The Giving Tree and A Tree is Nice, Different Sides of the Story

For my second entry as guest moderator, let’s leave the ocean behind and look at two books about trees.

Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, simply drawn in black-and-white, is visually compelling and, at times, playful. It tells the story of a boy’s relationship with a personified tree. As a child, the boy enjoys climbing the tree, gathering its leaves, and sitting in its shade. He gathers its fallen leaves, makes them into a crown, and parades around as king of the forest. The tree and boy keep each other good company.

As the boy grows older, though, he spends much less time with the tree, returning only to ask things from it (“Can you give me money? Can you give me a house?"). The first time the boy returns, the tree gives him its apples to sell; the next time, its branches from which to build a house. Finally, the tree gives up its trunk, so that the boy, now an old unhappy man, can build a boat to sail far away. All this giving, according to Silverstein, makes the tree happy. It isn’t until that the tree reduces itself to a lonely stump, that it admits it isn’t really happy.

Years later, the boy reappears, tired and weak. The tree offers up the only thing it has left, a stump to sit upon. The boy sits. Silverstein tells us that the tree and boy are, once more, happy.

Open to a range of interpretation, The Giving Tree has been touted as a Christian tale of unconditional love as well as a Buddhist lesson on non-attachment. Some have called it a fable about a mother’s ultimate love while others label it a warning about over-indulgent parenting and selfish children.

However, after re-reading The Giving Tree with a focus on children and nature, the book takes yet another slant: an allegory about man’s destruction of nature for his own short-term desires. Yet, “allegory” isn’t the right word here. I never get a sense that Silverstein sees the tree as connected to the natural world. He never mentions the affect of wind, snow, or sun on the tree, or mentions any squirrels, birds, or insects who are disturbed when the boy cuts its branches and trunk. At the story’s end, when it’s just the boy grown old and the stump, Silverstein indicates no regret for the tree’s destruction.

The best that can be said about the problematic The Giving Tree is that it makes an excellent teaching tool. Ask children who read it if they think the boy or tree make good choices. Ask them, “If you were the boy or the tree, what choices would you have made?”

Janice May Udry’s, A Tree is Nice, is a 180° turn from The Giving Tree. I hadn’t remembered reading this sweet book until 12 pages in, when I came upon illustrator Marc Simont’s dense autumn rendering. Filled with silver and red maples and piles of fallen leaves—jumped on, trampled through, and neatly burning—this two-page spread is so vibrant I could smell the burning leaves. Seeing it, I remembered reading this book as a child, or more likely, it being read to me.

Published in the mid fifties, A Tree is Nice sports illustrations that alternate between deftly-rendered black-and-white and lush full-color. They are marvelously vintage, focusing on rural settings.

At the same time, there’s a forward-thinking quality. One of my favorite pages (another 2-page spread) accompanies text that reads in part:

We can climb the tree and see over all the yards.
We can sit on a limb and think about things.
Or play pirate ship up in the tree.

Above this text, Simont has drawn ten children playing in a huge tree. What struck me was the different races and genders of the children. The child playing pirate ship looks to be a girl! This feels advanced for the mid-50s, a bold message for a time when women were being urged out of the workplace and into the kitchen and laundry room.

Beyond its striking illustrations, however, what is A Tree is Nice about? There is no storyline here, no obstacles to overcome, no characters, unless you count the trees. And you should count them, because ultimately, A Tree is Nice is an engaging catalogue of just that: why trees are nice. For the most part, it’s a human-centric approach, largely focused on how trees benefit people; still Udry remembers the birds, horses, cows, and domesticated pets who also benefit from trees.

Unlike Silverstein’s tree, the Udry’s trees connect to the larger world.

Cats get away from dogs by going up the tree.
Birds build nests in trees and live there.
Sticks come off the trees too.
We draw in the sand with the sticks.

The language and even the title of A Tree is Nice, at first feels stilted. Isn’t “nice” one of those words that your fifth grade teacher said to avoid for its vagueness and overuse? Yet the more I read the simple, declarative sentences—[Trees] go up besides the river and down the valleys. They live up on the hills.”—the more convinced I became that “less is more.”

There’s a hint of objectivist poetry here, with sincere, straight-forward language that doesn’t tell the reader how to feel. Even better, there are unexpectedly delightful sentences: “[Trees] fill up the sky.” “Trees make the woods.”

Librarians have told me that A Tree is Nice is often a big hit during story hour. Reading its somewhat disjointed wording, it occurred to me that this book emulates the style in which younger children often write: short sentences that lack elegant transitions but contain surprising truths and insights. It’s almost as if Udry gathered ten young children, asked them why trees are nice, and wrote down their answers verbatim.

In the book's last three pages, Udry adds an appealing twist, moving away from description to a short narrative as she explains “A tree is nice to plant.”

You dig the biggest hole you can and put the little tree in. Then you pour in lots of water and then the dirt. You hang the shovel back in the garage.

Every day for years and YEARS you watch the little tree grow. You say to people, “I planted that tree.”

They wish they had one so they go home and plant a tree too.

