Why I Hate The Giving Tree But Love Shel Silverstein

Not too long ago, the USPS started selling Shel Silverstein stamps. The stamp has an image from his famous 1964 children’s book, The Giving Tree, on it. This one, with the Boy accepting the gift of an apple from the eponymous tree of the story.

I am a window clerk at the main post office in our county. After about thirty years in retailing management, this was a step up in the life balance department, believe me. I still get to work with the public (which is my favorite part of the job, believe it or not), but my current position is a Monday through Friday, 8:30 am to 5:30 pm job. Following three decades as a salaried employee who had learned to stop counting the number of hours he worked, this is like working a part-time job.

If I collected stamps, my job would be even more perfect. I don’t. But I understand the collector’s curse and I meet plenty of people who still collect stamps. Even if they don’t collect them, the picture on the stamp is important to a lot of people. I have customers who will specify that they want Black Heritage stamps, or the Pony Cars, or flowers, or something patriotic. I have customers who say they’ll take anything but the American flag, because it’s popular to equate the Stars-and-Stripes with a gamut of bad things these days. While I don’t agree with this particular viewpoint, I respect everyone’s right to have it. That’s one of the prices of freedom, which is always an illusion.

The picture on the stamp is more important to my wife than it is to me, I’ll admit. I’ll use Christmas stamps all year long, and I seriously doubt anyone notices. When Sharon sees a new stamp design that she likes, she’ll ask me to buy them for her even if we have several partial books of stamps at home.

The Shel Silverstein design has been a very popular one with a lot of customers, including a lot of educators.

I had never read The Giving Tree at the time the stamp came out. Or any of Silverstein’s books for children, in fact. But I knew who Shel Silverstein was.

He had been a cartoonist for Playboy, beginning in the late 1950s. I heard somewhere that he lived at the Playboy Mansion for a time as well, but no one likes to brag about that anymore.

I knew of him mostly from his work in music. He wrote Johnny Cash’s biggest hit, “A Boy Named Sue.” He wrote a lot of stuff for Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show, including “Cover of ‘The Rolling Stone’” and “Sylvia’s Mother.” He wrote original music for several films, and several of his songs were used in movies, such as Thelma & Louise (“The Ballad of Lucy Jordan”) and Postcards from the Edge (“I’m Checkin’ Out”). Loretta Lynn recorded five of his songs, including “One’s on the Way,” which was featured in Coal Miner’s Daughter.

In his spare time, Silverstein was a poet and wrote television and motion picture scripts, as well as over a hundred one-act plays. He never married but fathered at least two children. A 2007 biography makes the claim that he was quite the ladies man, if you measure that designation in sheer volume. The term “Rennaisance Man” has been applied to him by better writers than I. He was awarded many awards for his books, a couple of Grammys, and was nominated for at least one Academy Award.

So yes, I knew of Shel Silverstein. At the time the stamp was issued, however, I’d never read any of his children’s books. After hearing many rational-seeming people gush over The Giving Tree, I noticed that the book was a free selection on Amazon Prime Reading. More proof that Alexa is always listening to us, I believe. Since there was no extra cost for me, I downloaded and read it. It’s a children’s picture book. It took less time to read the book than watching an episode of Robot Chicken. In fact, I read the book twice, thinking maybe I missed something in it. Something that made a lot of other people like it.

You see, I didn’t like it.

I mean at all.

I don’t throw around the word “hate” as freely as some people, but I would go as far as to say I hated The Giving Tree, with a passion bordering on obsession and definitely crossing over into anger for reasons I can’t fully explain.

Just in case you’ve never read the book, here’s my synopsis:

A boy, who ages in the story to an old man but is still referred to as “the boy” throughout, takes everything from the Giving Tree—including room on his bark for carved initials, apples for food, limbs for construction projects—until all that’s left is a stump. When the boy is an old man, and too weak to climb trees anymore if there was even a tree left to climb, the stump still offers him a place to rest. This, we are told, made the tree happy.

