Schwenkler considers bad children books, and immediately chops down one of the pillars of my childhood:

The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein. 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? (Other questions: Why didn’t the tree’s apples grow back? And how did the boy build himself and his family a house out of branches?)

As sympathetic as my warped communitarian heart is to demands for mutuality, I think that the story’s lack of shared charity is actually its most powerful point.  It seems to me that the story’s complexity comes from the fact that love isn’t always mutual, and it certainly doesn’t guarantee interpersonal justice.  In fact, in some cases it can demand precisely the opposite: that we give until we have nothing left, and that the only compensation we can expect is the satisfaction from having done so. When I try to imagine what it must be like to raise a severely disabled child or deal with an addicted sibling or care for a mentally ill parent, this is the only understanding of love that can suffice… The love that gives until it is spent.

As I’m writing this I see that Millman has written a very insightful post in the same direction, so I won’t spend any words going places he’s already been, but I figure I should also mention this lovely piece by Kyle Cupp on the experience of being a father of an ancephaletic child and his sense of the divine in that struggle.  It’s definitely a better articulation of Silverstein’s take on love than I’m capable of giving, and one that think explains why it remains one of the better children’s books around.