You might be surprised that your favorite children's book—the one that you're excited to pass down to your new baby—is vehemently hated
by a large segment of the parenting population. Or you might be relieved to
know that you're not the only one who hates a book that everyone seems to love.
There are certain children's books that are so incredibly
divisive that you realize the two camps will never read the book from the same
perspective. These children's books have entirely different synopsis based on
who, in fact, is reading.
If you love it: This is a story about the unconditional love between a boy and a tree, and a cautionary tale about giving too much of yourself.
5-Star Amazon review: "'The Giving Tree,' beautifully written and simply illustrated, is a five-star book for adults in need of a cautionary tale: This book warns us, powerfully, that to give to the point of self-destruction is harmful both to the giver and the receiver ... How eloquently the book cautions us not to become this selfish, spoiled boy who takes what he is given for granted. What a wonderful metaphor for adults to use in teaching children to be truly grateful, rather than truly self-absorbed, demanding and manipulative. ... This book is a source of learning and self-reflection."
If you hate it: This is a disturbing tale of co-dependence, in which a progressively selfish and manipulative child meets an adoring tree, and takes absolutely everything she has until the tree is left with nothing—and the tree claims to still be happy? What a terrible lesson to teach kids.
1-Star Amazon review: "I have always and will always detest this book. Deliberately ambiguous, and in my opinion not appropriate for impressionable children. The child/man can only be described as selfish and thoughtless. The tree is no better a character, being desperate for love and attention to the point of slavishness."
This book isn't just controversial among today's book reviewers; it's been historically divisive over the last 50 years. According to The New Yorker, William
Cole (a former editor at Simon & Schuster) turned down the manuscript
because he didn't like the "dum-dum of a tree, giving everything and expecting
nothing in return."
According to writer Anna Homes, "Of course, maybe we're just projecting, but to those who would say that Silverstein's book is a moving, sentimental depiction of the unyielding love of a parent for a child, I'd say, learn better parenting skills. To those who defend it as a warts-and-all parable lamenting man's inhumanity to women—I'd say that I'm not so sure Silverstein, who dedicated the book to a former girlfriend, 'Nicky,' was writing an indictment of what men assume they can get away with. The boy uses the tree as a plaything, lives off her like a parasite, and then, when she's a shell of her former self and no longer serves any real purpose, he sits on her—which makes her happy? ('That book is the epitome of male privilege,' a friend groused.)"
But when writer Rivka Galchen took a stab at her synopsis, she had a very different conclusion.
"'The Giving Tree,' I was surprised to discover, is a great book. I didn't remember it that way, because too many people had told me about it since I'd last read it. The actual story doesn't extol the tree, or endorse the boy. The tree and the boy both do the particular things they do, and say the particular things they say, and, talking tree notwithstanding, their relationship seems emotionally realistic. The story describes honestly something that is, which is very different from proposing what ought to be," wrote Galchen. "'The Giving Tree' is in part a disturbing tale of unconditional love, in part a tender tale of the monsters that we are."
"Rainbow Fish" by Marcus Pfister
A beautiful rainbow fish doesn't have any friends, but after an octopus advises him to give away his shining scales, he finally finds real friendship and happiness.
If you love it: A story about sharing and the power of inner beauty.
If you hate it: A story that teaches kids to give away their possessions so that other people will like them.
So which one is it?
This debate was sparked in the comment section of popular blogger (and mom.me contributor) Rebecca Woolf's Instagram account, when she posted a photo of her daughter reading "Rainbow Fish."
"I legit HIDE that book when I see it places," Woolf commented, not initially realizing her daughter was holding the book in the photo. "I think it's the worst possible message to send a child! Feel free to disagree with me, of course, many do, but ugh! We do not give away our scales ... we treasure them! (And I understand that the book is meant to promote sharing, but I feel like it sends a dangerous message that one can only maintain relationships with people if she gives herself away.) Your rainbow scales belong to you! And that's beautiful! Protect them! Own them! Look for the rainbow scales in others! But please do not feel that because you have them, you must give them all away and be like everyone else. No way, kids!"
