The Giving Tree Is Sad Because Shel Silverstein Hated Happy Endings


Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree turned fifty this year and reading the story as an adult might not give you the same warm feeling it did when you were a child. In fact, you might think the tale is really saying ‘Wow, people are selfish assholes.’

Silverstein didn’t begin as a children’s book and poem author, he was a cartoonist and beatnik liaison of sorts for Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine, according to the New Yorker. But after helping Bob Dylan with the lyrics for “Blood on the Tracks” and Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue” between trips to the infamous Playboy parties, he took a stab at writing for kids. In 1964, he pumped out three kids books including The Giving Tree.

The book was wildly popular but was polarizing. Many detractors tried to make Silverstein explain the book’s deeper meaning because it’s kind of a sad story:

The beginning of the story is innocuous enough: a boy climbs a tree, swings from her branches, and devours her apples (I’d never noticed that the tree was a “she”). “And the tree was happy,” goes the refrain. But then time passes, and the boy forgets about her. One day, the boy, now a young man, returns, asking for money. Not having any to offer him, the tree is “happy” to give him her apples to sell. She is likewise “happy” to give him her branches, and later her trunk, until there is nothing left of her but an old stump, which the old man, or boy, proceeds to sit on.

Way harsh, Tai.

The first publisher Silverstein pitched the book to actually declined because of the story’s tear-jerking and selfish arc, but the author always said he wasn’t really a fan of unrealistic happy endings (the New Yorker piece notes that he “detested” them). Life is great but it can also be cruel, so why not prepare kids for the reality of their existence?

Silverstein might’ve had a dark cloud looming over The Giving Tree and his other famous poetry books Where the Sidewalk Ends and the wonderful A Light in the Attic. But through it all, he still had hope, and one of my favorite poems of his proves it:

Listen to the MUSTN’TS, child,
Listen to the DON’TS
Listen to the SHOULDN’TS
Listen to the NEVER HAVES
Then listen close to me-
Anything can happen, child,
ANYTHING can be.

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