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


Linda Tate said...

Another great post, Ellen. I really enjoyed your comparison of the two books -- and especially liked your thoughts about questions you could ask children when you share the books with them.

Ellen Orleans said...

Thanks Linda. Writing these reviews has helped me sink deeper into these books, to consider them through the eyes of an adult and, hopefully, also through the perspective of a child.

I was thinking of physical activities related to trees that would be fun for children. I imagined asking them to stand rooted to the ground with their arms up like branches, then ask them to imagine, if they were trees, what would they hear and feel (the wind, the sun, squirrels?) What does it feel like to have leaves and roots? To be rained on? What does photosynthesis feel like? (might get some interesting answers there?) Do woodpeckers hurt? Do insects tickle?

For the older children, what depends on you, a tree?

Rachel said...

What an awesome blog! So glad I found this. Will write more thoughtful comments soon.

Ellen said...

This book was one of my favorites growing up and I still have the copy. It's from the 1950s. There is definitely something about the relaxed tone of the book, no real plot line, but it leaves the reader (or listener, as my mother read it to us)with a sense of calm.