WILLA v1 - The Definition of Self, The Recognition of Other in Two Children's Stories

Volume 1
Fall 1992

The Definition of Self, The Recognition of Other in Two Children's Stories

by Mary Elizabeth Bezanson and Deborah L. Norland

Mary Elizabeth became a feminist the day in third grade she realized the meaning of:

Peter Peter pumpkin eater
Had a wife and couldn't keep her,
He put her in a pumpkin shell,
And there he kept her very well

(Mother Goose, 1974).

The sense of outrage that small verse created remains to this day. The fear that others were not outraged also remains. Both anecdotal reports and personal experience suggest that children's literature affects, intentionally or not, a reader's world view of society. Gaines (1979) suggests that rhetoric alters an individual's attitude or actions. Two interrelated questions are then raised: Does research support our intuitive conception of the rhetorical nature of children's literature? And if children's literature is indeed rhetorical, then what is children's literature persuading children to think or to do? This essay explores each of these questions by first examining the rhetorical nature of children's literature and then by providing a rhetorical analysis of two children's works

A survey of the educational research on the nature of children's literature supports a rhetorical conception of that literature. Through literature, children are taught attitudes and actions appropriate for themselves and their society. Glazer (1991) proposes that "Literature, through content and through activities based on content and theme, can strengthen the development of self-concept and self-esteem" (p. 208). Books are written with the intention of presenting role models for children to emulate (Glazer, 1991). Luckens (1982) maintains that books help children discover themselves and explore the world. She comments, "Words are merely words, but real literature for any age is words chosen with skill and artistry to give the readers pleasure and to help them understand themselves and others" (p. 9). Book experiences introduce the unknown, clarify and refine the known, and define the parameters of choice for one's attitudes and behavior.

Books are written from the world view of the authors who write what they want the reader to know. Norton (1991) and Glazer (1991) caution readers to be aware of the author's bias when reading children's literature. Norton (1991) comments "that when evaluating themes in children's books, consider what the author wanted to convey about life or society ..." (p. 98). More succinctly, Glazer (1982) states, "When you read books to children, be aware that you are showing them one perception of how the world is structured" (p. 189). Children interact with the story, but can only take from literature something already put there by the author (Luckens, 1982). Literature may be seen as a way of opening children to an array of options, but only to those options authors wish to present.

The child is the "student-novice" (Luckens, 1982, p. 7) before the writer. Reading literature turns children "from being passive followers to ardent advocates" (p. 7, X). Huck, Hepler, and Hickman are not as extreme as Luckens while still supporting the persuasive nature of children's literature. Huck, Hepler, and Hickman (1987) maintain that "literature illuminates the human condition by shaping our insights" (p. 4). One may not like to believe that literature possesses the power to alter a reader's point of view. But children's literature is written to entice, motivate, and instruct (Norton, 1991).

The exact implications and effects of reading literature remain unknown (Russell, 1991). However, Russell (1991) states that "it is a fairly safe assumption that extensive reading will force beliefs" (p. 41). In addition to being reinforced, beliefs can also be changed. One can safely assume that reading will alter or, at the very least, influence attitudes and behaviors.

We have seen that children's literature is indeed rhetorical. A rhetorical analysis should then reveal important, but perhaps unrecognized, features of that literature. Too often rhetorical impact, for good or ill, of a specific story remains ambiguous for lack of direct comparison with another story. To avoid this problem, we now examine a comparative rhetorical analysis of one very popular contemporary children's story, "Silverstein's The Giving Tree and one lesser known story, Alice McLerran's The Mountain That Loved a Bird. These stories were chosen for their influence among readers and similarity in subject area. Before turning to the rhetorical analysis itself, each of these issues will be briefly examined.

The influence of the stories can be demonstrated by discussing numbers of book clubs and educational publish. Hardcover sales of The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein have exceeded one and a half million copies (Fifth Book of Junior Authors, 1983). If one agrees that books purchased are eventually read at least once, then The Giving Tree is a popular and favorite book. Distribution rights have been sold to at least one children's book club, The Trumpet Club, appearing in the "Primary Grades" (kindergarten through grade 3) sale flier in April 1991 and again in April 1992. A variety of people read Silverstein's Tree. Ministers use the story as sermon text, and teachers use the book as a parable (Contemporary Authors, 1983). One of Deborah's student teachers, with the support of the classroom teacher, had first-grade students successfully dramatize the story. The play was successful in terms of appeal; other first-grade classrooms in the building asked to see the dramatization. Deborah also knows counselors in at least one summer camp in Wisconsin that used Tree to demonstrate unconditional giving. One can assume other folk, including children and parents, also read the book. Giving Tree is indeed a popular work.

