(New York Times Book Review, September 9, 1973.)

by William Cole

"Look Shel," I said, "the trouble with this ‘Giving Tree' of yours is that it falls between two stools; it's not a kid's book -- too sad, and it isn't for adults -- too simple." This was in 1963; I was working at Simon & Schuster; Shel was Shel Silverstein, and the manuscript was "The Giving Tree," which Harper & Row subsequently published, and which has sold over 150,000 copies. Kurt Vonnegut must have some kind of philosophical saying for the way I feel now.

Shel Silverstein first came to prominence as Playboy's roving cartoonist. He published a number of children's books and the outrageous "Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book," and just a few years ago turned up as a song-writer with Johnny Cash's hit "A Boy Named Sue." Even more recently, he had a hit, singing in his own raucous voice his "Freakin' at the Freaker's Ball," and we'll soon see in November a large collection of his poems for children, "Where the Sidewalk Ends."

When I called this paper and said I'd like to do a piece about "The Giving Tree," they said, fine, but would I also look into two other surprise sellers, "The Velveteen Rabbit," and "Go Ask Alice"? Very good.

"The Giving Tree" begins, "Once there was a tree..." (Dots are Shel's) and goes on for 50 more pages with a simple tale, illustrated in graceful cartoon style by the author. There was a boy who played in the tree, gathering its leaves, swinging on its branches, eating its apples. When the boy grew older he lay in the shade of the tree with a girl and carved initials in a heart. Yet older, a young man, he took the tree's branches to build a house. As an old man he needed a boat to get away from it all, so the tree said cut me down and make a boat. So we have a stump. Along comes the boy, now an old, old man, and the ex-tree says, "Come, Boy, sit down. Sit down and rest." And the tree was happy.

My interpretation is that that was one dum-dum of a tree, giving everything and getting nothing in return. Once beyond boyhood, the boy is unpleasant and ungrateful, and I wouldn't give him the time of day, much less my bole. But there's a public out there who think otherwise, and Harper & Row expects to sell another 100,000 this year. And this month they are bringing out a version in French, "L'arbre au Grand Coeur." I called Ursula Nordstrom, who has been Shel's editor at Harper & Row, and asked how this all came about. Ursula, noted for finding and encouraging such artists as Maurice Sendak and Tomi Ungerer, had long ago noted Shel's "simple and direct drawings" in Playboy, and tried to get him to do a book. Shel, the hardest man in the world to pin down, didn't react until Tomi Ungerer said, "Go see Ursula." There was tremendous disagreement in the office over "The Giving Tree," one editor saying "That tree is sick! Neurotic!" They did a small first printing in 1964. Nothing much happened. Then, as Ursula says, "The body twitched". Apparently, it had been taken up by the great word-of-mouth underground with an assist from the pulpits; where it was hailed as a parable on the joys of giving, and from Shel's disk-jockey friends, a strange pairing. The book, to me, is simply a backup of "more blessed to give than to receive." My wife's interpretation, not surprisingly, is that the tree represents a mother, giving and receiving with not expectation of return. Whatever it is, it touches a sensitive point clearly and swiftly, as do other recent phenomena of Segals and seagulls.