[This month we celebrate the 150th anniversary of Arbor Day, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of tree-tastic stories. Leading up to a special weekend post on the holiday’s histories!]
On two ways to frame and teach “one of the most divisive books in children’s literature.”
First things first: I’m a big Shel Silverstein fan (and that was even before I learned that he wrote “A Boy Named Sue”). In my experience, it’s very rare to find children’s literature that genuinely and fully appeals to both kids (of all ages, no less) and adults, and the Silverstein poems featured in classic books like Where the Sidewalk Ends (1974) and A Light in the Attic (1981) absolutely succeed at that tough task. They, like Silverstein’s style and voice overall, are also truly unique, unlike any other children’s lit that I’ve encountered (which is likely a main reason, along with that broad audience appeal, why they have remained popular for nearly fifty years). I say all that not just to praise a very deserving author and artist, but also and especially so that when I say The Giving Tree (1964) is on the short list of books I hate most, you’ll know that I don’t make that claim at all lightly.
I’m not alone in that hate—but at the same time, as my opening quote above (from librarian and author Betsy Bird) illustrates, those who deeply love the book are likewise far from alone. That kind of incredibly varied range of readings can be enough to make one throw one’s hands in the air and mutter my sons’ and my favorite phrase to diffuse many arguments: de gustibus non est disputandum. But it also offers teachers (in and out of classrooms) a chance to, as a familiar pedagogical saying goes, “teach the controversy”—and in this case, I would add, through highlighting and engaging directly with the book’s divisiveness to teach and talk about the idea of reader-response criticism: how we can read and analyze readers and readings to think about what they tell us about audiences, perspectives, communities, how cultural works work, and more. Just the range of “Interpretations” traced on the book’s Wikipedia page offers a fascinating window into late 20th and early 21st century readers, communities, and ways of thinking about what culture does and means.
For all those reasons I don’t think it makes sense to privilege any one reading of the book as more “correct”—but in the spirit of this week’s series, I do want to say a bit more here about what it would mean to take The Giving Tree seriously as an environmentalist parable. I don’t know that there’s any direct evidence that Silverstein was particularly concerned with such issues, either with this book or overall in his career and life; but at the same time, it’s interesting and important to note that he makes a tree one of his book’s two characters, and moreover makes the tree the one who gives so much and is so thoroughly wrecked in the process. To take the reader-response idea one step further—whatever Silverstein may have intended, it seems impossible for any 21st century reader not to think about that tree in the context of all that humans have done to the Earth; and even if children and all of us are deeply bothered by reading Silverstein’s images, indeed perhaps especially if we’re bothered, that particular reader-response feels like a very worthwhile one to produce and engage.
Next tree tale tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other tree texts you’d throw in?