Shel Silverstein’s books are not to everyone’s tastes. Even so, today at our library reading we chose his The Giving Tree Newest English edition: HarperCollins, 2014. ISBN 9780060256654. —a deep and complex parable, despite its simple plot. As a mother, I would say that this is a parable about children’s selfishness. But what will children see in this story?
I show my audience the cover of the book and say that inside is a fairy tale about a giving tree that was friends with a boy. Immediately, the kids start to search for signs of fairytale whimsy. After that we switch to the question of “How can you tell if something is alive?”: my young listeners are sure that trees are not alive (“They don’t move!”) and for this reason you can’t really be friends with them. And the kids simply don’t know what it means to be giving. With the help of the parents, we sorted out both questions. Still, the children had no idea what the tree could give apart from fruit and shade on a hot day. Well, it was time to open the book.
The first pages have almost no text, so the simple illustrations come to the forefront. The kids peer at them and smile every time they see the boy from an unusual angle (here he is behind the trunk, now he’s in the branches, while here we only see his sandals, as apple cores fly from the tree). As the boy grows, they comment on every picture: “He’s growing!.. He’s grown up!.. Hey, there are two of them there!” And when, all grown up, he comes first for the house and then for the boat, they’re quizzical: “A boy?”. Clearly, the kids see the contrast between the author’s (or, rather the tree’s) point of view and the readers’. It’s in plain sight: there’s a full-grown man in the picture, and the text keeps calling him boy.
At first the children smiled at and even laughed about the games the boy and the tree played, but then they grew quieter and gloomier. The boy asks more and more of the tree and for some reason she gives herself away fully. And despite the dramatic changes in how the tree and the boy look, the author keeps calling them by the same names. At one point, the kids—who’ve gotten used to the fact that the boy is the boy even in old age—switch their attention to the bare trunk, and then to the stump: “But this isn’t the tree anymore! What’s left of her?”
The story ends. The children are pensive. We try to decide: if the tree is giving, what can be said about the boy? An adult would probably have turned to standard antonyms (giving-greedy), but the kids look beneath the surface: “The boy is in need.”
My listeners are tired. Even though the book is short, it’s packed with meaning, and you can feel a lot through it. The children need a release and start getting distracted. I propose that we play out the things we’ve just read about, changing them as we choose (in case we want to alter the plot). The children are overjoyed at the opportunity to make changes, but they reproduce the book almost word for word, doing it grotesquely, horsing around and making faces. By contrast, the thank you uttered by a girl playing the boy comes as a surprise. These two words are nowhere in the text. If I hadn’t caught (and pointed out) this thank you, it would’ve gone unnoticed, drowned out in the wave of mischievousness.
That’s how the book about a giving tree led us to a reading about children’s thankfulness.
Translated from the Russian by Elizaveta Prudovskaya
Cover image: harpercollins.com
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