me, my kid, and that wussy tree

July 27th, 2010

My daughter loves Shel Silverstein’s classic The Giving Tree.

I believe this is a requirement of childhood. You read this book. You love it. End of story.

Then many years go by and you don’t read it. And then you read it again as an adult. Perhaps to your kid. And only then do you realize: HOLY SHIT, THE TREE AND THE BOY DO NOT HAVE A BEAUTIFUL GIVING RELATIONSHIP BUT A PROFOUNDLY DYSFUNCTIONAL ONE. Seriously, the boy takes and takes and takes of the tree and is never ever happy or grateful and the tree basically kills itself to make the boy happy, becomes a stump, makes itself unhappy and that’s the story.

Willa knows I hate this story, but she likes it. We agree to disagree. She knows I’ll read whatever she asks of me, including those infernal Rainbow Fairies Books. But during our latest reading, I tried to explain to her why I hated the book so much. I told her that if she had a friend who treated her like the boy treated the tree, I would think it was a bad friend and wouldn’t want her to be friends with this person. “He’s mean,” I wailed about the boy. “He just takes and takes and takes. And don’t get me started about the tree. That tree needs to grow a backbone.”

My child, who can recognize a bad metaphor at aged six, gave me the fish eye. “Seriously,” I continued ponderously. “It doesn’t do the boy any good to have the tree indulge all his wishes. I know kids like that boy, whose parents gave them everything they asked, and they ended up so messed up because they never learned to do stuff for themselves.”

Now I’d really lost her. And she was getting impatient. But I was on a roll. “You know how I’d like the book to go? The boy asks the tree for money and the tree gives up her apples. He asks for a house and he gives her branches but after the tree says ‘I’m sorry, but I really think it’s time you learn to stand on your own two feet, boy.’ And you know what?” I asked Willa. “The boy does. He finds his way, has a family and is happy and he builds a grove of trees around the tree to keep her company. The end!”

I was so pleased with my revisionist tale, The Functional Tree. But Willa was appalled. She shriveled her face up and I thought she was going to throw the book at me and then she told me to be quiet, only not so nicely. And we moved on and read Ish by Peter Reynolds, a book I had no alternate endings to, a book I love, if not quite as much as Reynolds’s artist-y book, The Dot, which makes me cry every single time.

When we finished reading, I asked Willa to tell my why she loved The Giving Tree so much. “I’m not gonna tell you,” she said. In other words, “You and your annoying lecturing, Mom, have blown your chance to get a straight answer out of me.”

So I left it for a few hours. But later, when we were hanging out just the two of us on our building’s roof, I asked her again. “Because trees are supposed to get cut down to make houses from,” she answered matter-of-factly. Clearly the crunch of Park Slope’s environmental message has nothing on her steely pragmatism. (Or you could just read that as a six year old’s narcissism: Caretakers are supposed to do everything to help the little people, because believe you me, they think that’s true.)

“Well, what happens if we cut down all the trees?” I asked, trying to turn this into a Teaching Moment.

She almost rolled her eyes at me, but them seemed to realize we were having a nice sharing moment. She just shook her head slightly. “Everyone knows that’s when the robots come.”

“The robots?”

“After the people and trees are gone, the robots come.” There was a slight duh in her voice, as if she felt sorry she had to explain the obvious to her poor old mom.

Ahh, the robots. I might have to work that into a new alternate ending of The Giving Tree.

  1. Now I’m gonna have to read The Giving Tree. It’s a gap in my literary background. Please ask Willa to put in a good word for me with the robots!

  2. Hilarious! Willa may be the reincarnation of H.G. Wells!
    We sell “The Giving Tree” in french at Powell’s: it’s called “L’Arbre Genereux” (the Generous Tree), but perhaps it should be called “L’Arbre Codependant”.
    xoxox Diney

  3. Ha! That’s awesome.
    I loved The Giving Tree as a kid. I loved all Silverstein’s books. So I bought a few, including the tree, for my kids. And I had a very similar reaction to reading it as an adult. And of course, they force me to read it almost every night.

  4. OH. MY. GOD. What you described was my exact reaction when I read the book to my daughter. I thought to myself, What the hell, Shel Silverstein?! And yet, I do remember loving it as a kid and I do so love Shel Silverstein.
    Anyway, great post, especially your idea of The Functional Tree.

  5. LOL! Willa sounds so cute and hilarious :) I remember reading The Giving Tree when I was a lot younger and I loved it. I think I’m going to read it again, but I totally see your point.

  6. OMG, Sassy Gay Friend and the Giving Tree may just be the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. “A torso boat? No! This is turning into a snuff film!” I peed myself!

  7. In total agreement with you about the Giving Tree. And I’m fascinated by the robots.

  8. Thanks for sharing this! I have no idea what I’m in for yet, do I? Thanks for adding Peter Reynolds to my list for Charlie….

  9. I haven’t read The Giving Tree since I was an entitled little kid — and you’re so right! That’s too funny, and your daughter’s answers were awesome.

  10. Gayle: The Giving Tree is a great book. Really. It is about the life cycle. The way I see it is the boy takes from the tree but someone or something takes from the boy throughout his life. Whether it be a spouse, children, career…we are ALL trees there for the plucking, the using, the consuming…if only to help others. If we do not allow for others, our community,or our work to take from us, we are not changing. If we do not allow our world to impact us (good and bad) we stagnate and die alone. In order for us humans to feel the emotional spectrum, we need allow others to give to us unconditionally and allow others to take from us without giving back. In the end, is we are well used, we have lived a life worth living. A bitter sweet condition.

  11. LOL Willa sounds so adorable! I’ve read The Giving Tree several times and I understand what you mean. And I like your re-imagining of it as The Functional Tree. I laughed so hard!

  12. I, too, had that same reaction. My 7-year old loves it. I will need to ask her why she likes it so much. I think I was too appalled initially.

    I love your take, Karen – I will try it again with that in mind.

  13. Gayle,
    I was already an adult the first time I read The Giving Tree , and I remember crying, feeling like “This is what it feels like to be a Parent. Your endless sacrifice for your child until the day comes you can not give anymore.”
    When I read it to my boys I use it as a lesson on how selfish we can sometimes be with people we love, that we should also be a giver, not just a taker.

    Willa’s comment about the robots had me laughing out loud, especially when you mentioned she did the DUH voice.

  14. My dearest Gayle,

    I wish to say that your book,”if I stay,” has been a very inspiring story for my little teenage heart to read.
    I am not young, but my emotions are very undeveloped and I am searching for a way to live and breathe in this body that I have now.
    I could relate to Mia and pretend that she was me.
    I have to say that the cello has been one of my favorite instruments to listen to, all the way through my life.
    My favorite artist is Ofra Harnoy who performs all types of music with her cello,and is so passionate in performing the classic selections, especially baroque ones, that I am very moved.
    Thank you, dear Gayle for the story!

  15. Haha, I loved The Giving Tree when I was really little, but after my Grandma died when I was 14, my family began to associate her with that book and that really bummed me out. I didn’t want to be like the little boy, taking and taking and taking and not giving anything in return, but I guess that’s a part of being a little kid! Clearly, I can rest assured that it’ll all be okay when the robots come! :-p

  16. Thank you for expressing my feelings for this book so exactly. I calculatingly read it to my sons so we could fashion our own Functional Tree rewrite…but it became unnecessary; they didn’t care for the book! My older son said, “If I was allowed to say ‘hate’ I would hate that boy.” (Notice how neatly he incorporated, not once, but twice, the word his kindergarten teacher had forbidden? I LOVE KIDS).

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