7 Surprising Facts About The Giving Tree

Jennifer M. Wood
Jennifer M. Wood

Some readers remember The Giving Tree as a sweet picture book about the strength of unconditional love. To others, it was a heartbreaking tale that messed them up during story time. No matter your interpretation of the story, The Giving Tree is a children’s classic that helped make Shel Silverstein a household name—even if it took him a while to get there.

1. Multiple publishers rejected The Giving Tree.

Shel Silverstein had only sold one children’s book—Lafcadio: The Lion Who Shot Back—when he went about finding a publisher for The Giving Tree. The book’s somber themes made it a hard sell. One editor at Simon & Schuster described it as “too sad” for kids and “too simple” for adults, while another editor called the titular tree “sick” and “neurotic.” Other publishers were moved by the story, which follows the relationship between a boy and a tree over the course of his lifetime, but ultimately felt it was too risky for the genre. After four years of searching for a publisher, Silverstein finally found a home for the book at Harper Children’s, when editor Ursula Nordstrom recognized its potential.

2. The Giving Tree was a surprise success.

The Giving Tree received a small release in 1964 with just 5000 to 7500 copies printed for the first edition. Though its publisher clearly underestimated its potential popularity, it didn’t take long for the book to explode into a modern classic. It quickly became one of the most successful children’s books of the era and made Silverstein an important figure in the industry. Today, nearly 55 years after it was first published, The Giving Tree has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide.

3. There are various interpretations of the relationship at the center of the story—not all of them positive.

The Giving Tree centers on the relationship between a tree and a boy throughout the stages of his life—from his childhood to his elderly years. In each stage, the tree provides the boy with whatever he needs, ultimately giving him a stump to sit on when the tree has nothing else to give. Positive interpretations of this story paint it as a parable of unconditional love: When it first hit shelves, The Giving Tree was a hit with Protestant ministers, who applied Christian themes to the book. But according to some critics, the book depicts an abusive relationship, with the tree literally allowing herself to be destroyed to keep the perpetually dissatisfied boy happy while receiving nothing in return. Other interpretations compare the relationship between the tree and the boy to those between a mother and child, two aging friends, and Mother Nature and humanity.

4. The author’s photo is infamous.

The author’s photograph on the back of The Giving Tree—depicting a bearded, bald-headed Silverstein glaring at the camera—has gained a reputation of its own. A Chicago Tribune writer called it “demonic” while a writer for NJ.com pointed out his “jagged menacing teeth.” In the children’s book Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw, there’s an entire passage where the main character’s dad uses Silverstein's photo to terrorize his son into staying in bed.

5. The Giving Tree isn’t Shel Silverstein’s favorite work.

The Giving Tree may be among Silverstein's most successful and recognizable works, but when asked what his favorite pieces of his writing were in a 1975 Publisher’s Weekly interview, he left it off the list. “I like Uncle Shelby's ABZ, A Giraffe and a Half, and Lafcadio, The Lion Who Shot Back—I think I like that one the most," the author said. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t proud of the book that helped launch his career. On the book’s popularity, he said "What I do is good ... I wouldn't let it out if I didn't think it was."

6. Silverstein dedicated The Giving Tree to an ex-girlfriend.

The Giving Tree’s short dedication, “For Nicky,” is meant for an old girlfriend of the children’s book author.

7. Silverstein hated happy endings.

In case The Giving Tree doesn’t make it clear enough, Silverstein stated in an 1978 interview that he detests happy endings. He told The New York Times Book Review that he believed cheery conclusions “create an alienation” in young readers. He explained his stance further, saying "The child asks why I don't have this happiness thing you're telling me about, and comes to think when his joy stops that he has failed, that it won't come back." The Giving Tree features what is perhaps Silverstein’s best-known sad ending, if not one of the most infamous endings in children’s literature.

11 Scrumdiddlyumptious Roald Dahl Facts

Ronald Dumont / Getty Images
Ronald Dumont / Getty Images

A world without Roald Dahl would be a world without Oompa Loompas, Snozzcumbers, or Muggle-Wumps. And who would ever want to live in a world like that? Celebrate the author with these gloriumptious facts about the master of edgy kids' books.

1. Writing was never Roald Dahl's best subject.

Dahl held onto a school report he had written as a kid, on which his teacher noted: “I have never met anybody who so persistently writes words meaning the exact opposite of what is intended.”

2. Making up nonsensical words was part of what Roald Dahl did best.

When writing 1982’s The BFG, Dahl created 238 new words for the book’s protagonist, which he dubbed Gobblefunk.

3. Roald Dahl's first profession was as a pilot.

And not just any pilot: Dahl was a fighter pilot with the Royal Air Force during World War II. And it was a plane crash near Alexandria, Egypt that actually inspired him to begin writing.

