Monday, October 12, 2009

And the Tree Was Happy

When a friend was recently thrown a baby shower for her first child, a boy, I got a little thrill of anticipation about buying a baby present. It had been a while since my last shower, since my friends are more in the “Shout at husband until he gets a vasectomy” phase than the “Ooh, I hope the stick shows two lines!” phase. Her family is extended and squealingly eager for this child, so I guessed there was nothing clothes-wise I could buy they hadn’t already bought in triplicate with a matching Burberry parka.

I went to a children’s bookstore, in search of inspiration. Something classic? Something new and fun? I went to Vroman’s, one of the few rest stops in the relentless Angeleno race to the intellectual bottom. The saleswoman in the children’s section showed me the wealth of toddler books geared towards boys; they were about trucks, or dinosaurs, or dinosaurs that were happiest driving trucks. I dithered, because it was possible this baby would be the only boy born this year who didn’t quickly show a preference for things which are loud and large. If he turned out to be the kind of boy who liked noticing the use of Helvetica fonts in advertising, my presents would just clutter their house and annoy the baby. Classics? I flipped through Beatrix Potter, Eric Carle, the oeuvre of Dr. Suess. All seemed possible. Then the saleswoman held up a green book and said, “How about this?”

I expostulated loudly “Oh God, no.” Then, realizing my shouting, blaspheming and pointing in horror in the children’s department of a century-old bookstore probably didn’t raise the bar socially, I moderated my tone, lowered my shaking index finger, and said in a quavering tone, “I don’t do ‘The Giving Tree.’ Ever.”

I’m sure you’ve read it. I know you’ve read it. I’m going to cover the content briefly for those people reading this very far away (Waving “Hi!” to Dubai and Turkmenistan). The boy is friends with a tree. Friends, in this case, means that he climbs the tree, eats her apple, sleeps in her shade. Then, he grows up, and the tree is lonely. He comes back; the tree longs for his company, but he needs money. The tree offers apples for the young man to sell, which he takes. When he comes back, he is a man, too busy to play with the tree, only interested in making a house for his wife and family. The tree offers branches for house-building, which the man hacks off. Years later, when he comes back, he denies the wish of the tree to play, asking instead for a boat. The tree suggests he cut the tree trunk down, hollow it out, make a boat. “And then,” the tree says, “you will be happy.” He hacks, he sails, tree starts life over a stump. Surely, you Azerbaijanis reading this are thinking, he’s done with abusing this tree’s good nature? Oh, no. Because much later the man comes back, old and feeble. The tree apologizes for not having apples, or branches, or a trunk he can use (And whose fault is that?), but the man explains that he’s so very old that all he wants in a place to sit. Joyfully, the tree offers the stump, all it has left, and the old man sits on it and they are very happy.

Oh, did I mention the tree is identified as female? That even those people who haven’t taken Women’s Studies classes can pick out the underlying theme where the female character gives and gives and gives, diminishing herself in the process, so the male character can heedlessly get everything he needs or believes he needs? That what is presented as a happy ending is the idea of a very old man’s butt plopped down on the one thing in his life who wanted nothing more than to encourage and support him? If I grant you that love is about giving without expectation of reciprocity, can we agree that reading a book to children which exalts selfishness on one hand and masochism on the other is some seriously broken logic? And who wants to guess that most boys having this read to them identify with the one who gets stuff as opposed to the one who endlessly gives?

And yes, I’m sure some kids absolutely love this book. I’d love a book too if it told me that love means getting whatever I want, whenever I want, from something which doesn’t have muscles to make a frowny face at me. Nearly every parent I know with a child between three and...well, teens is trying impress upon them that they are loved, but that still doesn’t mean they get everything they want. This classic and well-loved book is all too pleased to tell them otherwise.

