Why I’ve Never Liked Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree

Discussion Post

When I was in elementary school, my teachers used to read Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree aloud to my class.  I understood that my teachers thought that the story depicted selfless giving on the part of the tree.  Year after year as the boy and then the man come to her asking her to give of herself to him, she happily obliges, allowing him to take her apples, her branches, and, finally, her trunk.  But, despite my teachers’ apparent love for this story, it never enchanted me.  To me, it was a dark and twisted tale, one in which a man unthinkingly kills someone who was kind to him, because he thinks only of his own needs.

My teachers would have seen the tree as a example to us all.  The tree loves her Boy unconditionally and does everything in her power to provide for him and to make him happy, even though he is grateful for none of it.  I appreciate this interpretation and can only hope that I can become a little more like the tree myself–generous, cheerful, and willing to sacrifice for the good of others.  However, I cannot help but feel that the interpretation is missing something–a recognition that, even though the tree is generous and loving, that does not excuse the actions of the Boy.

As a child, I possessed the sense of justice that many children possess.  I knew instinctively that the boy was wrong and selfish, even though this is not something any adult would have said.  The focus was all on the positive–how kind and giving is the tree!  No one mentioned that the tree was capable of such sacrificial lengths only because the Boy she served was willing to chop her down without a second thought.  A more well-rounded interpretation of the story would, I think, acknowledge that it is not okay for someone to keep taking, taking, taking with nary a thank you.  Nor is it acceptable for someone to ask another person to hurt themselves so that they can attain more wealth or material possessions.

Am I being too literal?  Well, that is what elementary school me thought when my teachers read this story aloud.  I never liked The Giving Tree.  I found it disturbing and I found it even more disturbing that the adults seemed unperturbed by the ending, in which an old man sits down on the stump of the tree he has killed.  The tree is happy because she can keep on giving and the man rests content, still oblivious to his selfishness throughout his life.  (Yes, technically the tree is still happy so I guess she is not really dead, but surely the man who chopped her down didn’t expect her to somehow go on living?  That is not  how trees work!)  To me, the story was more about the depredations of the selfish Boy than it was about the abused love of the tree.

Years later, I still cannot stand The Giving Tree.  I cannot help but think that readers too easily dismiss the actions of the Boy in order to praise the sacrifices of the tree.  I am pleased to learn that some criticism has been leveled at the work, with some readers interpreting the work more along the lines that I do–as a story about the selfishness of the boy or the ways in which humanity destroys nature.  But I suspect that many elementary school teachers go on reading the work, happily untroubled by its darker undertones.

How do you interpret The Giving Tree?


35 thoughts on “Why I’ve Never Liked Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree

  1. Briana says:

    I agree. I hated this story as a kid. The boy is disgustingly selfish and, yes, literally kills a tree he supposedly loves. That’s horrifying! I had the same experience with teachers holding up the tree as a role model, but the reality is that the tree was a complete doormat, and while I’m in favor of being generous, I do think telling people to be like the tree is overall a bad message. I also think Silverstein’s work frequently has a darker side, and it boggles my mind so many teachers seem to overlook this. I’m quite sure Silverstein also thought the boy was terrible.


    • Krysta says:

      That’s quite true. I find a lot of Silverstein’s poetry disturbing now, though kids at the library seem to love it. I sometimes wonder if their parents know what they’re reading! 😀

      I suspect, too, that Silverstein didn’t mean the story to be read totally ambiguously as praise of the tree. I understand that in the U.S. our values are still heavily based on Christian values and so the idea of giving one’s life up for another is considered a very noble thing. However, while I, too, value and admire sacrifice, in this case, in this particular story, I don’t feel that the tree’s death was actually necessary to help or save the Boy. I think it was mostly a result of the Boy being selfish and the tree, as you say, being a doormat. Not that I suppose the tree could have done much to fight back against an ax?


  2. QuirkyVictorian says:

    I was never familiar with this story as a child, but I was and still am a fan of Shel Silverstein. And you can’t read very much Shel Silverstein without noticing that his work can be very dark. And it’s never preachy.

    So, what I think happened is that this story was very much misinterpreted by elementary school teachers, especially those who tend to favor cheerful, light little messages to feed to their students. I don’t think the story was meant to condone the boy’s actions at all, but Shel Silverstein probably didn’t think he needed to spell that out. And sure enough, elementary-school-you got it! Making it all the more a shame that for years countless teachers have missed the point. (If that is, indeed, the point. If not, it’s a terrible book!)

    Interesting post!


    • Krysta says:

      Yes, we do have a tendency to try to sanitize things for children! In this case, however, I have to wonder why. As you point out, Silverstein is often a dark and disturbing author. My first instinct would not to be to assume that the story was written as a feel-good moralistic tale of love!

