Once, a friend sat on the couch with Lydia, reading The Tale of Benjamin Bunny. Like many of Beatrix Potter’s books, Benjamin Bunny is a meandering story, so while he read and Lydia listened, I went back to making dinner and chatting with his wife. But then, something from the next room caught my ear: it was Lydia, saying, “If my mom was reading this, she would be crying right now.”
I stopped, mid-chop, and burst out laughing. She is mostly correct: I have never cried during Benjamin Bunny, but I do cry, freely and unattractively, during most of the books that we read. Our daughters have learned to wait patiently until I’m ready to go on (this can take a while in books like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or The Railway Children), even patting my arm in a comforting way or asking, “Are these happy tears? Or sad ones?”
Usually a book elicits one response or the other. But occasionally, we read a story that hits the space right between happy and sad and draws enough of each emotion into my tears that I don’t know how to answer that question. I’m happy because the story is beautiful and because something about it rings true, but I am sad because there’s a bitterness to its truth. It feels like the coming of fall.
The Giving Tree is one of those books. You’ve almost certainly read it or had it read to you as a child; maybe you’ve tried to keep your own voice from trembling as you read it aloud to your children. The Giving Tree is a beautiful story of sacrificial love, one that demonstrates for us what it looks like to give until you have nothing left to give—and then to give away even that nothing.
I had read this book as a child; I had enjoyed it as a child. But rediscovering it as a parent was like peeling back a fresh layer of an onion: the story was sharper than I remembered, sweeter, and, yes, it made my eyes water.
The Giving Tree
Shel Silverstein (1964)