Sales of Alice McLerran's The Mountain That Love Bird are not as significant as The Giving Tree. Only between 22,500 and 25,000 copies of Mountain have been sold in United States (Norland phone interview with McLerran; Clements, September, 1991). Sales have been high in the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) with the initial 300,000 copies of the book printed in the USSR having been sold within the summer of its first release. The book is also now sold or hopes to be sold in other countries, including Japan, Finland, South Africa, and Germany (Ibid., 1991). Mountain has been used for grief counseling and dance choreography (Norland phone interview with McLerran, September, 1991). In addition a representative from Picture Books Studio, publisher of Mountain has stated that the book has been included in three basal reading series (Norland phone interview with Clements, September, 1991).

Not only are these works influential for being widely read and quoted, but they also share the common theme of considering the function of the child in society. The persuasive focus of both stories centers on relationships, specifically, the definition of self and the recognition of other. A brief description of each story will establish the similarity of persuasive focus in these works.

Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree involves the relation ship between an apple tree and a boy. Initially their interactions appear mutually pleasing as the boy comes to swing on the tree's branches and eat her apples. As the boy grows, his demands also grow. He first takes her apples to sell for money, and then later he removes her branches to build a house; next he removes her trunk to build a boat; and finally, he comes to sit on her stump. Although the boy's demands escalate as he ages, the tree continually gives of herself, diminishing her self. After each exchange, the reader is told that the tree was happy. The boy and the apple tree are the only two characters, and the book focuses on their developing relationship.

Similarly, Alice McLerran's The Mountain That Loved a Bird explores the relationship between the bird Joy, her female descendants, and a mountain. In this story, a bird happens to rest on a barren mountain. The mountain becomes intrigued by her presence since no living thing has ever touched it. And the bird, pleased because no mountain had ever cared whether the bird came or went, promises that either she or one of her daughters will return each year. Ninety-nine years pass with the mountain experiencing greater happiness each year in Joy's arrival. On the l00th year, Mountain, knowing the desolation that comes with Joy's leaving, begins to cry. Unwittingly, Mountain's tears make its barren ground fertile. The bird, undaunted by Mountain's grief, continues to return, bringing seeds to the now habitable mountain. Trees and plants from Joy's seeds begin to grow. Mountain rejoices at this change and now cries with happiness? continuing to provide the water necessary for life. Finally, Joy returns with a twig to build a nest and to stay. Like The Giving Tree, Mountain focuses on two characters and their developing relationship.

Perhaps no relationship defines our self and our recognition of others more than the relationship between genders. And, through literature, children explore and test the nature and parameters of these relationships before forming their own relationships in adulthood. Both books, Tree and Mountain, make important comments on the relationship of female characters to other characters.

In each of the stories, that the dominant female main character functions as caregiver may be the only point of similarity between the two. Some readers may have a tendency to perceive any female character who nurtures as mother, yet this tendency too fully limits the reading of a given character's behavior. One must remember that lovers, friends, and teachers also nurture. In Tree, the apple tree willingly sacrifices first her fruit, then her ability to reproduce, and then her physical form in order to provide for the survival and happiness of a human male character. In fact, Tree is the one who suggests the solutions to the problems Boy raises. For example, when the boy first needs money she says, "I'm sorry, ... but I have no money. I have only leaves and apples. Take my apples, Boy, and sell them in the city. Then you will have money and you will be happy" (Silverstein, 1964, p. 3 unnumbered). Each sacrifice is made willingly with no thought to her self or to her progeny. Her sole concern is to respond to Boy' requests, uncaring of the cost to her self.

In fact, Boy's happiness may indeed be the rhetorical focus of the work. The reader is never allowed to question how the tree may feel about these gifts which systematically diminish her. After all their interchanges, except the second to the last, the narrator is always there to remind the reader, "And the tree was happy" (Silverstein, 1965, pp. 24, 34, 40, unnumhered). Silverstein may well be tapping into a deeply held cultural myth that the nobility of being female comes from willingly nurturing another until one's self is absorbed.

In the penultimate interchange, the boy has come to chop down the tree's trunk in order to build a boat (Silverstein 1965, pp. 43-44, unnumbered). Here, for the first time, the narrator allows the reader to feel any twinge concerning Tree's feelings. The narrator comments, "And the tree was happy ... but not really" (Ibid., pp. 45-46, unnumbered). However, the tree is not unhappy because she has given her self away, as we might expect; rather she is unhappy because she has nothing left to give. When the boy finally appears as an old man, the tree says, "I wish that I could give you something, ... but I have nothing left. I am just an old stump. I am sorry ..." (Ibid., p. 48, unnumbered). The tree apologizes for not being able to provide any more for the "boy." The final ironic twist is that the boy, now an old man wants nothing more than a place to rest. The stump complies, and the reader is told, on the last page of the story, "And the tree was happy" (Silverstein, 1965, p. 51, unnumbered).