I thought that the story was profoundly sad. “The boy” is a textbook example of an ingrate, never really demonstrating gratitude for all that the tree gave up for him throughout its life, never asking for anything in return.

Obviously, I’d somehow missed the point of the story. Even a second reading only reinforced what I felt about the book.

At least one reader on Goodreads.com named David agreed with my assessment of the book. I won’t print any of his review of it here because editing out the curse words would take too much of my time. But it made me laugh out loud more than once so go to the site and read the bad reviews. You’ll see it. I agree with David’s review, but I still don’t think I would have given it three stars like he did. David is obviously a Giving Tree.

While I was obviously spelunking the Internet to reinforce my opinion (the way we all do, whether we admit it or not), I did read the five-star reviews on Goodreads as well. Striving for an open-mind demands the input of opposing viewpoints.

Some of these reviewers admitted that the boy was a selfish bastard, too. This is just confirmation bias at work again—me seeing what I wanted to see, of course—because these reviewers talk about how this book teaches children about “the importance of caring, giving, and how we should treat others.” Or somehow equates the book’s theme with God’s selfless love for humankind.

After I had read the book, twice, I found myself unable to keep my opinion to myself the next day at work. A customer was gushing over the Shel Silverstein stamp and The Giving Tree. I told her that, while I was a Shel Silverstein fan for everything else he had accomplished, I didn’t like this book at all. In fact, I found it profoundly sad.

The customer said she understood that side of it, too. She said, for her, it was the perfect metaphor to describe parenthood. The selfless love that a parent has for their children would cause them to freely give of themselves until nothing remained, without the prior expectation of gratitude or acknowledgement. Or even the reciprocation of love.

I agreed with her assessment. It was a metaphor for parenthood. Which made it even more sad, more horrible.

I’ve discovered that I no longer find it easy to get into the mindset of a child. I’m not sure exactly how I would interpret this book if I had read it as a child. I think I still would have been saddened by it. I remember other children’s books that did make me sad. I think I would have also understood that few of us actually experience the type of love the tree has for the boy. At least on a consistent basis.

I haven’t bothered to find out what the late Silverstein had to say about his own work. I’m on board with that host of literary critics who claim that the author’s interpretation of his own work is worthless. Intention is less important than the interpretation of the readers.

While I once disagreed with this Death of the Author philosophy, I’ve come around to this way of thinking. I’ve lived long enough now to discover that I interpret my own writing from years ago differently than I had originally intended. As in any form of communication, there is a natural static between the message sender and receiver. Because a person’s perception is their reality (no matter how much I hate that phrase), the reader’s interpretation of the message takes priority.

Which means that my assessment of The Giving Tree is the correct one.

It also means that every other assessment is the correct one as well.

Maybe the multiple interpretations of this book, and the disagreement on theme, is why this is a celebrated work of art. Its ability to spark debate is its actual theme. That is why the book is a success on so many different levels. Whatever the reader thinks after reading it is the correct interpretation for that reader. Is it a portrayal of selfless love? Or is it a brutal depiction of destructive co-dependence? It’s a question you can never get right or wrong and it feels like a Zen koan.

It implies that Shel Silverstein was way ahead of the reader in planned chess moves, and the effect was planned out well in advance by someone with a genius intellect.

Silverstein wrote a lot of songs about smoking pot, too. There’s a better-than-average chance that he was high when he wrote this book.

Whatever. I hate the book.

Form your own opinion.


2 thoughts on “Why I Hate The Giving Tree But Love Shel Silverstein

  1. I was a child when this book came out, so I guess I can be forgiven for not having any familiarity with it. We do “pay attention” to our postage stamps, looking to get our favorite images at any given time instead of just plain ol’ stamps. So… I have to admit after reading this and doing my own “due diligence” on the Internet, I’m quite surprised there is a stamp honoring this. I do agree with the view that all views of the book are correct, but it’s hard for me to believe it has been so revered it is worthy of a stamp. I am on Team Hate with this one, and my takeaway is I feel profoundly sorry for that tree. Great post!🌳

    Liked by 1 person

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