The Giving Tree
Any writer who doesn’t collect books is lacking in the tools of their trade in my opinion. No matter how many degrees you have, or how many times you can insert the words thus and henceforth into your manuscript, if you don’t read a whole lot you are missing in your writerly education. Seeing the words thus and henceforth would stop me reading anything by the way, but that could just be a personal weird quirk I suppose. Chuck Wendig thinks that reading The Lord of the Rings is tantamount to the worst kind of abuse with all the oldy worldy stuff, so I’m not in bad company. Loved the movies. Chuck is fabulous in general and in his honest originality – poop bits notwithstanding. I tend to avoid people who use words like that. Go away users of the word thus! I have a huge collection of books. More than 3000 in my Amazon Cloud alone. The paperbacks that I have are all special though, given that space no longer allows for the piles I had previously accumulated.
I will beat old ladies with sticks at boot sales to lay my hands on a first edition of any sort of recipe book or children’s illustrated book. Among other ancient collections of receipts, as recipes used to be called, I have a first edition Mrs Beeton which is much loved. Apart from the dead parrot recipes and lark’s tongue bits, I love it. Lark’s tongues on the menu – seriously? They are rare (the books – and the lark’s tongues I expect) but finding a really old children’s book in good condition is a much rarer find. Children tend to be a little rough with their books, so they don’t tend to survive as long as recipe books. Looking in general at the children’s books that are most sought after online the other day – as you do, I opened a list of “the most horrible children’s books of all time” thinking that it might be good for a laugh. It was. Then I found lots of people listing The Giving Tree as the most horrible. I had to look.
I tried to read it with an open mind. Some people said that it was a lesson in selflessness. Others said that it had been banned in schools – or libraries – I forget – because it was sexist. I tried really hard to wear my “what we writers write is our business and if you don’t like it you can lump it hat” but I couldn’t keep it on. Adults can mostly see the truth for themselves, apart from those who still think that 50 Shades of Gray is still the best book ever – but children learn from books. In The Giving Tree, the tree loves the man so much that she is prepared to give him anything. He is not backward in coming forward with requests, and soon he has taken her apples, branches, and finally her whole trunk. The fact that the tree is a she and the human is a he might have some meaning, in which case, it is indeed sexist. Finally, the poor tree is left as a stump, and the final illustration in the book is of the man sitting on it.
The overall message I got from this book was that it is loving to be a doormat and take any abuse coming. It is loving to let someone take and take until there is nothing left of you, and then to finally disrespect that nothing by plonking his backside on it. On the other side of the issue, the lesson is – it is fine to take as much as you want from someone who loves you enough to be prepared to give it, no matter how big of a tool you are, and then – when they are all in – it is fine to sit on the bit of them that is left after your selfish depredations. A horrible book indeed.
A couple of years ago I wrote a children’s book (Winnow and Blooey) – even got around to illustrating a few pages – about a little boy who learns how to respect and care for his badly neglected budgie from a fabulous wild canary after getting lost in the woods, and accidentally shrunk when he got hungry enough to eat a wild mushroom. Yes – I know – magic mushrooms are probably not the best subject for kiddies. When I really got around to thinking about it, I was so terrified about leading young minds in dodgy directions that I trashed it right away. Now I am very happy to illustrate for children’s authors who know what they are doing, but not at all ready to take the chance myself. Whoever published The Giving Tree hopefully meant it for adults, although what the actual message was still eludes me. Also – children like picture books if they can lay their hands on them – no matter who they were intended for, so it is generally dangerous to leave lying around. It has 2659 five star reviews on Amazon – over ninety percent loving readers, but so far, it is the first book, ever, that I have considered giving one star. That seems too much to me so I am going to give it my newly minted MINUS TEN STAR PANTS award. Hopefully it will teach the people who read it that it is a book about how not to behave – both as the tree and the human.