Author, Poet, Artist Shel Silverstein played a significant
role in the formative literary lives of myself and many people my age.
have a copy of Where the Sidewalk Ends
or A Light in the Attic, with his
line drawings of a man who forgot his pants, or three children flying in a
shoe? Who doesn’t remember a few lines here and there of that one about being
sick but then, “What’s that you say, You say today is Saturday, Alright I’m
going out to play” or “Pamela Purse Yelled Ladies First” and then ends up
in a cannibal’s stew?
Shel’s poems are inventive, clever, imagination firing. And
yet. It’s his two “full-length” books that I’m considering today. Books whose
premise I simply don’t agree with, despite having heard others’ interpretations
and admiration: The Missing Piece
and The Giving Tree.
In The Missing Piece,
we follow a Pac-Man-looking pie as he looks to find his own missing piece, the
piece to complete him. Like Goldilocks, some are too big, some are too small,
but in the end, he finds the one that’s just right.
In The Giving Tree,
we watch as a small boy enjoys the bounty of an apple tree, the tree offering
him fruit, a branch to swing from, its trunk, and then finally, simply a
stump on which to sit.
Both of these books, to me, reek of codependence. ! And, yes,
you might roll your eyes at me, analyzing a simple children’s book or reading
too much into a story. Many people have told me how lovely and generous it is
that the tree continues to give and give of itself until there’s barely anything
of itself left, and then finally the boy, now an old man, comes to appreciate
Isn’t it a beautiful story of self-sacrifice and loyalty and
How about the Missing Piece? All Shel’s trying to say is
that we all walk around the world feeling slightly unwhole, slightly missing.
We are all trying to fill in a place within us that feels empty. Sometimes we
use things that we think will fit that place – sometimes we use people who we
think will fit that place. But we continue to go through our lives looking for
our missing piece, and when we find it, we are complete and we are happy.
Isn’t it a lovely metaphor for life, for our human striving for fulfillment and satisfaction?
As I said, I have a hard time appreciating
these messages as they’re written, if they’re written with those intentions at all. I
have a hard time integrating the message that we ought to divest ourselves of
our needs in order to satisfy others, as the tree did. Or the message that we
none of us are whole, and need someone to fulfill us, as the piece sought.
I recognize I may be being a little heavy-handed with my
interpretation of these stories, but as someone who’s loved so much of Shel’s
work, I bristle at the messages I glean
In fantasy land, yes, it would be nice to have someone
around who would give me everything I needed without asking anything in return
except my eventual appreciation. Yes, it would be lovely to find a human who
would complete me. But that’s not the way it works in reality land. And that’s
not the way I think it should work.
I think it’s a strange message to pass along to kids, and an
unrealistic vision of relationships that’s being set before us.
I was trying to explain “interdependence” to a friend of
mine recently, and I sort of failed. But in the world of these stories, I guess
the best I could say is if I am a piece rolling about the world, whether I feel whole or not, what I’d really want is another piece rolling alongside me,
looking to make themselves whole, just as I am. And, in the end, mostly it’s
about seeing that we already are, and discarding the skewed and broken glasses
we use to view the world and ourselves.
If I were the tree, I’d hope to get to say the to boy, you
know, I love you and all, but I could use some mutuality in this relationship,
if that’s something you’re available for. And if the boy really needs to row
a boat made out of my trunk, I’d hope for the strength to tell him … he’s
barking up the wrong tree.
That all said, I will continue to pull out my copy of Where
the Sidewalk Ends and read a random poem. I
will hope to read it to a new generation of readers, and I will hope to be an
iota as creative and ingenious as he has been. But, I also hope to learn the lessons
I would have liked these books teach.