This ending is a wonderful way to empower children to actively take part in the natural world, to observe(watching the tree grow) and to cultivate patience (for years and YEARS).

For older readers, this ending is an opportunity to talk about the way trees propagate (naturally vs. being planted by humans) and the difference between native versus introduced trees. For younger readers, the discussion might be as simple as “Have you ever planted a tree?” or “Do you have a favorite tree you like to watch grow?”

For any age, this compelling book asks of us all a question that is lovely to ponder: “Why do you think a tree is nice?”

A Tree is Nice Curriculum Link

Mind's Eye - by Ellen Orleans

I was immediately drawn to David Wiesner’s FLOTSAM not by its splendid watercolors and ocean themes, but—right on the story’s first page—by a drawing of an LBI beach badge pinned to a canvas tote.

As a long-time summer visitor to Long Beach Island (that is me at the beach on the right), I know these badges well, and thereby also knew, through this level of accurate detail, that this section of the Jersey Shore must also be close to the author’s heart.

The beach badge is just one example of the marvelous minutiae that fills Flotsam (its inside covers are also not to be missed.) From dune grass and rocky jetties to brightly colored beach umbrellas, Wiesner’s pages are chocked with alluring detail—both highly accurate and highly (we assume!) whimsical (who does that tentacle venturing out of the boy’s pencil box belong to, anyway…?). Wiesner not only captures the look of the beach (I can hear waves crash and seagulls squawking!), but—and here’s the first take-way—demonstrates the value of close observation.

And observe his protagonist does. In the opening (un-numbered) pages of this textless story, an inquisitive boy peers through a magnifying glass at a crab, binoculars and even a microscope (neatly sealed in a large Zip-lock bag) at his side.

When the boy walks closer to the water to look at a larger crab, he is tumbled by a rouge wave which washes up a Melville Underwater Camera (Wiesner named it in honor of Herman Melville.) When developed, the photos in reveal a fantastical underwater world of an octopus’ living room (a submerged moving truck seen just in the background), bands of tiny space aliens surrounded by dominant seahorses, islands atop starfish, and shell towns atop the backs of turtles. The world, Wiesner playfully reminds us, is a splendidly mysterious place.

The final photo in the camera roll depicts a girl, holding a photo of a boy, who’s holding yet another of another girl, each smaller than the rest. Ever resourceful, the boy examines this photo first with his magnifying glass, then with the microscope, revealing increasingly smaller images that cross oceans and travel back in time. Here, Wiesner underlines both our connection to the larger world and our responsibility to future generations.

After his parents pack up their beach chairs and walk home, the boy remains at the beach, where he takes a picture of himself holding the photo of the children who came before him, then tosses the camera back into the ocean for the next starfish, sea turtle, or squid to find, for the next child to discover.

While I’ve never seen mechanical fish while swimming in the Atlantic Ocean or spied octopi reading in sea floor living rooms, I have experienced a lot of beach magic: burrowing sand crabs, barnacle worlds clinging to rock jetties, tight flocks of {terns} Sanderlings that appear and disappear as they wheel in the sea air. The vastness of the sea amplifies my sense of wonder; Wiesner’s microscope and magnifying glass the perfect metaphors.

Another running, unsaid (well, everything in this story is unsaid) commentary in FLOTSAM is that adults often miss the magic. When the boy brings the mysterious roll of film to the clerk at the one-hour photo shop, she never gets off the phone while helping him, and hence misses the story of a life time. And while the boy’s parents support his curiosity, they are in their own worlds while he discovers new ones.

Even the title, FLOTSAM, another word for debris or refuse, begs the question: What do we value? Sunday afternoons in box stores instead of box canyons? Netflix instead of night sky? More video games? Fewer state parks?

As a staffer and volunteer for Boulder’s city and county Open Space, I lead hikes for children and adults. While I love learning the names of birds, trees, and flowers, on my hikes I emphasize something else: close observation. Sometimes we sketch pages in nature journals, other times we take photographs. Another activity includes a pack of color swatches from a book of abandoned paint samples. I generally pass out all the samples, allowing participants to choose whichever they want as they try to match their color to flowers, lichen, rocks, or other objects that pass as we hike.

For a recent kids’ hike, though, I handed out only greens. Initially, I was concerned that limiting the color selection to four dozen shades of green would be too challenging to the early-elementary kids who comprised this “Five Senses Nature Hike.” But the children loved it, carefully comparing pine, emerald, kelly, pea and sea green the grasses, pine needles, stems, and leaves they saw.

Another event I developed is simply called “The Magnification Hike,” and I thought of it when I re-read Flotsom and saw the boy’s bulging eye through the magnifying glass. For this hike, I’ve devised and borrowed several “looking activities,” but really, the big hit of the hike is the magnifying glass. I put on in every child’s hand and off they go. They are thrilled by things we usually step right over: Ants in dirt! Bugs on a rock ! Tiny, tiny hairs on a flower stem.

Consider Flotsam an invitation to take a closer look. And please, let me know what you find.

Thank you Greg Traymar for moderating!

