How re-reading The Giving Tree challenged my view of generosity and gratitude
While going over my childhood books in my parents’ apartment, I came across The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. The book easily stands among my top 3 favorite childhood books. If you haven’t read it, please take three minutes to read it for free here.
The book is about the relationship between a tree and a boy. At first, the boy loves playing with the tree, swinging from his branches, eating his apples, etc. But then the boy grows older, and he always appears to be lacking something: a house, money, a boat. So the tree gives him what he lacks, the boy takes, and everyone seems happy.
I’ve always loved this story and have read it countless times. What has always fascinated me was the tree’s generosity and his complete selflessness. I probably didn’t realize it at the time, but it probably played a significant role in orienting me towards a career more focused on helping others.
So having come across the book in my library, I re-read it. Immediately, those childhood memories and emotions came back to life. I had this same feel-good feeling by the end of it as I appreciated the tree’s selflessness. But this time, there was something a bit different: I also seemed to be disturbed by the boy’s behavior. Or, as Adam Grant and Allison Sweet Grant write in the NY Times’ parenting section: “It wasn’t the warm, fuzzy, heartwarming story we thought we remembered. Despite being poignant and beautifully written, it was kind of depressing.”
Questions immediately popped into my head. Had my understanding of the book been too naive all this time? Did the book have a happy ending? Was this book a depiction of selfishness and one-sided relationships?
Confused, I decided to have a look online. I discovered how divisive the book was. Countless articles, blogs, and Goodreads reviews were full of either love or hate for the book. I learned about the book’s history and how many editors of children’s books had rejected the manuscript. One of the editors of the book is even quoted in…