For what it’s worth, Shel Silverstein’s bald head/big beard look bothered me as well. It was like that game we played as kids with the magnet filings you could move around and create hairdos. In sum, I find Mr. Silverstein icky, which I have no problem saying because I’m the only one who does so and besides, Mr. Silverstein and his weird facial hair made a great deal more money than I did last year. But his popularity and tax returns notwithstanding, I grabbed a couple of suitable-for-gnawing books on Amazonian animals and later a CD of Gwendolyn and the Good Time Gang music for the new arrival. Maybe the music is annoying after a year or so, but at least Gwendolyn calls the Selfish Shellfish on his behavior; she’s not doing squat to enable his bad behavior.


Blogger Sara J. Henry said...

Yow, did this bring back memories. Not of THE GIVING TREE, which wasn't a book I read (I was more of a HAROLD AND THE PURPLE CRAYON kind of gal) but that strange game where you had to drag a magnet around to give the man hair and a beard.

Of course - being me - I had to look it up, and found it in two Google searches. It is called Wooly Willy (I am not making this up). Amazing that this didn't give us nightmares.

3:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was actually shopping for a present for a small child yesterday and ran across the giving tree book. I HATED the picture of Shel Silverstein on the back. He looked positively threatening. His expression seemed like a violent glare to me. And it was displayed prominently on the back. I can't imagine giving that book to a child. I can't say that I evaluated the content as well as you did, but it defininetly didn's seem right to me either.

4:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I want you to know that I HATE THAT BOOK MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE ON THE PLANET. I have always found it creepy beyond belief.

I collect children's books translated into Latin, and I WILL NOT buy this one, ever:

4:09 PM  
Blogger FirstMatePDX said...

I'm sure Shel looks even ickier now, seeing as how he is probably just a skeleton. Eww.

Sad to think that dead people make more than we, the living, but there you go.

I read "The Giving Tree" when I was young, but I'm not sure it's had the effect you think it might've had. I'm the kind of person who empathizes with the tree, which in turn has probably turned me into the kind of person who puts his feelings second. At this point in my life, I WISH I were more like the Boy. So you see, I too curse the book, but for a different reason than you.

Despite all that, I still love the book. But no, I will not give that book as a present either.

4:16 PM  
Anonymous Lynn said...

I hate that book too. I didn't read it until I was an adult, and I was horrified at the message and the way the tree was so totally decimated, and the boy just did not seem to care. I kept waiting for the cathartic ending where the boy weeps over his lost friend but no! It's horrid.

I do like Where The Sidewalk Ends, though. I'm working on that one with my six-year-old. He thinks it's mostly very odd but sometimes amusing.

5:03 PM  
Blogger Thumper said...

I've never read The Giving Tree...and thankfully, now I don't have to...

5:06 PM  
Anonymous Whitney said...

I agree with you on The Giving Tree. However, I've found that most children (around me) don't really like it and get that the boy is really unfair to the tree.

6:07 PM  
Blogger Judy said...

Over in the meadow
Where the grass grows even
Lived an old mother frog
And her little froggies seven.

THAT is what I HATE!

Even and seven does NOT rhyme!

Unless one is hearing impaired, maybe then.

(Not a Giving Tree fan, either.)

6:20 PM  
Blogger Rebecca said...

Oh wow, my girls loooved Shel Silverstein, and I really liked him too, mostly.

You know, I think I recently read something about The Giving Tree, and the way people take it in such completely different ways. But I can't remember where. Maybe you've mentioned it before?

In any case, there are a zillion books out there, more than enough for each to have his own taste catered to. And, as a lifelong bookworm, I always applaud the giving of books as gifts.

Sounds like you made excellent choices, too - suitable for gnawing and a realistic interpersonal relationship model. Go Quinn!

6:31 PM  
Anonymous --Deb said...

I agree--I never liked that book, either. The one that I loved (whose name/author I can't remember) talked about Pete and Re-Pete sitting on a fence, Pete fell off and who was left, over and over. And had a story that began "It was a dark and stormy night" written in never-ending spirals on the page ... such a cool book, I wish I still had my copy!

I agree about Harold and the Purple Crayon, too--though I didn't discover that one until my niece was a baby. Better late than never.

6:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rarely do I disagree with you, Quinn, but here I must. Several years ago, when my babes were babes, my aunt, who has a passion for children's literature and is a kindergarten teacher, gave us each of the Shel Silverstein books. She said to me back then (1992 or so), "It's too bad people have always judged him on how he looks because his writing is amazing." She was right. People are still judging him on his looks even though the man has been dead several years and yes, his writing IS fantastic.

7:23 PM  
Blogger Char said...

i guess i always saw this as a lesson in selfishness because that's how i always saw this book.

8:14 PM  
Blogger Eris said...

I dated a boy once who showed me the wretched giving tree book as a token of his beloved childhood and thought it was the most brilliant thing ever. That was the first and last time I ever read it. I'm not exaggerating: I was blind with rage and injustice and disgusted. And it taught me much about that boy, who is far, far in my past now.

10:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you re-read any of the Beatrix Potters recently? They're fricking terrifying. Almost every animal is in danger of being eaten or cooked or killed, and even the animal parents dole out harsh punishments to their own offspring. Combined with the darling artwork, they're just beyond creepy. How the times do change...

12:14 PM  
Blogger anonymousGuy said...

One of the great events in my transition to adulthood occured in grad school, in a Teaching of Reading course when I presented The Giving Tree as one of my favorite books. One of the older students in the class expressed her disgust with my choice, for many of the same reasons you detail in your post. In one of life's more ironic twists, that incident led to her becoming a very close friend, and when she got sick, I gave one of my kidneys to her.

12:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I must admit that I don't care about the Giving Tree one way or the other- but I do know some haters. However, I do have to tout my favorite of Silverstein's books- but it is definitely NOT for children. See if you can find a copy of "Uncle Shelby's ABZ book" at your library- it is delightfully perverse. It may redeem in your eyes.

12:27 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

I've never read "The Giving Tree" either, and won't now that I've read your summary. But despite that obvious misstep, I still think Silverstein's a great author - my six-year-old and I love and often re-read both "Where the Sidewalk Ends" and "Falling Up."

1:08 PM  
Blogger Doc's Girl said...

lol... I hate to confess--I loved the book as a child...probably only because it was a very thought provoking book and it probably made me feel like a really deep 8 year old. :-P

But, I agree with you--I read it as an adult (and as a psychology and sociology major) and I thought to myself, "good grief--they taught co-dependency early on!"

But, I still have the book in my bookshelf. I bought it for 99 cents on Amazon...just a piece of my wonderfully misguided childhood. :-D I also own a lot of of Shel Silverstein's other books...because it did encourage me to write when I was younger. :)

1:40 PM  
Anonymous Anna said...

My standard baby shower gift is Richard Scarry's Best Story Book Ever. Scarry was a personal favorite of mine as a young child. Anyone else remember Couscous, the Algerian detective?

11:38 PM  
Anonymous NoL said...

I feel the same about the Giving Tree, but if I am remembering correctly, didn't Shel redeem himself on the co-dependency thing with "the missing piece"?

2:45 AM  
Blogger Rebecca Gorton said...

Thank you. From the bottom of my heart for putting to words my exact feelings about not only the creepiness of The Giving Tree, but for Shel Silverstein's book jacket photo, as well. I always though his photo looked like he didn't like children and might eat them.

I don't do The Giving Tree.

7:36 AM  
Anonymous Lel said...

Kinderny is right; read Uncle Shelby's ABZ and you will have a new perspective on Shel Silverstein. I think The Giving Tree delivers the same message as Give a Mouse a Cookie, but without the cute overload. I think it's a wonderful story for moms more than kids because it conveys a mother's selflessness and unconditional love.
PS: I suspect Uncle Shelby intentionally chose creepy photos of himself for his books. It's a like a warning that you may not be ready for the content.

7:37 AM  
Blogger said...

I've never read that book, but it sounds horrifying. Just reading the summary had me choked up.

If you haven't found a gift, there's an awesome baby store on Larchmont Village (on the main little strip) called The Little Seed. (website of the same name...)

2:13 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

There is a parody of The Giving Tree
called The Really, Really Giving Tree...I'd post the link but some might find it offensive...but if you are curious go ahead and google it...