In follow-up comments, Woolf went on to say that she knows plenty of parents who swear by the book, and anything that promotes dialogue is a positive thing.
Many other @GirlsGoneChild followers agreed, saying things like, "Those other fish would only be his friend if he gave them something. That's not real friendship." And, "We don't encourage making others less so that others feel better. We want to raise everyone up by celebrating their own special rainbow scales."
But, naturally, not everyone agrees with that perspective. "Rainbow Fish" has many glowing reviews as well, like this 5-Star Amazon review from AnnaLovesBooks:
"Adults ... seem to fail to see one glaring thing: While their eyes are on the 'give away your possessions' issue, they forget the way the story starts. In the beginning, the Rainbow Fish is vain and lonely, concerned only with his scales and their beauty, certain that he should be liked for his beauty alone ... The message in this book is more about not letting your possessions possess you, about understanding that others won't like you just because you're pretty, and about recognizing that friendship isn't about someone else adoring you, but about sharing something."
"Love You Forever" by Robert Munsch
Another incredibly controversial children's book, Munsch's "Love You Forever"—a love song, of sorts, from a mother to her child, describing how long she will love her son—is described as both "sweet" and "creepy."
If you love it: This is a sweet, touching
story of a mother's love that, quite literally, makes grown men cry.
5-Star Amazon review: "My two girls go for it regularly on my shelf at bedtime. They tease me because I can't get through it without crying. Funny to me that they have a very good grasp of allegory and they, unlike some of the book's critics, understand that the scenes with the mother coming to the man's apartment are actually his memories of her love. They understand, as I explain to them that the love poured into the son by his mother, has taught him how to love his new baby daughter at the end. Love begets love, and this little children's parable is a powerful reminder!"
If you hate it: This is a strange, creepy, uncomfortable story
of a mother's obsessive stalking.
1-Star Amazon review: "Frankly, I find this book very disturbing. A mother who drives across town with a ladder tied to her car, climbs into her adult son's bedroom and crawls across the floor to sing him a lullaby is just creepy ... No matter how well intended, I'm bothered by teaching a child that obsessiveness is love."
One Goodreads reviewer, "Kira," makes an interesting point about this book. "I love this book," she writes. "It saddens me that people have taken something that is for children and pushed it into the adult mold until it ends up labeled with 'creepy.'"
Kira makes a good point, I think. Sometimes when we look at children's books through an adult's perspective, we see hidden innuendos and cultural weirdness that we didn't see as kids.
Literature is traditionally quite divisive, with its mixed meanings and interpretations, but children's books hit us where we're most vulnerable.
But these are children we're talking about. Would a 4-year-old child be creeped out by the thought of his mom always being there for him, even when he's old and living on his own? Or would he be comforted, knowing that her love will always be with him? Kids don't grasp the vague "I'll always be in your heart" messages; kids equate love with cuddling and rocking and physical presence. So even if an adult thinks it's creepy for a mom to rock her grown son at night, would a child?
It's all about perspective.
Literature is traditionally quite divisive, with its mixed meanings and interpretations, but children's books hit us where we're most vulnerable: our humanness—our fears, our nostalgia, our childhoods, our children's childhoods.
What about the "Runaway Bunny"—is that a book about a mother's steadfast love, or a mother's inability to respect boundaries?
Or "Goodnight Moon"—is it a classic must-read, or is it grossly overrated and poorly constructed?
And what about "The Cat in the Hat"—is he a funny, well-meaning cat who adds a little adventure to these kids' boring lives, or is he an emotionally manipulative psychopath?
Children's books are tools, and the messages they send are largely based on how we, as parents, read them, interpret them, and feel them. Some things aren't THIS or THAT; they're ALL. And clearly these children's books prove that.
I agree with Woolf in that any book that opens up dialogue and discussion (especially between a child and a parent) is a good thing. Books are often open-ended for a reason—so we can add our own interpretations. Nothing about these children's books have changed over the last 50+ years; all that changes is our perspective.