I was excited to read "The Giving Tree" to my children when they were little. I'd read the Shel Silverstein classic so many times as a kid and remembered loving it. In my memory, it was a poetic story of a tree that gave selflessly, never expecting anything in return, and of the undying love she had for a little boy who eventually turned into an old man.
"And the tree was happy." It was sweet, I thought.
Then I read the book again as an adult and noticed some things I hadn't as a child. While I had focused on the generosity of the tree as a child, this time the boy-who-becomes-a-man stood out. Wow, what a selfish jerk he was. And the tree, while admirably willing to give selflessly, seemed a little too giving. Martyrdom for an important cause is one thing; sacrificing everything you are for a guy who uses you over and over and takes without any thought to your needs or well-being is entirely another.
I soon found out I wasn't alone in feeling conflicted about the story. In fact, "conflicted" is an understatement compared to what some people feel about it. Some say that it's the worst story they've ever read. Even some die-hard Shel Silverstein fans hate it. Others will defend it to their last breath as their favorite book of all time.
Publicist Eric Alper shared the news that U.S. Postal Service will be issuing a "The Giving Tree" forever stamp later this year, and the comments show how wildly people's opinions differ on this book.
Alper didn't share any commentary with the news. He just wrote, "The U.S. Postal Service will release a stamp to honor Shel Silverstein and his 'The Giving Tree' book in 2022."
But with the way people responded, you'd think he'd said, "Puppies are ugly and Paul Rudd is the devil."
People flooded the comments with their thoughts on the book, with many unleashing their fury over the book's premise:
"Ugh- this book keeps coming up! It’s a great representation of a manipulative, one-sided, narcissistic relationship. I can’t stand it."
"Nooooo! Not that! Anything but that! It's awful! A poor example! Bleah! Shel had so many great books. This is the only one I hate! I disagree with the modeling here. Very unhealthy! So sad."
"Hate that book. Teaches children how to not have boundaries. Love everything else by Uncle Shelby."
"Are you kidding me?!?! Let’s make a stamp celebrating how to be so selfish and keep taking until there’s nothing left to take. This was literally the worst children’s story ever written!!!!"
Others gave a bit less vehement responses, explaining exactly what their negative experiences with the book were:
"I picked this book up one day and started reading it to my kids, not knowing what I was getting into. And I found myself saying 'This boy is terrible!', after every page. And I looked at my kids and I said 'I love you, and I am so grateful for you, but you are going to grow up and take care of yourselves and you are not getting all my leaves.'"
"I do not understand why people love this book. On one side of the relationship there’s a someone who takes and takes and is perfectly happy for the tree to give all of itself while giving absolutely nothing in return. On the other side there’s the tree who literally destroys itself and only finds self-worth in sacrifice. It’s sickening."
Lovers of the book spoke their minds as well, sharing their perspectives that the book is about unconditional love:
"I am so excited about this stamp. As a kindergarten teacher, I read to my class several times every year. We would all have tears in our eyes by the end of the book!"
"All you haters have missed the point. The tree represents the parents. They give all they have to give for their children's success, and are brought the greatest joy and pain watching them grow and leave them."
"I love this book so much. As soon as I became a mom I understood exactly what was going on here. I’d give every last ounce of me to make my kiddo happy."
"This book is about sacrifice, and how the tree embodies nothing but love for the little boy. My 'Giving Tree' was my daddy, not because of financial reasons, but for his unwavering love for me."
"Wow! The comments are heartbreaking. This book is about unconditional love. I guess that’s been cancelled."
Interestingly, some people shared that they love the book precisely because of the problematic relationship they see in it:
"I love this book because it teaches a person what happens if he/she remains in an unhealthy relationship. In the end, both are sad."
"Maybe I’m alone in this but I always read it as a cautionary tale. Be careful how much you take from someone, someday you’ll learn that you’ve taken too much."
"I don’t hate this book. It is a cautionary tale. Teach your child that taking, taking, taking all the time will destroy the giver. (and the taker will lose their friend) Teach your child that while giving is good, too much is not healthy. Teach your child boundaries!!"
"I kinda noticed as a child, the person was kinda greedy and only visited when he wanted to take. As an adult leaving a narcissistic marriage, boom! Whoa! Good book tho. I'd honestly use this book to teach about it and how it's nice to give, but have boundaries."
One thing is certain: The book still has us talking after 57 years.
Perhaps the mark of a brilliant book isn't in teaching a clear lesson but in getting people talking. Different people take different things from stories, and good literature prompts discussion over those perspectives. It's not as often that we get this kind of debate out of a seemingly simple children's book, but Shel Silverstein had a way of tapping into adult complexity while writing for children, and he's certainly done it with "The Giving Tree."
Good for USPS for honoring Silverstein and his work with a stamp—and good luck with the can of worms it opened by choosing to do it with this particular book.
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