The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

I remember reading The Giving Tree with my mom as a little girl. She usually had moist eyes by the end and sent me off to grab her a tissue. Thanks to her influence (and the local library), I grew up on Shel Silverstein, and he’s arguably my favorite poet.

Now here I am, mid-twenties, teaching English to university students in China, and, though my mom is a hemisphere away, Shel’s still with me. That’s right, you can find good ole’ Shel Silverstein in small-town China.

This semester, I assigned each of my students a poem to prepare and present to the class. Several of Shel’s made the cut, and, while my students didn’t always grasp his humor, I enjoyed them none the less.

So I went back and reread The Giving Tree. And it made me think, “What’s Shel trying to say?” Is he making some commentary on how people use and abuse nature for our selfish purposes instead of appreciating it as we should? Or is the tree a metaphor representing our parents? Is Shel saying that we appreciate our parents in our childhood but ignore them during adolescence and adulthood, only remembering their worth again in our old age? Or is this a story of truly self-less friendship? The tree always puts the boy first, offering herself for his sake. Or does the tree represent God, who, like the tree, forgives endlessly, sacrifices selflessly for the boy, is always faithful, and is happiest when the boy chooses to spend time with Him?

Each of these interpretations (and likely several others) have merit. And that’s the beautiful thing about poetry and creative literature. We don’t necessarily know what Shel wanted to say in this story, but we can glean whatever interpretation speaks to us, our situation, and our passions. Maybe that interpretation will change with time as we change, and that’s okay. Like the boy in the story, we need literature (I’m pretty sure part of the tree was used to make the paper for the book) to give us, show us, teach us different things at different stages in our life.

Thanks, Mom, for introducing that fact to me at such an early age.

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2 thoughts on “The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

  1. Enjoyed reading your post, and how you mentioned all the possible meanings of the book. That’s the great thing about the straight forward way children’s books are written, something simple can mean so much

    • Thanks for the comment, delaneycassinelli. The children’s books that stick around through the years, like many that we have written about so far, seem to have such a subtle depth and beauty. That may be the mark of a great children’s book.

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