Was the Giving Tree Simply Spineless?

Shel Silverstein’s "The Giving Tree" sold millions of copies around the world, but it was also a target of harsh reviews. What is it about this minimalist book that evokes such conflicting feelings and what did its creator have to say about it? And perhaps we can all learn from success instead of arguing with it

Yael Ingel
Shel Silverstein (photo: Jerry Yulsman 1964) and the cover of the Hebrew edition of "The Giving Tree" (Adam Publishers, 1979)

When 34-year-old Shel Silverstein submitted the illustrated manuscript of The Giving Tree to publishers, it was rejected.

Silverstein was already a well-known writer with several books for adults, a children’s book and even a first album that he wrote and recorded (many more would follow) under his belt, and yet, his latest creative effort was rejected. The reason the publishers gave was that it was not clear whether the book was intended for children or adults and that it would be confusing to readers.

We know how this story ends: Silverstein persevered, the book was published, and the skeptics’ misgivings turned out to be his trump card – the book, bought by adults and children alike, flew off the shelves.

Since then, generations of children have grown up reading The Giving Tree, which was published in 1964 to resounding international success. The Hebrew edition came out in 1979. The book depicts the relationship between a child and an apple tree. The tree gives and the child takes. At first the tree only gives the boy its shade and fruit, but later, when the boy grows up and returns to the tree, it gives him its branches, then its trunk, until there is nothing left but a bare stump. And yet, “the tree was happy”, according to the book’s unforgettable ending.

There is no single explanation for the book’s enormous popularity. Perhaps it is Silverstein’s sharp and clear writing and minimalist, uncluttered illustrations. Or the book’s message about the universal values of generosity, giving, dedication and unconditional love. In the United States, many religious institutions incorporated the book into their curricula, using the story as a model for leading a good, unselfish life. In Israel, the book complemented the values of Zionism and Israeli culture itself – a culture highly influenced by the requirement of military service, which demands immense giving and absolute devotion.

The book has been translated into more than 30 languages, and in 2022, the US Postal Service issued a stamp in the book’s honor.

The stamp issued in 2022 by the US Postal Service in honor of The Giving Tree

However, alongside its enormous success, The Giving Tree was also the target of significant criticism from different directions. One of the main criticisms originated with feminist organizations. In the original English version of the book, the tree was referred to in the feminine tense: “Once there was a tree, and she loved a little boy”. [emphasis YI]

Page from the 1964 edition of The Giving Tree, published by Harper & Row

Silverstein had chosen to imagine the tree in the feminine, which led to the book’s being interpreted as a mother’s absolute sacrifice or as women’s capitulation in the face of male selfishness.

In the Hebrew edition, the tree is referred to as male, but this change was in no way self-evident. Silverstein was very careful about controlling the copyrights and other publishing details of his books (which is why you won’t ever find any of his books in paperback). When the book was translated into Hebrew, a special request was made to refer to the tree in the masculine, due to the fact that nouns in Hebrew are either masculine or feminine, and a tree is masculine. The request was approved, which is perhaps why criticism of the Hebrew edition was more generalized.

A selection of Silverstein’s books in Hebrew translation, available in at the National Library of Israel. All of them, without exception are in hardcover editions only

Criticism also came from environmentalists who claimed that the book encourages destruction and wanton disregard for the environment. Others voiced concern that it will promote a child’s selfishness if they identify with the child, or self-destructive behavior if they identify with the tree. Author Rivka Galchen wrote in the New York Times: “The boy and the tree are both ‘flawed’, and in the most old-fashioned way, their flaws, which are also their characters, determine their fates”.

Over the last decade, perhaps with the rise of political correctness or the development of more conscious parenting styles, criticism of the book has intensified and given rise to several parodies and alternate versions. Daniel Goldstein created a Hebrew parody called The Polish Tree and American writer Topher Payne came up with another alternate take: The Tree Who Set Healthy Boundaries. Both seem to respond to the anger the book provokes when re-reading it as adults or as young parents, and seeing things in it that we did not see when we read it as children.

Cover of The Tree Who Set Healthy Boundaries. An alternate ending to Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, by Topher Payne, part of the “Topher Fixed It” series which provides “parody alternate endings to beloved but problematic children’s literature”

Along with suggestions for discussing the book after reading it to children and asking what they feel and think about it, perhaps it is also worth asking whether we can simply ignore the matter of its political correctness or the messages it conveys. Can it simply be enjoyed as a story? Each of us has to decide for ourselves.

Born in 1930 to a Jewish family in Chicago, Silverstein was a prolific writer, but gave very few interviews throughout his life. He never tried to justify himself or respond to the criticism about his best-known book, The Giving Tree. He let his success speak for itself. In a rare interview from 1975, he summarizes his thoughts about reviews in general: “I think if you’re a creative person, you should just go about your business, do your work and not care about how it’s received. I never read reviews, because if you believe the good ones you have to believe the bad ones too. Not that I don’t care about success. I do, but only because it lets me do what I want. I was always prepared for success but that means that I have to be prepared for failure too”. Speaking to the New York Times in 1978, when asked about the meaning of The Giving Tree, Silverstein answered: “It’s just a relationship between two people; one gives and the other takes”.


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