Peace - Rene

4:07 PM  
Blogger shalulah said...

So glad to read your comments about The Giving Tree. I feel the same way about that book.

6:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shel Silverstein was just creepy, I never liked his work.

12:10 AM  
Blogger Miss Cavendish said...

Eeewww--never read the book or Silverstein in general, but I don't plan to begin. Try *Miss Rumphius* for your gift instead--all beauty; nothing icky!

3:30 PM  
Blogger Sashimi said...

Had heard of this title..but oh my god!..was THAT what the story was about?!

We have a similar ..well somewhat similar...concept here in India... "Henna gives away colour and beauty in its death" Henna, being leaves of a plant that you crush and make into a paste and then apply on your palms as decoration.

12:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I should have posted this earlier- Betsy Bird is a children's librarian (and also served on the Newbery Committee one year). She compiled a list of top 100 picture books which has become my go to for shower gifts.
Miss Rumphius is on there, but I often choose Goodnight Gorilla

6:26 AM  
Anonymous Julie M said...

I seem to remember years ago, when I was in high school, a Sunday night radio show called "Dr. Demento". They used to play this spoken word/song thing called "Someone Ate The Baby", and I'd swear it was either by or lyricallt attributed to Shel Silverstein. I do think his books are twisted, but I think they're meant to be...that's his way of getting the message across. "Missing Piece" anyone?

12:24 PM  
Blogger Narya said...

Never read it, and glad I didn't.

However, next time you need books:

Olivia rocks.

'Nuff said.

9:08 AM  
Blogger Karen of TX said...

Hate The Giving Tree. And that insipid Missing Piece.

What about The Little Prince? For me, it works for all ages. I was always fascinated by the elephant in the snake, but I was that kind of kid.

6:23 PM  
Blogger Jakarta Rocks said...

Never heard of that book - but I wouldn't let my son or daughters read it - shocking message - kept waiting for the bit where the kid learns his lesson. - wild guess that the author is american.

On another note - my daughter is almost 11. She still listens to the cd of classical sleeping music that she was given as a new baby.

It is the most used gift we received.

10:23 PM  
Anonymous Carrie said...

I dislike this book as well, but I first encountered it in the bookstore at my church, where it was held up as a Jesus parable. Oy. I give, and I give, and I give...

12:42 PM  
Blogger EleriCooks said...

Would the book be OK with people if it was a boy tree giving to the girl? Then it wouldn't be offensive? Bet it would much more off people's radars. No one notices because it's a *male* being giving, and isn't that a lovely message.

I think adults tend to analyze stuff meant for kids way too much and too often. Ranks right up there with the "I don't let my kids read the Narnia books, because they are Christian Allegory!" I read them over and over as a child, and guess what, I still ended up a pagan! No lasting scars! Heck, I didn't even know about the allegory until I was in my 20s.

8:45 PM  
Anonymous Paula said...

Thank you for this post. I call this book "The Co-Dependent's Training Manual". My MIL gave this to me for my son when he was born, and I threw it away. An odious book!

2:56 PM  
Anonymous Mary said...

That is a really annoying book. Two others that also creep me out are The Rainbow Fish, because the fish is a total communist, and I Love You Forever. You know, the one where the boy is all grown up living in his apartment and his mom creeps in through the window, gets him out of bed, rocks him and sings to him? There are psychiatric journal articles written about that sort of thing. Anyway, I noticed something was missing from my life lately, but I couldn't put my finger on it. Then I realized that I had not been reading your blog. Mystery solved!

7:07 AM  
Blogger Wayne and Randi said...

It is a wonderful book and kids love it. Funny how everyone sees this book in so many different ways. I feel it teaches a very valuable lesson. It teaches that sometimes all we need is what we have right here and now, and sometimes we miss out while we are looking for that happiness. The boy spends his whole life taking and taking but is never really happy. The tree is just happy to give and have the boy for company. In the end the boy finds that all he really needs is to just be where he is right here and now. Really just the glass is half full or empty?

1:01 AM  

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