      I’m sure many readers were also taught this story in school and so continued to go on to teach in the same way they received it. It’s relatively easy to canonize books and interpretations simply by imitation and repetition! But I’d be in favor of a new book being read aloud instead if we aren’t going to stretch our interpretative powers a bit in the classroom.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. FranL says:

    As an adult I think that the relationship between the tree and the boy is meant to mirror a parent/child relationship. The parent gives unconditional love and the child takes it as his due. As a kid I always felt bad for the poor tree! As an elementary school teacher, I don’t present it the way that your teachers did. I point out that the tree was happy because the boy was happy. When you love some their happiness is more important than your own. That doesn’t excuse the boy’s selfishness, but it (hopefully!) makes the kids a bit more aware and appreciative of the sacrifices their parents have made and will make for them.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Krysta says:

      I like this interpretation! I can definitely see the tree representing a parent willing to do everything for the child while the child remains blissfully unaware of what his parent is sacrificing for him! And this interpretation also does, as you note, manage to celebrate the tree’s unconditional love while not ignoring why the tree is capable of it–the ignorance of the Boy.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. sydneysshelves says:

    Preach! I have always hated this book. I’ve had pastors try to pass it off as comparable to Jesus. And teachers always want it to be an example of selflessness. No it’s a story about selfishness and killing your friends. I can’t even stomach listening to it anymore.


    • Krysta says:

      I think many of us can admire someone giving up their life to save another. I think the difference in this case is that the tree isn’t really saving the Boy in any sense. It’s hard for me to see a strong analogy between Jesus dying to save the world from sin and a tree dying because her Boy wants a boat and didn’t bother to think of other options. The story is minimal, of course, but I’m not aware that the boat situation is a life-or-death situation!


  5. Ali (@thebandarblog) says:

    LOL, I totally agree, and I have the same feelings about The Rainbow Fish!!! I effing hate the message of that book! The fish is special because he was born that way and suddenly he has to share all his good fortune with everyone else because they’re simply jealous? And by the end he’s lost his identity and what makes him special, and we’re supposed to feel HAPPY ABOUT IT? It’s freaking sad! GAH I GET SO FIRED UP JUST THINKING ABOUT IT!


  6. Remnants of Wit says:

    This is an interesting interpretation of the book. I didn’t like the story as a kid either, for the same reasons you listed, but my teachers loved it. I wonder what Silverstein himself thought?


    • Krysta says:

      I suspect Silverstein didn’t mean the story to be read as a straight moral because it’s too awful that way and much of his work is dark rather than didactic. I don’t know if he’s ever spoken on it (many authors, I think, don’t because they want their stories to be everyone’s stories and they realize that what you see in the text can still be possible even if not originally or consciously intended). But I am wondering myself if he sometimes felt exasperated by the way it was being interpreted!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Briana says:

        Agreed. His work doesn’t seem to be touchy-feely happy or didactic in general, so (while it’s possible he wanted to branch out and write something different), it’d be a bit odd for him to have written this as some straightforward story about giving of yourself.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Brona says:

    I used to read this to some of my preschool classes and I read it because of its darker themes.

    Almost every single class understood that the boy/man was mean and that there was something deeply wrong with their relationship. But it also touched a deep chord with many of my students. It’s as much about selfishness as it is with selflessness. As much about taking as it is with giving.

    I’m always fascinated by the strong feelings this book creates. To me that says that Silverstein actually tapped into some unconscious fear or need in us.

    My response – http://bronasbooks.blogspot.com.au/2012/11/the-giving-tree-by-shel-silverstein.html


    • Krysta says:

      Yes, the book certainly does inspire lively debate! And it sounds like you’ve had some great discussions in your classroom! I don’t recall my teachers ever asking my class what we thought. I think it was read as more of a moral lesson to the silent masses.

      Thanks for leaving your link!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. heather says:

    I rushed over here as soon as I saw the title on the June discussion linkup because of my deep and visceral hatred of the book. I don’t understand how anyone could possibly like that. Maybe it is a bit of a Rorschach test for readers. If you identify with the tree, you hate it. If you identify with the kid, you like it. Avoid the people who like the book if you identify with the tree! Yes, this should be a required first date question.


  9. vendija723 says:

    I also came right over from the Discussion link-up to say how much I dislike the book–or at least, the common interpretation of it. I am SURE that I read somewhere once that Silverstein was baffled as to how anyone thought the message was about love, not about selfishness, but I can never find the article when I want to prove my point.

    I also hate Love You Forever. I’m a parent, and I was super close with my mom, but –no. Stay out of your kids’ bedrooms after they’ve grown up and left home.


    • Krysta says:

      I find it kind of interesting that plenty of the commenters here didn’t like the book for the same reason I did. And yet none of the teachers who read it to me ever suggested that we could read the story as anything but a narrative of selfless love. I guess it depends on who is reading the book and what their motivations or goals are.


  10. fairydancer221 says:

    I remember thinking nothing wrong with The Giving Tree when I was little. I reread it about two years ago and I was disturbed by the selfishness of the boy and man. I think my perceptions of it had to do with age, influences of society, and a greater understanding of selfishness.


    • Krysta says:

      That could be true! I think that as we age we do see different things in books since we have more experience and we may be focused on different things at different points of our lives.


  11. jatnnaacosta says:

    Very interesting interpretation. As a teacher myself, I’ve never read this story to my students. I do agree that if I did I would more than likely focus on the positive. Yet I do always value student input as much as possible. This sounds like a lovely choice for a class discussion/writing prompt (for upper level classes, of course). Thank you for this insight. I enjoyed reading!


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