overthinking two children’s books

A few nights ago, Kiddo#3 and I read two books before bedtime. He chooses them at random off his shelf, and for the first one, he picked The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.

I loathe that book. I detest it. It’s too bad a tree gave its life to make paper to print that book. I keep it around, however, because whenever I discard a “classic” someone immediately gives me another copy, and I don’t want to cause another copy to be printed. This one had come unhidden, sadly, so I read Kiddo#3 the book.

At the end, he said, “The tree was mad.”

She wasn’t really mad. She just fed into the entitlement-mind of The Boy (ugh — the man’s 96 by the end; you’d think he’d grow up and quit taking or the tree would quit enabling him) and she’s given everything she has to someone who doesn’t appreciate her. Her only purpose in life, it seems, is to be used and ignored.

I’ve done web searches and am delighted to know I’m not the only one who detests that story. One site called it “The Taking Boy,” and that’s more to the point. The boy acts like a king, treats her like rubbish, and never values her love, only what she can do for him.

Moreover, there’s no sign he cares about anyone else. He comes at one point and says he wants “a wife” and children. Not that he’s met a woman he loves, but that he figures now is the time to go get one. When he’s sick of it all, he wants a boat to get away. At the end, when he’s a broken old man, he’s not sorry that his selfishness has left him alone in the world. Only that his teeth are no good for apples and he can’t run and jump and climb. Eh. The solipsism hasn’t changed a bit since he was five, when it was far more natural and attractive.

Kiddo#3 liked the part about the apples, so it wasn’t a total loss.

And then, in an act of serendipity or a good push from his guardian angel, he selected another book from the shelf: The Gift of Nothing by Patrick McDonnell.

If you’d asked me to pick the opposite of The Giving Tree, I couldn’t have done it, but this would be the book. Click the above link to go over to Amazon and look inside it. Because the thrust of the book is that people don’t need things. Mooch wants to give Earl (yes, the characters from Mutts) a special birthday gift, but Earl has everything, so Mooch decides to give him Nothing. And in the end, they spend time with one another, doing nothing, together. Friends just valuing one another without any concern for stuff, usefulness, or benefitting. They’re just together and they bask in one another’s friendship.

Too bad they didn’t cut down The Tree to make paper for another copy of The Gift of Nothing because The Boy and The Tree both could have learned from it.

The sheer dichotomy of the two books left me with my jaw in my lap.

How do I want Kiddo#3 to value others? By what they can do for him? Or by who they are?

What do I want him to love? Things? Or people?

Objectify his loved ones, or appreciate them as souls?

Remain forever The Boy, or grow into a man?

Well, which of these books would you want to read to your son?


  1. CricketB

    This reminds me of “The Red Scarf”. Don’t bother looking it up online, it’s a small story within a larger story, written and told by Brian Holstein based on his own and other’s experiences.

    In brief, during the Depression, a grandmother loans a much admired red scarf to her granddaughter for a Christmas present. The girl remembers this decades later, and tells it to Brian on his first Christmas away from home. One day with the scarf gave fun and good memories. The actual scarf would be worn, get worn-out, and eventually thrown away.

  2. mischief0617

    I’m a fan of some of Shel Silverstein’s work but I’ve never actually read “The Giving Tree”. That book sounds really nice, though. 🙂 We’re always on the lookout for new kids books so I’ll keep an eye out for it. We’re on a big Mo Willems and Magic Tree House kick over here.

  3. mischief0617

    ahem…I meant to say “that other book sounds nice”

  4. Laura

    Since I looooove this book….I have to come up with some feasible reason for you to no longer hate it!! What if you looked at it with the tree as a Christ allegory? Yes, the boy was a brat…..but aren’t we all? “I want this, and that, and oh, if my life could include this…that would be great, thanks.”

    Or if not that….what about…even with regards to demanding, selfish people….people with “nothing” to give (the tree as a stump, before recognizing that the “boy” basically wanted a stump), the “undesirables” are still fully worthy?

    Come on…one of these must help somehow…. ;D

  5. Erin

    Yes, I agree: we hatessss the nasssty Taking Boy book.

  6. Rosebud

    I’ve discovered, as I’ve grown into an adult, that *The Giving Tree* was written specifically for the mindset of children. Not to teach children to be selfish, but to reassure children over and over and over again that no matter what happens “The Tree” (ie, Mommy and Daddy) will always be there, will always care, will always love them.

    As I child, I loved that book with a nearly obsessive love. It gave me so much comfort in a world in which, although I certainly wasn’t abused or unloved, I was often forgotten. To think that such a love existed – such a totally unselfish, undemanding love was reassuring to me in a way that can never be expressed in words.

    When I first re-read the book as an adult reading to my child, I fully expected it to be a touching experience of sharing something beautiful. What I discovered was that now I found the book jarring and horribly horribly codependent. At first, the Boy’s atrocious, self-centered behavior – and the Tree’s utter acceptance of said horrible behavior – infuriated me to the point of nearly throwing the book across the room.

    However, my children loved it. Both of them, with the nearly obsessive love that I remember having. And, trying to see it through a child’s eyes again(unless you become like a little child….), I realized that the story is a metaphor. It’s a metaphor for our relationship with Christ Himself. How often do we selfishly go to Him only with our problems, our concerns, our requests? We walk away from Him and come back and walk away and come back. His Heart aches when we reject Him. His Heart aches when we walk away. But He waits for us. Waiting for us to ask Him. Waiting to give us all that He has to offer. And in the end, if we are lucky enough, we can just sit with Him and rest in Him.

  7. xdpaul

    Augh. As usual, I’m caught between the worlds. The “Taking Boy” title cracks me up, but I see Rosebud’s point. From a child’s point of view, especially a neglected child’s point of view, the Giving Tree is an assurance of unconditional (if somewhat doormatty) love.

    Of course, my capacity for complexity does not run deep. I’d probably try to write a sequel titled “The Giving Tree versus Taking Boy” and it would involve a cybernetic, apple-bomb hurling maple and a little kid with body armor and a flamethrower.

    And a time machine. You know. For subtext.

  8. philangelus

    Hi! I’m sorry I didn’t get back to this before now.

    So we seem to have two arguments in favor of TGT:
    1) it’s a good metaphor for our relationship with God
    2) it’s written for children, and children find the message a comfort.

    For #1, I disagree because God *does* ask us for love and for obedience in return. Yes, God will keep giving to us, but God doesn’t give unconditionally. I can’t tell you how many things I’ve prayed for to which God has said “No,” and “No,” and “Philangelus, dear, I love you but really, no.” Sometimes the thing we want isn’t good for us, and giving it to us would damage the relationship between giver and recipient.

    If it were just a metaphor of God always taking us back, then when the Boy said he wanted a boat, the Tree would have said, “Boy, I love you, but you are a Goober. You are running away from love now just as you always have been. You may build yourself a boat, but you will do it with no help from me. For now, though, sit in my shade, Boy, and think about what you intend to accomplish by running away, and I will sing to you as I did when you were small.” No?

    At the end, it doesn’t seem to me that the Boy has returned to the tree full of contrition. He just returns to something he knows *used* to make him happy, and he wants someone to fix it all yet again. He’s got nothing left to give the tree either at that point, but his lack doesn’t make him sad. I can’t imagine God wants that kind of relationship with us, and most of us don’t have that kind of relationship with God because, to be blunt, that’s not really a relationship. Most of us care what God wants of us and want God to be pleased with us.

    But number 2, the fact that this is a book written for young children and it’s filling a psychological need in a young child, does resonate with me, and I’ll post an entry sometime later this week addressing that. Because children’s literature ought to meet the needs of the child, not the needs of the parent. Moralistic tales meet the need of the parent to teach the child, whereas things like Shel Silverstein’s delightfully subversive poetry for older children is meeting the needs of the child/preteen. And that’s definitely something to consider.

    I’m giggling about the time machine and the apple-bomb hurling maple. Would a cybernetic tree use a Macintosh platform? Of course it would!

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