A Book About Generosity? A challenge.

Allow me to propose a writing challenge. That thought was inspired by two books that have missed their mark. See if you agree that the challenge may be an opportunity for you.

There was an article in the New York Times the other day by Adam Grant and Allison Sweet Grant, which first appeared on April 15, 2020, in which the authors analyzed a book that is well-loved by many people (though not by me). In We Need to Talk About “The Giving Tree, the Grants made the point that this famous book by Shel Silverstein is interpreted by some readers as a metaphor for the way parents give to their children out of love until they have nothing left to give. The tree in the story provides the apples the boy picks. Then as he gets older, the boy uses the twigs and branches the tree lovingly yields and finally the wood of her main trunk. In the end, there is nothing left but a stump, on which the boy, now an old man, sits. His domination is complete. The Grants echo what I have always thought, that this is really a story about a selfish boy, not a tale about the tree’s generosity. And if read as a metaphor for human behavior toward the natural world, well, that would explain a lot on another topic.

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

Could some of the book’s theme be the residue of an earlier time when attitudes were different? After all, the book has been in print for fifty-five years. Yet it is still popular and over ten million copies have been sold up to now. Here is an article that elaborates on its continuing aura.

As Mr. Grant points out, “Generosity is not about sacrificing yourself for others — it’s about helping others without harming yourself. This is not about giving to takers — it is giving in ways that nurture more givers.” He suggests that if the boy had planted some of the apple seeds, his needs and the tree’s would eventually be cared for sustainably. But the boy is not in the habit of giving. Only taking. The Grants’ assessment is well formulated.

That made me curious. The second aspect of this experience is related to Adam Grant’s writing for children. He is a psychologist with impressive credentials indicating his strength in communicating healthy behavioral attitudes.

The Gift Inside the Box, written by Adam Grant and Allison Sweet Grant and illustrated by Diana Schoenbrun, is advertised as being about generosity.

The Gift Inside the Box has worthwhile things in its favor:

  • The concept of an unknown gift inside a box is mysterious, therefore intriguing.
  • The kids depicted are of various races and there is one child in a wheelchair.
  • There is an attempt at designing the physical object – the book – to open rather like a box. This is a tactile surprise.
  • The goal of making generosity the point of the story, which should be a satisfying response to what was missing in The Giving Tree.

Unfortunately, the concept of generosity does not stick in this book either, for reasons suggested in this Kirkus review. Here is a video showing a read-aloud of The Gift Inside the Box so you can judge for yourself. Caitlin, the presenter, is enamored by the format – that the book opens as if it were a box. And by the purported theme. In the end though, does she seem convinced?

About the plot. The gift box drifts from the sky, wondering what child it is meant for. Each child who encounters the box thinks it must be for them. Still the box evades each with a rather illogical reason. Each child’s expectation that this box must contain the drumsticks, puzzle, or whatever the child awaits is not deserving enough. Several children are disqualified through no fault of their own. The sole exception: nasty twins too greedy to deserve it. Finally, it encounters a little girl who immediately wonders who to gift the box to. This solution to the search seems belated and unconvincing. The reader wonders why the little girl would not first check to see what this anonymous box contains. We never find out. That leaves the question: is it altruistic to give this box to someone she cares about if she does not know if it contains something worth giving? Or is even safe?

That leads me to the writing challenge. A more compelling book on this topic is needed. Can you do better? Would you consider writing a picture book that is a satisfying story whose theme really is about generosity?

It’s not easy, but you can do it!

20 comments

  1. We can always use more books about generosity, one of the greatest of virtues. Especially those acts that are done anonymously, with no interest in notoriety or accolades.
    So, yes. A great challenge and one you’ve inspired me to work on. In fact, I just read an old newspaper article from 1987 about a widow who adopted an entire first grade class and promised to help them all the way through college. And she did. 19 students out of her original 23 graduated from college with her help.Talk about generosity!
    I’m also enjoying seeing the titles already in print that others are suggesting.
    Thanks for a great post.

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    1. Good evening, Marty. That sounds like it could be a wonderful story. Go for it! Yes, those who have no interest in notoriety are genuinely generous and their honest contributions are especially valued. Best wishes with your new project!

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  2. I already have met this challenge I believe. My picture book, Bright-Eyes, Bushy-Tail, And The Nutty Narrows Bridge is inspired by and based on the true tale of Amos Peters who built the very first squirrel bridge. Amos and the other folks who worked in Civic Square, enjoyed feeding the squirrels in the plaza where they liked to take their lunch. There was just one problem, to get to the nutty feast the squirrels had to risk death crossing busy Olympia way. Amos wanted to find a way that the squirrels could cross safely. Today, Longview, WA is known for it’s squirrel bridges, there are eight of them. Every year the community comes together and celebrates Squirrel Fest, a delightfully nutty family and community event.

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    1. Hello Donna, I’ve been to Washington state but did not know about the squirrel bridges until you told me about your book. Why there’s even one modeled after Boston’s Zakim Bridge, which is about 45 miles south of where I live. One link showing your book is specifically designed for sight-impaired listeners – https://dcmp.org/media/15846-bright-eyes-bushy-tail-and-the-nutty-narrows-bridge – which is a format I was not so familiar with. That makes your book available to even that audience. Very nice.

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  3. I have been wanting to write a story about the charitable aspect of Purim but have had trouble coming up with something. However, this morning for FirstDraftFriday I managed to squeeze out a story about giving your things away. It will need much refinement. Thanks for the push.

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    1. Good day, mwolpin. How wonderful that you have started on this path and that this post has given you a nudge. Since the need for generosity is a universal one, your picture book will gain strength if you can create a simple story about both Purim giving and the human attribute.
      Best of luck!
      Perhaps there will eventually be another I add that lists everyone’s suggestions for good books centered on generosity and new ones that you all have written. That would be such a cool resource.

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  4. I totally share your feelings on The Giving Tree. I read it for the first time as an adult because I’m from England and it’s not well-known there, and when I finally did read it, it didn’t sit well with me at all (the same with The Rainbow Fish, which I also read only as an adult). British author Clare Helen Welsh has a cute book about learning to share, HOW SELFISH! Thanks for the challenge, I’m now motivated to give it a go!

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  5. I also agree with your analysis. Our local SCBWI chapter discussed some of the messages in The Giving Tree and how the interpretations have changed over the years. I always felt LUBNA AND PEBBLE, a book about friendship, was also a book about a child’s generosity- giving her precious pebble to someone in need. I journaled about this virtue this morning- interesting challenge!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dear Writer on the run, I am so pleased that you posted about Lubna and Pebble. As you say, it is about friendship as well as generosity, and it also touches on the refugee crisis. Here is a link to the author, Wendy Meddour, reading the book.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EYlaGQxHKgY. And a link to a Kirkus review. https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/wendy-meddour/lubna-and-pebble/
      Thank you for sharing this beautiful book! (You have raised the stakes for your own book idea 😉

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