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.
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?
The problem is that generosity looks different depending on what culture you come from, and unless the story recognises its own context in whatever culture is defining it, you can’t fully communicate that culture’s definition of generous. But its definitely a step in the right direction to be talking about what it *isn’t*. I just think we need to start talking more about how that definition is biased, and always will be biased, even and perhaps especially if we start trying to talk about it in a scientific way–because science is biased and informed by the culture doing it as well!
That said, I have seen a very cool retelling of the Giving Tree by Topher Payne which I think is a good example of what you and Grant are both talking about. Definitely check it out when you can.