Shel Silverstein, “The Giving Tree”

By: Karla Bae

The Giving Tree written by Shel Silverstein is an animated children’s book, first published in 1964 by Harper & Row. This publishing company is a world leading American publishing firm and therefore, the book became one of Silverstein’s most widely known and read books globally. The book follows the interaction between a boy and a tree throughout the boy’s life as he becomes older. Starting from when the boy is young, he goes up to the apple tree and asks for its fruit, shelter, branches, and company as he gets older. When the boy acquires these things from the tree, he uses it to gain money or other materialistic gains. The tree is sacrificial and tries to meet all the boy’s needs but deteriorates throughout the process. Eventually, the boy uses up all the tree’s resources and it is left as a stump which the boy uses to sit on and get rest.

The author of this book, Shel Silverstein, is a well renowned children’s book author and poet. Some other books he is known for include Falling Up and A Light in the Attic, which are books that have also been challenged in certain schools and states. Many of these books have a dark and sad theme to them, which is common for the author. Silverstein first started his career as an illustrator for various magazines, such as playboy, before he started writing his own work. Most of the books and poems he published are accompanied by his drawings. It is notable that in his previous interviews, he mentioned that he avoids happy endings in this writing because he wants his readers to feel comfortable in their sadness. Also, he wanted to address childhood anxiety and other mental health issues. 

One of the main themes the book presents is sacrifice. As the title implies, the tree is incredibly giving and sacrificial towards the boy even though it does not receive anything in return. There are multiple interpretations of this sacrifice and the relationship between the boy and the tree, but one of the most prominent ones is that it unveils the relationship between humanity and the environment. The boy represents humanity and how it constantly takes resources from nature in order to make materialistic possessions for monetary gain. Eventually, natural resources will deplete to the point where humanity can no longer rely on nature for gains. This interpretation is used to teach children the importance of maintaining the integrity of nature and preserving the environment. Another theme that relates to why the book was challenged throughout history is sexism. Many readers interpreted the tree to be a sacrificial woman and the boy as a man that constantly takes from the woman. It is common for nature to be equated with women in literature; we often use the term “mother nature” to give a feminine gender to the environment. The predatory nature in which the boy takes from the woman and how he expects her to cater to his wants and needs without regard to her well-being is a sexist theme of the book, according to many of its readers. 

The Giving Tree has been challenged and banned throughout history in various schools and states. Specifically, it was banned from a public library in Colorado in 1988. The reasoning behind this ban was because of the sexist nature of the content that many readers believe to be prevalent in the book, as mentioned above. This interpretation of the book was influenced by Silverstein’s history with women and literature. Before publishing his children’s books, Silverstein was an illustrator for the Playboy magazine and this affiliation led to him being a part of the Playboy mansion in which he had unhealthy and one-sided interactions with the women of this community. 

Some recommended readings for further information regarding this book and it’s ban history include: