I posted a comment on Geek in Heels's blog post about The Giving Tree a while back, and it wound up being such a long comment that I decided to repost it here (actually, I meant to post it when I wrote it, back in July, but the "save" and "publish" buttons are so close together...). I like what she wrote about the book, so giving her some link-love doesn't hurt either:
One of the marks of good literature is how many different strong emotions and how much discussion about it's underlying "meaning" it can generate. Based on this thread, and others like it, I would almost require my kids to read this, because I want them to be exposed to good literature. And I would encourage them to think about it, understand it, and decide what the message is for themselves.
I don't like this string in our consciousness that the "message" of all media must be revealed and understood before we allow our children to encounter it. Few things stand up well, especially in a post-modern, deconstructionist society. Disney films? The Bible? Grimm Fairy Tales? No. None of these things are "appropriate" for children when you look at the message they really contain. And more importantly, when you look at the social control they were originally developed to implement. Especially from the "abusive relationship" perspective. Job? Abraham? Snow White? Toy Story? Not role models for kids.
But they're good stories, good literature, and part of being a "well-read" child. Would you want your kid to be the only one amongst their childhood friends that never read this book? Do you want to set up that embarrassment for them?
Moviebob had a similar post today about the "message" of the Twilight movies. He makes the point, and I agree, that his dislike of the series's message is completely separate from his critique of the series as a work of art. I kept thinking, as I read this, of Narnia and Lord of the Rings, both of which have also been decried for their thinly veiled religious message and societal views, but are still beloved because they are good books. I would protest "The Giving Tree" if it was poorly written, but it's not. It moved me to tears as a kid, and even then I recognized how rare and important that is in children literature.
Two other thematic thoughts come to mind. First, I wonder how much the perceived message changed as our cultural views on environmentalism shifted. When this book was written, trees were there to give wood to build houses and fruit to eat. This boy didn't seem a monster, because that was the correct relationship between people and trees. I wonder now if there's an underlying environmentalism that makes it seem more monstrous: he destroys a living thing for his own selfish needs? What a villain!
Second, the important discussion about the book seems to be, from both a relationship/generosity and environmental perspective, at what point did the giving become "too much"? Fruit? Fine. Climbing? Fine. Some branches? Fine. But giving too much was problematic if for no other reason than it hurt the tree's ability to give in the future. The idea that you can sheer a sheep many times, but only fleece it once. Take some apples and some branches, then leave and come back next year to take more. Give yourself, and the tree, time to recover and grow in the meantime. Furthermore, what does it mean that this tree only gives to its friends and not strangers that are in need?
It wasn't until I came back as an adult and reread it that I started to think about the "themes" and "abusive relationships". The message I got as a child was that giving did not truly diminish the giver. It made the relationship stronger, the tree did not "die", and even at the end when the tree though it had given everything, it still was able to give and help a friend. That's not "abusive unconditional love"; that's generosity. That's giving what you have and do not need to a friend or loved one that does need it.
Response I'm imagining to that: "But the tree needs its leaves! It needs its branches! Those are vital parts of its anatomy!"
Response to my imagined responders: Are you a registered organ donor? If not, why not? More specific analogy: would you donate a kidney or part of your liver to someone that needed it? To a stranger? To a friend? To a relative?
But like I said at the beginning, the moral underpinnings are not why I like this book; I liked it because it's a good book, well written, that I could read and enjoy as a child and still remember as an adult. There are plenty of things I read as a child that I couldn't remember now if my life depended on it, but this book stuck. Because it is a good book. The morality is part of what made it good, but because it added depth, not because of the "lesson".