- Historic Sites
Classic Children’s Book
May/June 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 3
Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree , which has constantly been reprinted since 1964 and sells so well that its publisher has never even bothered to bring it out in paperback. People assume it glorifies love and generosity, but just think for a moment about the messages it gives children. A tree called “she” is its title character. Under “her” branches a little boy is playing. His only communication with the tree throughout the book is to ask her to give up something for him. He asks her to sacrifice, in turn, her apples, her branches, and her trunk, until finally she has become a lifeless stump. As the tree acquiesces uncomplainingly to each of the child’s demands, she is described as “happy.” Moreover, while she is being depleted, with each turn of the page, the boy grows older. Always referred to as “boy,” he turns eventually into a wizened old man. Despite their parallel outward changes, the relationship between the two remains perfectly static. Totally self-effacing, the “mother” treats her “son” as if he were a perpetual infant, while he behaves toward her as if he were frozen in time as an importunate baby. This overrated picture book thus presents as a paradigm for young children a callously exploitative human relationship—both across genders and across generations. It perpetuates the myth of the selfless, all-giving mother who exists only to be used and the image of a male child who can offer no reciprocity, express no gratitude, feel no empathy-an insatiable creature who encounters no limits for his demands.
I cast my vote for Helen Bannerman’s 1899 The Story of Little Black Sambo . Granted the racism of its characters’ names—the parents, after all, are called Black Mumbo and Black Jumbo, which add up to mumbo jumbo , a nasty pejorative for African languages—and the offensiveness of the facial features, which must not be minimized, this story nevertheless engraves itself on young children’s minds because of its psychological brilliance. It is, after all, about a little boy who’s smart as a whip and a survivor. Its rhythmic prose is mesmerizing, its images unforgettable. As he marches proudly into the jungle with his new wardrobe, the boy encounters in succession four scary tigers that threaten to eat him up. But this plucky kid wants to live; he figures out just how to offer each one an item that will pacify it. When the third tiger appears, for example, and refuses to take his new shoes because there are only two of them, the child cleverly suggests that the fourfooted beast wear them on its ears! Then, just when the tigers seem to be returning to get him in earnest, it turns out that (like a bunch of silly adults, from a child’s point of view) they’ve gotten into a ridiculous argument over which of them is the grandest tiger in the jungle. Too busy fighting, unable to enjoy their new clothes, they’ve discarded them, and the little boy deftly reclaims them. As he leaves, the tigers, who have formed their famous ring around the tree, chase one another so violently that they all melt down into a ring of butter. In the end the boy’s father collects the butter, his mother makes a platter of sizzling pancakes, and it is not the tigers that devour little Sambo but the heroic child who devours them, in a wonderfully conceived, perfectly satisfying moment of retribution and oral gratification. Every small child who has ever listened to this story can feel and even taste just how delicious those 169 striped pancakes must have been.