“Good children’s literature appeals not only to the child in the adult, but to the adult in the child”
When I was in kindergarten, my teacher, Mrs. Glaes, loved to read stories aloud to my class. It was my favorite part of kindergarten, almost as much fun as learning the magic letters that would unlock the world of reading for me. On day, Mrs. Glaes read us the best book, a wonderful story that managed to impact my entire childhood, and even my adulthood. Like many of the best children’s books, it was one of those that a child absorbs, which then becomes a part of who they are and who they become. The story was none other than Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree.
I loved that story. Most of all, I loved that tree! Like the little boy in the book, I was a child who delighted in playing outdoors, particularly when there were fantabulous trees to explore and climb. On the farm that my parents had, there were ample trees for me to play among. There was the fruit orchard, where I could pick cherries, pears, peaches, plums, and apples. There were the small crabapple trees in the side yard, where I could find birds’ nests, and once, even a little orphaned baby bird (sadly, I showed it to my dear friend the cat, who expressed her interest in a manner that I found very upsetting and improper). Then there was the marvelous big tree in the front yard, where I was certain I could climb all the way to where the giants lived, way up in the sky, just like Jack did. But it was not until I was seven years old that I found my very own Giving Tree. They’re quite rare, you know.
When I was seven, we moved away from the farm, and away from all that I knew and loved in my early childhood. Gone was the endless cornfield, which I knew stretched all the way to Africa. It was a magic cornfield: it could be anything at all! Sometimes, it was a vast ocean, and there were horrible angry sharks and a big hungry giant squid who wanted to eat me. Other times, it was the maze to the witch’s castle, where all the little children from fairyland had been captured. Only I could rescue them! And sometimes, the cornfield was an enchanted forest, where pixies and gnomes and flying unicorns loved to hide. Across the cornfield was my best friend Laura’s house. When we left the farm behind, we had to leave her, too. I got to see her once every few years or so, but it was never the same.
The new house was bigger than the old one, and I had a nicer bedroom. But the school was much bigger, too, and no one seemed terribly eager to make a new playmate right away. In fact, most of the kids thought I looked like the perfect victim for their bullying. For a few rough weeks, all the magic and wonder went away. I was a little lost soul, the weird kid that nobody wanted to talk to at the bus stop, or sit beside on the bus, or play with on the playground. I cried myself to sleep a lot of nights. Sometimes, I pretended to be sick just so I could visit the kindly school nurse. I wished more than anything that I could have a best friend.
One day, after getting home from school, I found Her. She was sitting at the edge of the front yard, a beautiful evergreen in a wonderful sea of magic ivy (sometimes it was a sea, sometimes a cloud, occasionally a treacherous minefield), and she wanted to be my friend. She was my very own Giving Tree. I never gave her a name, but for five years, until we moved again, she was one of my best friends. In fact, she was the only best friend who never decided she wanted to play with somebody else, or told my secrets, or thought my games were too crazy. She never got angry with me. She loved all of my ideas.
Sometimes, my Giving Tree was my mother, counseling me about how to be brave around the bullies, or telling me that I wasn’t really too weird, or helping me dress for the Grand Ball. Sometimes, when I was fighting in the Civil War, leading my secretly-all-female company of soldiers, she would be the general. When I wanted to be a rare species of mountain cat, she was my home, and she carefully protected all of my cubs. When I turned into a bird, she had perfect places for me to nest. If I felt like heading an expedition to the North Pole, she was a terrific mountain, and she always kept me safe from polar bears and abominable snowmen, although she did have an avalanche once. If I decided instead to become a chef, she provided me with all the ingredients I needed (my most famous specialty was “French Baked Bark”). And any time that I was Maid Marion or Wendy, Robin Hood and Peter Pan had a deliciously dangerous place to rescue me from (a burning tower, a dungeon, a haunted castle, Captain Hook’s ship . . . ). She even agreed to turn into an Arabian fortress for me when I was exhausted from fleeing across the desert on my camel (most people thought it was a bicycle, but they were quite mistaken).
I’ve never forgotten my special Giving Tree. She helped a frightened little girl express herself. She took the place of the playmates that I had to say goodbye forever to. When I finally made new friends, she welcomed them, too. With two busy working parents, she listened to a lot of eager chatter about my day at school and absorbed thousands of tears when I just didn’t have the words I needed. She was just like the tree in the book, guiding me through my childhood and steering me toward growing up. And from the book, which I read over and over again as soon as I could read it for myself, I learned what it meant to be generous and loving. I learned about gratitude from that book, too. It shaped my character in ways that I may never fully realize. Even today, that book and my tree are still a part of me.
“And the tree was happy.”