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December 2020

Some called him Uncle Shelby. He was probably more known as Shel. As a kid Chicagoan Sheldon Allan Silverstein was neither athletic nor a hit with the girls, so he chose to draw and write. He started with tracing Al Capp cartoons and went from there. Eventually his cartoon drawings, complete with crazy captions, were picked up by major publications.

Silverstein had claims to fame. One was a book-cover cartoon. Two gaunt-looking men were imprisoned in a narrow windowless cell. Air entered it between the bars of a ceiling opening. The prisoners were hanging off the ground, shackled hands and feet. One says to his cellmate, “Now here’s my plan.” Some readers found the cartoon pessimistic, but Silverstein disagreed. “There’s a lot of hope even in a hopeless situation.”

At an editor’s urging, Silverstein began to write and illustrate children’s books. In 1964 he published a book, though not one he considered his favorite. Feelng otherwise, his readers have made it a children’s classic. The Giving Tree has sold in the millions and been translated into numerous languages. It’s probably because it is more than a child’s book.

The story is about a young boy, turned adult, turned old man, and a tree the readers never entirely see. The young boy and the tree are best friends. The boy swings from her branches, eats her apples, climbs her trunk, plays hide-and-go-seek with her, sleeps in her shade, and even carves their initials—Me + T—into the tree. The boy loved the tree very much. And “the tree was happy.”

“But time went by and the boy grew older.” His interests changed. He carved a girl’s initials in the tree’s trunk. The tree was often alone. One day the boy came back. The tree called for him to do the things they once did together so he can be happy. But the boy said he was too old. He wanted money to have other fun. The tree had no money, so she gave him her apples. The tree was happy. After a long time away, the boy came back again, and the tree called out again. But this time he wanted a house. The tree had no house, so she let him cut off her branches. She was happy. After another long time away the boy, an older man, came back. Called to play, he said he was too old and sad for that. He wanted a boat to take him far away. So she gave away her trunk. And the tree was happy—“but not really.”

The boy, now a stooped old man, came back one last time. “I am sorry, boy. But I have nothing left to give you.” She said that she could no longer give her apples and branches and trunk, but the boy said he was too weak, and old, and tired for them. The tree wanted to give more, but she had nothing left. “I am just an old stump.” But this time, the boy told her he just a wanted a quiet place to sit and rest. Straightening herself as best she could, the tree said, “An old stump is good for sitting and resting.” “Come, boy, sit down, sit and rest.” The boy sat and rested. “And the tree was happy.”

Perhaps the most intriguing thing about the story is how Silverstein’s readers have so differently received it. It has moved some to tears, others to deep sadness, still others to outright anger. A school library journal called it “one of the most divisive books in children’s literature.” The influential Catholic publication First Things once published a symposium on its interpretation. Opinions have abounded.

Certainly the book is about a relationship. There’s a pretty good argument that it’s is between God and us. Our loving God has given us everything we could ever need to be happy. He has given us life. We have been given bodies and minds that can do incredible things. Some say we have not even scratched the surface of what we can achieve. God has given us instincts, and He has given us a free will to make choices and so live in happiness. He has given us consciences so we can know right from wrong and so stay happy. God truly does want our happiness—hopefully with Him.

But we have never been satisfied with God’s meeting our needs. Man’s appetite for other things is too big. We want power, and we want pleasure, and we want self-fulfillment. We want them now. We pull away from God, looking for the things that don’t satisfy, and so we sin. Watching the unhappiness unfold, God said to Himself, “Now here’s My plan.” He gave us His only Son to die on a tree. It’s hard to believe that God was happy with what He needed to do to restore a relationship broken by man. It was like cutting off a trunk, only worse. But that was God’s plan, and he stuck to it. The plan started with a humble birth, the Incarnation we once again get ready to celebrate. God did it to make us happy.

There is a certain sadness in The Giving Tree. It is in watching a lifetime pass in a few pages, watching the boy as he not only grows older, but also becomes more broken inside. Throughout the story he leaves what brought him happiness, only to come back again looking for the wrong things. It can remind us of our cultural stray from God, from our wanting what can never provide happiness, a useless searching that has left us old and broken.

And we have been saddened by what happened in November. Barring an amazing turn of events, a new administration will take control, one promising to be the most anti-life ever. Hard fought gains will be gone within days. We will stay sad until we remember: God has only one plan, and we are part of it. Our work is to change hearts. It will happen when we give ours. We must give of ourselves until we have nothing left. It was in giving her entire self that the tree found her happiness. It is in giving in the cause of Christ that we will find ours.

Joyful be your giving. Merry Christmas!


Paul V. Esposito is a Catholic lawyer who writes on a variety of pro-life topics. He and his wife Kathy live in Elmhurst, Illinois and have six children.

© Paul V. Esposito 2020. Culture of Life. Permission to copy and distribute for pro-life purposes is granted. Visit us at and on Facebook.

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