Columns > Published on February 25th, 2015

Your Favorite Book Sucks: 'The Giving Tree' by Shel Silverstein

I can hear you thinking it. Not The Giving Tree. It’s a timeless children’s classic. Many (myself included) have warm and fuzzy memories of our parents reading it to us as we were tucked into bed, and many more no doubt continue to read it to their own children. The story of a tree’s love for a little boy taught us about friendship, selflessness, and how to exploit them. That’s right—The Giving Tree is nothing but a book of terrible relationship advice for children.

This book presents the unhealthy co-dependence between a boy and a tree as an ideal of how  friendship works. The boy constantly takes more and more from the tree, and never gives anything, not even a word of thanks, in return. The tree proudly surrenders itself to a person who only seems to value it as a means to an end, and is reduced to a stub of its former self. The lesson is that people will only be your friend if you do what they want, and that anyone who doesn’t give you whatever you ask for is not your friend. 

The lesson is that people will only be your friend if you do what they want, and that anyone who doesn’t give you whatever you ask for is not your friend.

Revisiting the text as an adult, the boy’s treatment of the tree bore a disturbing resemblance to another book about toxic relationships: Pimp by Iceberg Slim. Specifically the chapter about how to turn a girl into a prostitute, and eventually train her up into a “bottom bitch.” To summarize, a pimp makes a lonely girl believe she is special to him, then starts treating her like dirt. The girl is then willing to do more and more desperate things just to feel special again. He keeps taking all her time, money and energy, and all it costs him is a feeling.

In the beginning, the boy and the tree play and have fun together. The tree loves the boy, but one day the boy comes to her and says love ain’t enough: he needs money. So the tree gives up its fruit to be sold in the city. That’s already a very uncomfortable parallel, but it only gets worse. Each time he returns he is welcomed by the tree, who hopes they can have fun like the old days. The boy tells it he doesn’t have time for that—he needs something else, and the tree wants him to be happy, doesn’t it? The tree literally sacrifices its body so the boy can obtain his material desires, and he always comes back wanting more. When he finally returns and the tree has nothing left to give him, he sits on the stump. And the tree is grateful for it. After surrendering the entirety of its being the beloved boy has at last come back to use it as a piece of furniture, and the tree is happy. Iceberg himself would have been proud of how the boy ran his game on the Giving Tree.

While others have explored the abusive undertones of The Giving Tree, the most popular interpretations call it a parable, claiming the tree represents either God or a parent. Telling kids that God is a magic tree that will give you money, a house and a boat if you just ask is a little misleading. Viewing the tree as an analogue for a devoted parent makes the story a little more palatable, but the boy is no doubt responsible for a generation with an unchecked sense of entitlement, and the tree is a role model for perpetual victimhood. Generosity is a good thing, but sometimes you have to say no. Neither character really presents an ideal for children to strive for: should they be selfish jerks, or selfless fools? Using The Giving Tree as a template for friendship will ensure you die alone. So why do we keep reading it to our youngest, most impressionable minds like some refined nugget of folk wisdom? Is it just because it’s really short and the illustrations are charming? It needs to stop. Do your kid a favor and pick up Dr. Seuss instead.

About the author

BH Shepherd is a writer and a DJ from Texas. He graduated from Skidmore College in 2005 with degrees in English and Demonology after writing a thesis about Doctor Doom. A hardcore sci-fi geek, noir junkie and comic book prophet, BH Shepherd has spent a lot of time studying things that don’t exist.  He currently resides in Austin, where he is working on The Greatest Novel Ever.

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