Freelance writer Geoffrey Redick recently wrote about children’s books on Deadspin… or, at least the ones he wouldn’t read to his kids. In it, he lists Shel Silverstein’s classic kids book, The Giving Tree, which happens to be my favorite story when I was a little boy. In fact, the second tattoo I ever got — when I was 19, I believe — was straight out of page 13 or something.
Naturally, with anything you love, I was initially defensive about the passage. I mean, I loved The Giving Tree.
It was like reading the Creepypasta on Rugrats and getting my entire universe turned god knows where. It was like discovering sabermetrics and realizing traditional baseball stats like Batting Average and Runs Batted In didn’t mean as much as they did when I was growing up in the 90’s.
Anyway, if I thought Redick — or any other writer, for that matter — couldn’t possibly ruin my childhood any more than it’s already been ruined, I was clearly mistaken:
What exactly is this story telling me, as a parent? Should I give every bit of myself, body and soul, to a child who only asks for more? There are overly attached attachment parents who would say that I should. I say that would leave me as nothing more than a sad little stump, only good for an old man to fart into. When the boy says he needs money, the tree ought to say, “Get a damn job!” Then he’d have proof of income and some credit history to buy a house, and maybe a little left over for a boat when he gets tired of the rat race and says, “Fuck it all, I want to see the world.”
I think this book is actually a cautionary tale for parents. It’s not meant for kids. Late in the story, after the tree has given away her trunk, there are two facing pages. All we see is the stump with some blades of grass around it. Here are the only words: “And the tree was happy … but not really.” I find that chilling. Keep a little something for yourself, parents. And keep this one off your kid’s bookshelf.
Let’s face it, I read this for the first time when I was probably five years old, and I liked it probably for the same reason a lot of five year-olds liked books: there were pictures. Silverstein was a writer/poet I always enjoyed as a child; his style of writing was Dr. Seuss with a splash of darkness and less flow. And… pictures!
As it turns out, my interpretation of the story is a naïve one. I never looked at the boy (who’s an old man by the end) as a manipulative, ungrateful little shithead. I always more or less just gave him a benefit of the doubt, probably because he is an actual person and a tree is (just) a tree. By the time I got the tattoo in the above photo, I had at least realized that the tree was excessively under-appreciated, and that for too long and with too many people in my life I acted as the boy in the story.