4. Roald Dahl got into some 007 kind of stuff, too.

Alongside fellow officers Ian Fleming and David Ogilvy, Dahl supplied intelligence to an MI6 organization known as the British Security Coordination.

5. Roald Dahl's first published piece was accidental.

Upon recovering from that plane crash, Dahl was reassigned to Washington, D.C., where he worked as an assistant air attaché. He was approached by author C.S. Forester, who was writing a piece for The Saturday Evening Post and looking to interview someone who had been on the frontlines of the war. Dahl offered to write some notes on his experiences, but when Forester received them he didn’t want to change a word. He submitted Dahl’s notes—originally titled “A Piece of Cake”—to his editor and on August 1, 1942, Roald Dahl officially became a published author. He was paid $1000 for the story, which had been retitled “Shot Down Over Libya” for dramatic effect.

6. Roald Dahl's first children's book was inspired by the Royal Air Force.

Published in 1942, The Gremlins was about a group of mischievous creatures who tinkered with the RAF’s planes. Though the movie rights were purchased by Walt Disney, a film version never materialized. Dahl would go on to become one of the world’s bestselling fiction authors, with more than 100 million copies of his books published in nearly 50 languages.

7. Roald Dahl read Playboy for the articles.

Or at least his own articles. While he’s best known as a children’s author, Dahl was just as prolific in the adult short story sphere. His stories were published in a range of outlets, including Collier’s, Ladies Home Journal, Harper’s, The New Yorker, and Playboy, where his topics of choice included wife-swapping, promiscuity, suicide, and adultery. Several of these stories were published as part of Dahl’s Switch Bitch anthology.

8. Quentin Tarantino adapted a Roald Dahl short story for the big screen.

One of Dahl’s best-known adult short stories, “Man from the South” (a.k.a. “The Smoker”), was adapted to celluloid three times, twice as part of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (once in 1960 with Steve McQueen and Peter Lorre, and again in 1985) and a third time as the final segment in 1995’s film anthology Four Rooms, which Quentin Tarantino directed.

9. Roald Dahl's own attempts at screenwriting were not as successful.

One would think that, with his intriguing background and talent for words, Dahl’s transition from novelist to screenwriter would be an easy one ... but you would be wrong. Dahl was hired to adapt two of Ian Fleming’s novels, the James Bond novel You Only Live Once and the kid-friendly Chitty Chitty Bang Bang; both scripts were completely rewritten. Dahl was also hired to adapt Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for the big screen, but was replaced by David Seltzer when he couldn’t make his deadlines. Dahl was not shy about his criticisms of the finished product, noting his “disappointment” that the film (and its changed title) shifted the story’s emphasis from Charlie to Willy Wonka.

10. Roald Dahl made an important contribution to the field of neurosurgery.

In 1960, Dahl’s four-month-old son Theo’s carriage was struck by a cab driver in New York City, leaving the child suffering from hydrocephalus, a condition that increases fluid in the brain. Dahl became very actively involved in his son’s recovery, and contacted toymaker Stanley Wade for help. Together with Theo’s neurosurgeon, Kenneth Till, the trio developed a shunt that helped to alleviate the condition. It became known as the Wade-Dahl-Till valve.

11. Even in death, Roald Dahl's sense of humor was evident.

Roald Dahl passed away from a blood disease on November 23, 1990 at the age of 74. Per his request, he was buried with all of his favorite things: snooker cues, a bottle of Burgundy, chocolate, HB pencils, and a power saw.

How Beatrix Potter Pioneered the Art of Merchandising

Carl Court, Getty Images
Carl Court, Getty Images

When Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released by Walt Disney in 1937, it was accompanied by a cascade of licensed merchandise. Tea sets, a wind-up Dopey toy, a sand pail, and a board game were among the items on offer. Both the movie and its ancillary products were a tremendous success, though it would be decades before movie studios made a habit of licensing their characters for consumer goods. It wasn't until Fox’s 1977 release of Star Wars that entertainment properties were considered to be highly marketable on store shelves. Today, creative property owners can make as much, if not more, on tie-in products as they do on the movies, television shows, or books that inspired them.

To trace the source of that strategy, you have to go back further than Star Wars and decades prior to Snow White. According to Smithsonian, it was Peter Rabbit creator Beatrix Potter who emerged as the unlikely pioneer of character licensing. She was virtually a one-woman operation, designing prototype products and vetting the quality of licensed goods some 30 years before Dopey ever took his first spring-assisted step.

