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Posted January 10, 2020

“Jonathan?” Rebecca said, in that adorable tenor only five-year-olds can command. “Will you read this to me?” As she spoke, her tiny outstretched arm held up a copy of “The Giving Tree,” a hopeful look in her eyes.

“Of course,” I answered. We both grabbed a seat on the rug, and she rested her head on my arm, the way I did with my parents when I was young. It had been years since I had read the book, and I couldn’t remember much about it, beyond the presence of a boy and a tree, and the idea that it was beloved by nearly my entire generation. But this was one of the benefits of working at an after-school program. You could reread the stories that raised you. The ones you had long ago forgotten.

“Once there was a tree…” I started, and we dived into the imaginary world of a boy with a tree for a best friend. I’d like to tell you that the next fifteen minutes were spent rediscovering the magic of a heartwarming tale from my youth, and that when it ended I closed the back cover, feeling a little bit better than when I started. But what followed was not a children’s book. What followed was a Stephen King novella about a ruthless monster of a child and the poor Stockholm-syndrome tree that lived next door.

And if you’re reading this right now, thinking, “How dare you! That story is a treasure and The Boy but a youthful tyke who loves a tree,” then I’m guessing you haven’t read this thing since you were young. Because if you had, you would agree that this is not a protagonist who deserves a tender spot in our hearts. He is a sociopath who deserves a trial for war crimes at the Hague.


But for those who don’t believe me, let’s pick up this revered piece of literature, and see a child’s world through a grownup’s eyes...


[The following images are from a slideshare posted here:, there are a few typos but it is otherwise a faithful capturing of “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein.]


A fine start to our story.

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Oh, how nice.

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This is about as perfect an intro as one can write. The only objection you could possibly have is that it makes you regret the fact that you never played King of the Forest as a kid and there aren’t photos of you looking as adorable as you surely would have with a wreath like that around your head.

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When someone “writes for kids” and pens comics for Playboy, as Silverstein did, we often dismiss their artistic merit and the level of craft they carry to their work. But lest there be any doubt, let these opening pages serve as proof that he is a true artist. These are the kind of images and lyrics that would make even the coldest heart warm as they remember what it’s like to be a child playing in the woods with his friend.

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Growing up, you don’t think about The Tree. The symbolic stand-in for a parent who played endlessly with you as a child, then had to fight back the bittersweet emotions that come from watching their special little boy find people his own age that he enjoys spending time with and slowly drift away. But that’s how it goes. Children lose interest in their favorite toys, put their stuffed animals in the closet, and would rather spend the weekend with their friends. You just hope that when they get those rare moments to become kids again that they take them. That they climb up the trunk, that they swing from the branches, that they play with the ones who love them more than anyone else ever will.

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The lesson, as always: Teenagers suck.

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So suddenly you’re not too big to climb a tree?

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Part of you feels frustrated with The Boy for being gone so long. Based on his appearance, it looks like 25 or so years have passed since he came by to hit The Tree up for money while she has spent this time bolted to the ground, able only to wait for his return. But you also know that we all eventually spread our wings. We move to another city and we say we’ll visit. Then we decide to spend Thanksgiving out there because it’s just easier, ya know? And suddenly more years than you can count have passed and where has the time gone? But seeing The Boy finally come back to visit, you can feel the happiness in The Tree. I don’t know if shock is a typo or intentional, but it just feels right. A cross between shook and shocked, creating an even stronger word that conveys an even stronger emotion accompanying the return of her friend, The Boy. Finally, after all these years, they’ll be able to play again.

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Wait what? Dude, you’ve been gone for 20+ years. How about “Hello,” “It’s good to see you,” “I missed you.” Now you finally come back and the first thing you say after “I don’t have time for you” is “Give me a house”? Just to be clear, there’s only one way that a tree giving you a house can go. And that is to encourage you to actually start sawing off pieces of her body. This is like Jeffrey Dahmer going up to a victim and talking about how it would be nice if he had some human legs to play with.

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Woah, woah, let’s hold on a second here. You are about to lose your branches forever so this guy can be in a good mood for what? A week? This is not some teenager who doesn’t know any better, swayed by hormones at an age where we are all selfish jerks. This is a grown-ass adult who shows up after two decades away and immediately asks for a house because that’s the only way he’ll be happy. Mark my words, people who say if you give them something, then they’ll be happy… they’re never happy. This guy won’t be back until he wants something else from you, and then are you just going to give him that too? Here’s an idea, how about welfare state over here gets a freaking job?

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Where is this woman he is courting? Find her! Do not let her marry this man! This is how he treats the ones who love him. Look at that guy’s face: He’s going to take the first load of branches, come back, The Tree will get all excited that he’s returning, then he won’t even acknowledge her as he carts off the second load. She’ll sad-mom wave goodbye to him hoping he’ll see her in the rearview mirror and turn around to return the gesture, as all the while he doesn’t even bother to look back.

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No shit “not really.” That’s not even a tree anymore. That once-mighty tower of lumber is now just a stump. Shel, what in God’s name are you doing to us?

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No! No! Do not engage in conversation with that man. He is Jason Fucking Vorhees, returning to finish you off. He’s probably here to pull out your roots and make a goddamn backscratcher.

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Can we talk about what’s happening here? Not only is he not apologizing, but now she’s asking for HIS forgiveness! “I am just an old stump. I am sorry…” Um, do you feel that weight crushing down on what’s left of your spine? That body is the reason you have nothing left to offer. Because he wanted a boat and couldn’t spring $200 for the canoe down at the fishing store.


Was Nancy Kerrigan apologizing to Tanya Harding the week after the lead pipe incident because she was in no shape to go skating with her? No! She fucking kicked her ass in Lillehammer, because that’s what you do.


And now The Boy has the audacity to tell The Tree, “I don’t need very much now?” Oh really? How kind of you. Her apples, branches, and ENTIRE BODY are enough for you?? What a saint.

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I truly hope it is.

Book reviews have praised the Giving Tree as a “parable on the joys of giving.” What joys? This tree is barren. It is a trunk, left only with the carvings of the child who has stripped it bare, like the poor sap still sporting a heart tattoo encircling the name of a lover who left them long ago.

What is wrong with you?! He is 70 years old. It’s time to cut the chord!


You know why he is old and sad? After a lifetime spent doing nothing but taking, he has no idea what love is. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that his she’ll-love-me-if-only-I-have-a-house wife has walked out on him and he’s cat’s-cradled his kid to the point of the child not even returning his phone calls because, “I’d love to dad if I could find the time. But it’s been sure nice talking to you.”


He is asking you to give over your trunk so he can hew it out, and make a boat to run away from his problems. DO NOT HELP THIS MAN.

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Can somebody call the FUCKING COPS?!


Let’s talk through the subetext of this exchange: No tree would just keep an axe nearby in case someone comes along who wants to cut her down. So that means The Boy brought that axe to the forest and left it in the trunk of his car while he set up this conversation to make The Tree think it was her idea that he chop her down.


Also, he’s sitting there talking about how old he is and how much he needs help, but he sure didn’t seem to have any problems mustering the strength to carry away an entire fucking tree.

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Don’t get too comfortable stump. That man’s ghost is coming for the rest of you in the sequel.

I truly hope it is.

My stint as an after-school teacher was a rather brief one, whose highlights included destroying a bunch of kids half my age in basketball and living on a steady diet of goldfish and graham crackers. You can read more about it, as well as my short-lived careers as a bikini model, singing telegram star and bathroom attendant, in my book Odd Jobs by clicking here.

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