We would like extend our appreciation and gratitiude for discussing with us the beauty of connecting children to nature through the activities in the Sharing Nature with Children book by Joseph Cornell.  This classic book can be used by parents and teachers on their collective journey in the world of environmental education.

Your Encounters with Sharing Nature with Children

Greg Traymar from the Sharing Nature Foundation is our moderator from August 7-27. He will discuss environmental education through his experience teaching "Flow Learning" which is inspired by Joseph Cornell's book Sharing Nature with Children.

Years ago, during an Outward Bound trip in Utah’s Desolation Canyon, Greg Traymar was resting comfortably on the sandy banks of the Green River, enjoying the magnificent canyon scenery, when he was overtaken by a profound peace and calmness. From this life-changing experience, he realized that his life’s work would be helping others find the same inner renewal and love for nature. [from Sharing Nature Worldwide website]

In 1979 a “worldwide revolution in nature education” was launched with Joseph Cornell’s book, Sharing Nature with Children. An instant classic, this book has been translated into 20 languages and is used in every part of the globe. With the writing of this book, Joseph wanted to give others more than “mere exposure” to nature, but rather, profoundly moving experiences.
Each of the activities in this book are windows through which others can see nature in fresh and creative ways. If you connect with nature through more of a scientific bend, you might enjoy “Bat and Moth” where you learn the concepts of Predator-Prey relationships through play. If you are an artist, you might enjoy “Recipe for a Forest” where you draw your own dream forest, complete with all the ingredients needed to allow it to thrive.
The classic activity that most people associate with Sharing Nature is “Meet a Tree.” With a partner, you are guided with a blindfold to a nearby tree and explore it using all of your senses (except for sight of course!). You feel the bark….is it smooth or rough? Can you wrap your arms around the tree? Is there any moss on the tree? How tall is the tree? Are you able to reach its highest branches? Once you’ve experienced your tree, your partner leads you back, takes off your blindfold and then you must find your tree. There have been children who have come back several years later to a location and were able to find their exact tree!
Nature touches each one of us deeply. Whether it is the wind blowing gently over our skin or a sunset that leaves us breathless, there is a power in nature that can transform our lives. Unfortunately, these moments are too few and far between for people. How often when we are in nature, our minds are on our job, our worries, on any amount of things….but not on the glorious beauty before us. By awakening enthusiasm and focusing people’s attention directly on nature using innovative and creative methods is the genius of this Sharing Nature books and is something that will never go out of style.
What is your most memorable childhood nature experience? What were the elements that made it so profound? How has that experience shaped your love and commitment to nature?
What has been your most profound experience using one of the Sharing Nature activities?
Please share experiences here and on the curriculum website if you have come up with ones related to this book with your students or family.
Look forward to hearing your thoughts and encounters.
Visit the Sharing Nature Foundation to learn more about Greg's work and Sharing Nature with Children.

Thank you Gail Gleeson !

We would like to thank Gail Gleeson for taking us on a journey through a small, small, pond, getting to know the enchanting Miss Rumphius, and encountering Calpurnia Tate a naturalist in the making.  Thank you for time reintroducing us to these classic tales, connecting children and families to nature.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Moderator Gail Gleeson

In my third and final week as guest moderator I would like to discuss the children’s novel The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly, a Caldecott Honor book.

This chapter book, which would appeal to children in upper elementary and middle school, is a story of self-discovery experienced by twelve year old Calpurnia Tate, living in Texas at the turn of the nineteenth to twentieth century. Calpurnia’s mother wants to turn her into a young lady and tries to school her in the tasks expected of twelve year old girls, such as cooking, embroidery, knitting and playing piano. However, independent minded Calpurnia’s interests lie elsewhere: in observing the natural world of her Texas environment. She spends her time watching frogs, spiders, grasshoppers and all the other creatures living nearby. Calpurnia’s grandfather has always been for her only a stern but removed presence at the dinner table, who has rarely taken an interest in Calpurnia or her six brothers.

However, when she approaches him with a question of a scientific nature, he begins to take an interest in her, suggesting she read Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species, and taking her with him on his many investigative journeys through the woods.

Calpurnia learns to observe things close up, record her observations, note changes in the environment, and most importantly, to engage in serious reflections about the natural world. At a time when the role of a girl on the cusp of womanhood was highly constrained, Calpurnia longs to expand her mind and her horizons through science. When she and her grandfather work toward an important scientific discovery of their own, she not only develops a strong relationship with her grandfather, but also reveals a glimpse of the strength of character that will help her challenge stereotypes and make her way into the twentieth century.

Students reading this book will learn about how different society was during Calpurnia’s time. They will also learn a little bit about Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection. Although most of us can’t travel to the Galapagos Islands to study tortoises and observe how these majestic creatures have adapted to the specific island on which they live, we can observe animals in our own environment and note the different characteristics that animals have developed to help them survive. Check out the squirrels, lizards, frogs, beetles and other critters in your neighborhood. What about them helps them thrive?

If your young reader wants to learn more about natural selection, watch this video: