The Giving Tree: A Modern-Day Parable of Mutual Responsibility

Ertharin Cousin*

The Giving Tree. By Shel Silverstein. New York, Evanston, and London: Harper & Row. 1964. (Harper Collins Publishers 50th Anniversary 2014 ed.). P. 55. $16.99.

For fifty years, The Giving Tree, a short illustrated tale revered by adults and loved by children, has provoked outrage and acclaim in equal measure.[1] Some readers disliked the story so much that they wrote an alternative ending, while others celebrated it as a modern-day parable. Described by its author, Shel Silverstein, as a simple story of a relationship between two people,[2] The Giving Tree reads like a children’s book while offering much food for thought. Since the initial publication, scholars, students, and many others have offered a variety of interpretations and critiques of this short yet provocative work, calling into question not only how women (metaphorically), men, and children interact but also how we as a global society decide to manage our future.

Silverstein, like me, was born in Chicago.[3] And like many Chicagoans, Silverstein did not believe in sugarcoating the truth. His motivations become evident when reading his illustrations, books, and poems, as well as when listening to his songs. He spent his career unearthing humanity’s universal truths and values, even its most uncomfortable ones. In doing so, Silverstein offers readers young and old an opportunity for reflection and self-critique.

Written in 1960 and eventually published in 1964, The Giving Tree was a product of this turbulent period. A man of his time, Silverstein did not believe in cookie-cutter, happily-ever-after stories—especially for children. It took him several years to find a publisher willing to break the mold.[4] In a rare New York Times interview, the unconventional author stated his conviction that happy endings, magical solutions, and mythic heroes serve to alienate children by establishing impossible burdens and expectations that can never be met.[5] The candid, even cruel, simplicity of The Giving Tree exemplifies Silverstein’s parental logic.

The first time I encountered The Giving Tree, my grandson actually did most of the reading. He enjoyed the pictures, understood the plot, and finished the book with a smile. He understood that the tree was happy, even though she was left with nothing, save for the love and company of the boy. We enjoyed this story on our first reading; even for a six-year-old child, the book raised so many questions. It demands rereading, again and again.

For me, the story raised questions, much like a modern-day parable of life. Silverstein’s prose gave me pause for thought. I reflected on its lessons, of course for children, but also for myself as a parent, a grandparent, a lawyer, and as the head of the United Nations World Food Programme (“WFP”). I concluded that The Giving Tree is primarily a fable about the imperfect nature of human relations. It speaks of the consequences of when we fail to uphold our duty of care to one another, despite our best—even loving—intentions.

*       Executive Director, United Nations World Food Programme. Previously, Ms. Cousin served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture and as White House Liaison to the State Department.

[1].     See, e.g., Victoria Weinstein, The Demanding Tree, PeaceBang (Oct. 6, 2011), http:/‌/‌‌2011/‌10/‌06/‌the-demanding-tree.

[2].     Richard R. Lingeman, The Third Mr. Silverstein, N.Y. Times, Apr. 30, 1978, at BR15.

[3].     Charles J. Shields, Child Author: Shallow Shel Silverstein Gets a Too-Nice Biography, Chi. Trib., Nov. 17, 2007, at C9, available at http:/‌/‌‌2007-11-17/‌entertainment/‌0711150183_1_thomas-dunne-books-unauthorized-biography-chicago.

[4].     Robert Cromie, Silverstein Has Touching Adult-Child Book, Chi. Trib., Oct. 5, 1964, at C2.

[5].     Lingeman, supra note 2.

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