Study Guide

The Giving Tree

By Shel Silverstein

The Giving Tree Introduction

To call the tree in this book "giving" is a bit of an understatement. In fact, a more accurate title for Shel Silverstein's most famous picture book might be The Sacrificing Stump.

Oops, sorry, spoiler alert.

That's right. By the end of the book, there's not a lot left of the eponymous tree, and that's one reason this tale has kept people debating its themes and symbolism for more than 50 years.

Originally published in 1964, The Giving Tree has been categorized as heartwarming, sexist, instructive, satirical, and horrifying…among other things. It tends to elicit strong reactions from readers, with most people either loving or hating the book, and very few falling in between those two extremes.

In the story, a tree who loves a boy gives up everything—her fruit, her limbs, her trunk—to make the boy happy. But he never is. Or is he?

The book's ending, as it turns out, is just as controversial as the rest of the story. Some people might be inclined to paint the final frame as a relatively happy conclusion or, at least, call the story bittersweet, but Silverstein himself saw the book as having a sad ending, which is part of the reason it took him four years to get it published (source).

Turns out Silverstein—like Maurice Sendak, another of our favorite picture book authors—wasn't a big fan of happy endings. Not even for kids' books. He found them unrealistic and thought that seeing everything turn out perfectly in the end gave kids a false sense of how life was supposed to be. As Silverstein put it, "The child asks, 'Why don't I have this happiness thing you're telling me about?' and comes to think when his joy stops that he has failed, that it won't come back" (source).

Interestingly enough, Silverstein and Sendak shared the same editor, Ursula Nordstrom, and it was Nordstrom that pushed to allow these defiers of the typical rules of children's books (kids that behave well, happy endings) to have their tales published as they were. And we're thankful she did.

You should be, too—even if you're one of the folks who gravitates toward the "hate it" end of the spectrum when it comes to The Giving Tree. Because love it or hate it, The Giving Tree is a book that will make you think. Who knows? It may even inspire you to debate its themes and symbolism…for another 50 years.

What is The Giving Tree About and Why Should I Care?

One word: levels.

People talk about levels all the time, especially when it comes to things like Pixar movies. It is often said that these animated extravaganzas appeal to people of all ages because they operate on multiple levels.

Okay. Sure. We agree with that. But if you really want to talk levels, you need to talk about The Giving Tree:

  • Is it a bittersweet tale of the love between a tree and a boy?
  • Is it a commentary on the complexity of human relationships?
  • Is it a cautionary tale of humanity's insensitivity toward nature?
  • Is it a heartwarming story of the unique bond between a parent and a child?
  • Is it a warning about the hazards of codependency?

Yes. The Giving Tree is all these things…and more.

But, wait, you might say. How is that possible? We already told you. It's about levels. Shel Silverstein packs this book full of them.

Depending on how you read the book and how deeply you want to analyze it, The Giving Tree can be everything from a tender tale you remember fondly from your childhood to a disturbing chronicle of a dysfunctional, abusive relationship. And that's why you should care about this one. It's not every children's picture book that becomes the subject of an article on shared responsibility in the Michigan Law Review or fodder for years of literary analysis.

So, get in there and carve this story up. Is the tree just a tree? Is the boy just a boy? Or is there a lot more going on in this tale? It's up to you to decide.

The Giving Tree Resources

Websites

Go Straight to the Source
Shel Silverstein's website features videos, ecards, wallpaper, information about Shel and his books, and even some printables.

Say That Five Times Fast
The Central Rappahannock Regional Library (CRRL for short) has a nice Shel Silverstein page featuring some biographical information, links, and covers for many of his books.

Movie or TV Productions

The Giving Tree (1973)
That's right, way back in the 1970s, Stephen Bosustow Productions created an animated short of Silverstein's story. It was the '70s so the animation is crude—no CGI here—but you can enjoy Shel Silverstein's voice-over and some nice harmonica music while you watch.

The Giving Tree (2015)
This eight-minute short is a live action film with a cast of five: four people play the boy at different ages, and one person plays the mysterious Y.L. behind that second set of initials.

Articles and Interviews

A Modern Parable
In 2015, Etharin Cousin of the United Nations World Food Programme wrote an article for the Michigan Law Review called "The Giving Tree: A Modern-Day Parable of Mutual Responsibility." And you thought it was just a children's book.

Shel Silverstein's Quest for Everything
According to Lydia Hutchinson, Shel Silverstein wanted everything out of life. That could explain why, in addition to authoring all those children's books and poems, he wrote musical scores, plays, cartoons, and hundreds of songs.

He Never Planned to Write Children's Books
That's just one of the interesting facts you can learn about Shel Silverstein from this 1975 interview with Publishers Weekly.

The Author at 47
This 1978 New York Times interview offers a look at how Silverstein viewed his work, his life, and the world when he was just shy of 50.

A Real Giving Tree
In Oakland, California, someone created a tribute to Silverstein's most famous book by writing a message on a tree stump. When a picture of the stump was posted on social media, it went viral.

A Short but Succinct Review
This brief review of The Giving Tree by Common Sense Media quickly hits on the complexity of the tale.

Can You Handle the Uncomfortable Truth?
Elissa Strauss offers an interpretation of The Giving Tree and the relationship between its main characters based on the premise that "The Giving Tree is not actually a happy book about giving, but a meditation on longing and the passing of time." Seeing as how Silverstein wasn't a big fan of shiny, happy endings, we think she might be on to something.

Spare and Twee or Tender and Great?
Writing for The New York Times Book Review, two writers offer differing assessments of The Giving Tree. Anna Holmes gives a searing indictment of the book on its 50th anniversary, while Rivka Galchen praises it for its tender complexity.

Remembering the Book and Its Author
Ruth Margalit considers The Giving Tree on its 50th anniversary while also offering some interesting biographical information about Shel Silverstein.

Video

1973 Animated Short
Watch The Giving Tree come to life in this animated version of the picture book. Shel Silverstein narrates. We're not sure who's responsible for the harmonica music.

Plain White T's Take on Silverstein
Yep, even American rock bands are moved by The Giving Tree. In their song of the same name, Plain White T's asks, "If all you wanted was love, why would you use me up, cut me down, build a boat, and sail away?" Good question, Plain White T's. Good question.

Audio

A Shel Silverstein Tribute Album
You bet. Prolific songwriter that he was, Silverstein had friends in the business. Following his death, two of them decided to create an album in his memory. It features several of Silverstein's songs covered by folks like Lucinda Williams and Andrew Bird.

The Many Worlds of Shel Silverstein
NPR's Melissa Block considers the work of the multitalented author upon the release of a CD of his poems and songs along with the book Runny Babbit, which was published posthumously.

Images

Guitar Man
Here's a fun picture of Shel kicking back in his rocker with his axe.

A Portrait of the Artist
This photo of Shel Silverstein was taken by Larry Moyer.

Shel With the Younger Set
Seymour Linden took this picture of a young Shel (look, he still has hair!) reading to some of his fans.