Author Beatrix Potter is pictured circa the 1890s
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Born Helen Beatrix Potter on July 28, 1866, the author spent her formative years under the care of a governess and largely left to her own imagination on the third floor of her wealthy family’s home in London’s posh Bolton Gardens area. Potter rarely ventured outdoors until a family vacation took them to a summer getaway, where she soaked up animals, insects, and plant life, even taking several animals home with her for a domestic menagerie. The collection included two rabbits, which she named Peter and Benjamin Bouncer. That fascination with furry things eventually led her to detail the adventures of Peter Rabbit in a letter to her former governess’s son, Noel, in 1893. Noel and his siblings were delighted by Peter, who was presented as a mischievous young rabbit living in a sandbank.

Later, Potter decided to produce a book of Peter Rabbit’s adventures, using the letter as source material and filling it out with illustrations. Though she initially had trouble finding a publisher and had to print off 450 copies to sell at her own expense, The Tale of Peter Rabbit was eventually published by Frederick Warne and Company in 1902 to great acclaim, moving 28,000 copies that first year. Potter would go on to write 22 more books, including 1903’s The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin and 1913’s The Tale of Pigling Bland. Her cast of characters grew to include Jemima Puddle-Duck, Samuel Whiskers, and Tom Kitten.

From the beginning, Potter was fascinated with the idea of taking her creations from the pages of her palm-sized books and into other mediums. She wasn't the first (author John Newberry packaged his books with toys in 1744), but Potter would be the most organized. Inspired by London department store Harrods' marketing products based on an advertising character named Sunny Jim, Potter decided to begin sewing a stuffed Peter Rabbit doll herself, hoping to get the character’s proportions and look right before finding a production partner. Patenting the doll in December 1903—a highly unusual and savvy move—Potter wrote to one of her publishers, Norman Warne, with a progress report:

“I am cutting out calico patterns of Peter, I have not got it right yet, but the expression is going to be lovely … I think I could make him stand on his legs if he had some lead bullets in his feet!”

A Peter Rabbit doll and patent application from 1903 is pictured
Beatrix Potter's 1903 patent application for a Peter Rabbit doll.

The doll was eventually produced sans ammunition and became a hit. For years, Potter became preoccupied with merchandising, designing a board game, painting figurines, and carefully overseeing licensed Potter paraphernalia from tea sets to puzzles to bookcases made especially for her books. With each licensee, Potter was careful to make sure the contractual language was to her benefit. Though she liked the Warnes, they had erred in failing to copyright The Tale of Peter Rabbit in America, leading to knock-offs. Writing of an agreement to produce a china set with her characters, Potter told Harold Warne:

“I have been thinking about that china agreement, it is rather an awkwardly worded document. I think the words ‘all earthenware’ would prevent me from offering the statuettes to other firms …But if you decide to let them go on making tea-sets—with a promise of improvement—I should think the agreement had better be written out again? In a less wholesale style? The agreement with Hughes seems a much better model.”

Although the Warnes worked with Potter on licensing, it was Potter who often took the lead. Between 1907 and 1917, she was heavily involved in products ranging from slippers to stationery. When World War I broke out and production slowed, Potter took the opportunity to break off from companies she had become dissatisfied with. Among the casualties: Hughes, which made soft rabbit toys, and Levien, which made the tea set that seemed to disappoint her.

When she agreed to let manufacturer J.K. Farnell make a Jemima Puddle-Duck doll in 1910, she personally visited their factory to collect her royalty payments. When another company planned on making fabric characters in 1923, Potter declared them awful and forced them to revise their plans until they were to her satisfaction. The fabric items came out three years later, in 1926.

If someone had a better idea, Potter was willing to listen. After designing the board game in 1904, she set it off to the side. In 1917, Fruing Warne’s wife, Mary, suggested some tweaks that made it more kid-friendly. Potter tested both on her nieces and determined Mary’s version was better. Peter Rabbit’s Race Game was released in 1919. Potter funneled the profits directly to Mary.

A Peter Rabbit dinnerware set is pictured
A Peter Rabbit dinnerware set.
Amazon

Potter did involve Norman Warne in another capacity. She became engaged to him in 1905, though he tragically died of pernicious anemia just weeks following the announcement. Potter eventually married in 1913, at age 47, to William Heelis, a real estate solicitor who had helped her locate to a residence in Cumbria. When Heelis also died early, Potter was without a spouse and without heirs. Upon her death on December 22, 1943, her will left her characters and the rights to their merchandising fortunes to the Warnes, who continued to market them through the 20th century and beyond. By 1981, Beatrix Potter ephemera was taking in $5 million annually, including Peter Rabbit-adorned wallpaper and serving trays.

Today, Peter Rabbit merchandise is marketed through Penguin Random House, a cotton-tailed empire with an estimated value of $500 million. The images and characters remain popular in a climate where licensed characters are commonplace and revenue for official merchandising of all kinds of products from Marvel heroes to Disney icons is a $270 billion annual business. That can be traced back to Potter, who spent several hours stitching her own Peter Rabbit in the knowledge that readers would one day want to fill their shelves with more than just books.

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