John Schwenkler has asked his readers to nominate the world's most overrated children's books. He starts the ball rolling with Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree:
I guess that this is a pretty common target in these kinds of discussions, but damn is it ever deserved. Tree loves boy. Boy loves tree. Boy grows up. Boy exploits tree. Tree takes it all silently, growing less happy with each lonely year. Boy gets old, tree is a stump, boy sits on tree, no apologies. I mean, I get the point: the tree loves the boy. But heck, even Jesus was able to rise triumphant when all was said and done; couldn't Silverstein have made the love at least a little more, you know, mutual?
That book is a common target, so much so that I have to wonder whether we've been missing the point of it all these years. Silverstein had a dark sensibility and a wicked sense of humor. Maybe he set out to write a bleak fable about kids who selfishly milk their elders for every drop they've got. Is it possible that he finished the manuscript, looked at it with satisfaction, and said to himself, Yep, that boy sure was a bastard?
Well, it's probably a mistake to dwell on authorial intent. One of the pleasures of reading is finding your own meanings in the text, and that applies to children's books as much as adult literature. Teachers may read The Poky Little Puppy to teach kids the virtue of following the rules, but I can't possibly be the only boy who noticed that the poky puppy came out ahead. (He missed out on one helping of strawberry shortcake, but he got five helpings of both rice pudding and chocolate custard. You do the math.) On that note, I'd like to make my own nomination for the overrated-kids'-books list: a schlocky little story by Marcus Pfister called The Rainbow Fish.
This one wasn't around when I was a boy, so I didn't learn about it til my daughter was born (four years ago today!) and we received a flood of books as gifts. It's about a beautiful fish covered with shiny scales who doesn't have any friends until he gives the scales away. "Finally," Pfister concludes, "he had only one shining scale left. But now, as he swam off to play with his friends, he was the happiest fish in the sea." The book has been condemned as socialistic for its sharing-is-good message, but that isn't my problem with it. I don't think the story's core moral is It's good to share, no matter what the author intended. The real lesson here is You can buy friends.
The book has a bunch of sequels, none of which I've read. But I'd like to imagine that the second tale begins like this: "With virtually all his scales gone, the Rainbow Fish lay abandoned at the bottom of the ocean. His so-called friends had taken all they could, and now he was as lonely as before." Sort of an aquatic Giving Tree.