Service to Others: The Giving Tree

Darri Stephens
May 17, 2021

It’s one of those books — one that you read or was read to you … probably countless times. I remember not really “getting it” at an early age. There was a boy and a tree and a story of time passing. But as I clued in with a bit more life experience, I gradually understood the gravitas of the simplistic words and illustrations of The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.

“Once there was a tree, and she loved a little boy.”

What Shel Silverstein does so masterfully is take abstract concepts of empathy, selflessness, and service, and tells a concrete example of all in 32 pages. He encapsulates the age-old relationship battle of giving and taking; often an inequitable, ill-balanced act.

“Come boy …”

First published in 1964 by Harper & Collins and anointed as a New York Times Outstanding Book Award winner in 1974, it has persevered through the decades to illustrate unconditional love and sacrifice by a tree (with some less-than-desirable traits on the recipient’s end). Plus, there are other subtle messages to be learned around kindness, generosity, being present, respect, and love.

“… and the tree was happy.”

But, Silverstein himself once said, “It’s about a boy and a tree. It has a pretty sad ending.” There are wildly differing opinions on whether The Giving Tree should be revered or rebuked. An editor at Simon & Schuster, William Cole passed on the story saying, “My interpretation is that that was one dum-dum of a tree, giving everything and expecting nothing in return.”

Yet, the former teacher in me views it as a mirror of sorts. Silverstein’s storytelling poses questions to ask ourselves, no matter our age. Each reader should ask him or herself:

“… and she loved a boy very, very much — even more than she loved herself.”

This recognizable green book holds a place of honor on many shelves, and many can quote its rhythmic lines verbatim. A few years ago, someone even added the final lines to a newly shorn tree trunk.

What life lessons do you take from this classic children’s book? How would you summarize the plot? In today’s society — one that is global, connected, always on, yet too often disconnected, disenfranchised, and disengaged — I applaud Silverstein’s emphasis on relationships, thinking of others, and being of service. Shel Silverstein passed in 2009, and yet his books are my go-to gift for baby showers and children’s birthdays, since he had such a gift for capturing childhood and life in general in such relatable ways. If you haven’t in a while, do take a moment to watch the video above or read through the pages yourself below.

The End