A friend who knew I was unacquainted with the work of children’s writer Shel Silverstein gave me one of his books recently: “The Giving Tree.” Amused I breezed through it, even read it aloud as if to entertain the child inside me. But when I closed the cover, I wasn’t amused. I was moved by a story that was profound yet simply written, as if it were a form of Japanese haiku.
Having struggled to publish two children’s stories,* I have an immense respect for writers who ply this trade. The skill required isn’t that of seeing the world through a child’s eye but one of giving the child a glimpse of the adult one. Children’s stories were originally intended to instruct, after all.
Silverstein’s tale is deceptively easy. A boy falls in love with a tree, as who has not, and the tree loves him back. As the boy grows, the tree teaches him the meaning of love. She gives him shade where he can rest, feeds him apples when he is hungry and provides leaves to weave a crown for his head. When he is older, she gives him branches for a house and finally, when he hankers to see the world, she sacrifices her trunk so that he may build a boat for his journey. Many years pass and when the boy returns as an old man, the tree apologizes, saying she has nothing more to give. But an old man needs very little and so she offers him her stump to sit upon. He does and the tree was happy.
What the story teaches has more than one level. First, it suggests that love is its own reward and seeks no recompense. But on another level, the message is about life itself — that bell curve of wanting and then letting go. As the boy, now old, comes to learn, he’s always had what he needed most, a place of safety and caring. Adult life, like the child’s life, is best lived when it is simple. Perhaps that wisdom is what Wordsworth meant when he wrote, “The Child is father of the man.” (“The Rainbow,” by William Wordsworth)
(First published 8/25/14)
*”Grimahlka”, published by Tales of the Talisman, vol. II, issue 4, 2007, pg. 14.
“Under the Bridge and Beneath the Moon,” Children’s Digest, Dec. 1988, pg. 6.