope, your children will never really appreciate the sacrifices you made for them.

    Your children will never love you the way that you love them, not even after they have children of their own, and discover for themselves that there exists a sort of love they had never before imagined.

    But you will still love them and sacrifice for them anyway.

    Yes, the Giving Tree is creepy. So is Love You Forever, by Robert Munsch.

    But life is creepy.

  15. I believe Mary Daly called The Giving Tree a story “of female rape and dismernberrnent.” A bit over the top, but yeah, I too see it as problematic.

  16. Great articles and comments.

    Probably a super obvious thought: a glance at Silverstein’s oeuvre suggests that he meant the Giving Tree to be subtly disturbing and dark. Some want to burn it, others find shadows of salvation in it, most seem only dimly aware of the odd buzz about the book, and Silverstein, a dark humorist, may have in all this his success.

    If someone wants to push the over-the-top Daly argument, his first job was as a Playboy cartoonist.

  17. Silverstein is not LDS and I don’t believe the book represents mainstream LDS thinking. In the Eyre’s book LIFEBALANCE, they make a compelling case for not giving yourself away, so that you can serve better.

    When our co-op preschool was supposed to use The Giving Tree, several of the moms protested, although others just didn’t get it. We substituted THE ANT AND THE ELEPHANT by Bill Peet, which is all about service and cooperation.

  18. I love this book, and its darkness is part of what I love about it. There’s no built-in judgment in the story. Nowhere does it say this was a good thing she did or he did. We’re left to discern that for ourselves. I was in my 40s before I found it. A friend read it to me. My reaction was to burst into tears. I had to think about it afterward for a long time.

    Would you give Christ the same advice you give to the tree? Should he have saved himself and left the humans to their own evil devices, rather than let them kill him? Is it considered sacrilege even to ask that question? This slaughter of the innocent that is at the center of our religion held me up from becoming Christian for a long time.

    I love the book because it’s so real, and it’s complicated, and it gives us a whole lot to think about. It’s deep literature, but within the grasp of even little kids, similar to the gospel which is raw and real, and quite disturbing, and not just sing-songy and happy happy lala. What does it mean? It’s really hard to put it in words. I can’t see this book disparaged or dismissed easily without speaking up and saying “Hey, look deeper, there may be more here than you first see.”

  19. Well, I loath that book. In my version, the tree drops a branch on the boy’s head. Everyone was happy.
    And that’s my advice to the tree or anyone( no matter who they are) in that situation.

    The Boy in “The Giving Tree” reminds me of Anthony from the story “It’s a Good LIfe” by Jerome Bixby. It was made into a Twilight Zone episode.
    If ‘The Giving Tree” was made into a Twilight Zone episode it would be way creepier.
    Instead of godlike powers, it would feature a svengali, who would abuse people who then would be happy to be abused–” Hey, go ahead, saw off my legs and make them into a lamppost. Makes me happy.”

  20. Huh. I never knew that The Giving Tree was roundly hated. But I’d never really taken it as a “mother” message before either. Maybe because I’m not a mother?

    I agree with Tatiana. I love the book and there is a confusing darkness to it for me as well. I don’t remember what I thought about it as a kid, but reading it now the message I tend to take away is something along the lines of: you can give and give and give, or take and take and take, but at the end of the day we all end up dead (stump and old man representing death to me). To me it reduces all of us, all of nature, to what we essentially are – something transient and small on this earth. A little bit meaningless in the grand scheme.

    I like that balance and edge to complement my “we’re all immortal Gods” Mormonness.

    Life will have it’s way with all of us eventually. Good and bad alike. That’s what I get out of it.

  21. I also admit to being vaguely drawn to the book (but I never read it till adulthood). It’s really dark–tragic, even–and I tend to like that.

    I think what’s incredibly problematic is the way it dovetails so neatly with our rhetoric (“our” in the church, but it’s much broader than that) about motherhood. Mothers lose themselves; they give everything to their children until they have nothing left to give. We can set aside the question of whether the book advocates this position and, I think, agree that we encounter statements in the church that absolutely endorse the utterly self-sacrificing view of mothers. And that’s definitely wrong.

    It’s too bad the book isn’t about a male tree giving himself to a little girl. I wonder how we’d read it differently.

  22. I didn’t read the book until I was in my mid-30s and having my first. I somehow got a copy of that (because I was familiar with the title) and The Rainbow Fish.

    I don’t know which is worse. Trashed ’em both.

  23. It’s too bad the book isn’t about a male tree giving himself to a little girl. I wonder how we’d read it differently.

    Is it an inherently female tree? I don’t remember, it’s been a while since I’ve read it. If not, I wonder if the rhetoric (which I agree, is prevelant in and out of the church) pushes us to assume the tree is female?

  24. Enna–I had the same thought! I was like, “Wait…is the tree ever even called a she?”

    If it is, that’s problematic because of the implications it can have for gender stereotypes/motherhood expectations.

    If it isn’t, that’s problematic because that means that pretty much everyone who read the book is assigning gender based on its actions (not assertive, submissive to the point of self-destruction, etc)

  25. So I looked it up:

    The Giving Tree is established as female in the first sentence

    “There once was a tree…and SHE loved a little boy.”

  26. Apame, thanks for checking. I agree. The construct of defining the tree as a woman does cast motherhood stereotypes on the tree. I’ll have to read it again tonight and see if I get the willies after having read this conversation…

  27. I do not like The Giving Tree or the Rainbow Fish. Matthew Chapman you have never cared for your elderly parents have you? I did long before I became a mother and I can tell you that there is a love for your parents when they are elderly and frail that is very much kin to being a parent with a child. It is bittersweet, but it is there.


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