In contrast, the female character in Mountain behaves quite differently. When the mountain asks her to stay, she says, "Birds are living things.... We must have food and water. Nothing grows here for me to eat; there are no streams from which I could drink" (McLerran, 1985, p. 3 unnumbered). Though she would not sacrifice her own life or the lives of her children, she becomes committed to nurturing the development of the mountain. When asked to return, she agrees saying,

'Because no mountain has ever before cared whether I came or went, I will make you a promise. Every spring of my life, I will return to greet you, and fly above you, and sing to you. And since my life will not last forever, I will give to one of my daughters my own name, Joy, and tell her how to find you. And she will name a daughter Joy also, and tell her how to find you.'

(McLerran, 1985, p. 5, unnumbered)

For Joy, before she will commit to developing a relationship with Mountain, she must be assured that Mountain has the ability to reciprocate her feeling. Here too, the female character finds the solution to the other's problem. While maintaining her commitment, she does not sacrifice her selfhood or her progeny, as Tree apparently does.

The contrast between the two stories becomes even more apparent when one examines those in relationship with Tree and Joy. In Tree a small boy begins by playing with an apple tree's branches, eventually, as a grown man, taking everything from her except her stump. During each of the episodes of demand, the boy asks for and receives a gift and then leaves the tree for a number of years, only to have his demands escalate at odd intervals. There is no true reciprocation of the emotional commitment. Tree has given to the relationship. As Strandburg and Livo (1986) recognize, "Obviously the sexist stereotype that the woman's role is to be passive and giving is expressed by the interaction of the boy and the tree" (p. 21). Mary Daly (1978) recognizes the element of violence, commenting that the story "is one of female rape and dismemberment" (p. 90). To compound the horror, the female actively participates in her gradual destruction. She demonstrates no grief over her loss, only happiness at the male's pleasure. In Tree, the male literally absorbs the female with no thought to her selfhood. The relationship between the self (Boy) and the other (Tree) becomes one of almost complete destruction.

In Mountain the developing relationship between the two main characters is far richer. Most subtly, since the narrator never specifies the gender of Mountain, perhaps a unique but important quirk of the English language, the reader does not see Mountain as being either female or male. Since gender remains such an important feature of human beings, a level of uncertainty exists within the story. The reader becomes unable to neatly pigeonhole the relationship between Joy and Mountain.

Further, the developing relationship between Mountain and Joy is based On mutual reciprocation, a presence with each other rather than on unilateral sacrifice. Mountain asks only that the bird return, something the bird is capable of doing without losing her selfhood. Having opened itself to life, Mountain responds by generously sharing that new life with the beings on its surface. The narrator tells the reader,

Watching these living things find food and shelter on its slopes, the mountain suddenly felt a surge of hope. Opening its deepest heart to the roots of the trees, it offered them all of its strengths. The trees stretched their branches yet higher toward the sky, and hope ran like a song from the heart of the mountain into every tree leaf.

(McLerran, 1985, p. 17, unnumbered)

With the knowledge of life on its surface, Mountain hopes fervently for Joy's remaining. The reader is rewarded in their last interchange to learn, "Straight to the tallest tree on the mountain she flew, to the tree that had grown from the very first seed. She placed the twig on the branch in which she would build her nest. 'I am joy,' she sang, 'and I have come to stay"' (McLerran, 1985, p. 19, unnumbered). The relationship between Mountain and the other, Joy, becomes one of creation.

Undoubtedly, creation is the rhetorical focus of this work. From the mutual recognition of other develops not only an environment capable of fostering life, but the emergence of Mountain's self. On the very first page of the story, the narrator tells the reader, "The sun warmed the mountain and the wind chilled it, hut the only touch the mountain knew was the touch of rain or snow. There was nothing more to feel" (McLerran, 1985, p. 1, unnumbered). After generations of visits by Joy's progeny, Mountain felt hope and love and commitment to another. Mountain's selfhood literally develops through the relationship with generations of Joys.

As we have seen, there exist marked differences in the ways that the main characters relate in these stories as they define

themselves and recognize others. In The Giving Tree, Tree sacrifices her self continually. Through her sacrifice her recognition of other consumes her. Tree's selfhood dwindles to almost nothing for the temporary happiness of a never-satisfied Boy. Ultimately she has little left to give. Her gift is her own destruction. In Mountain, Joy gives of herself as she continually nurtures. Her recognition of other becomes the life source for the selfhood of both of them. Ultimately Joy's gift expands beyond herself and Mountain to a larger world. Her gift is creation.

There can be little doubt that literature alters both the way children see their world and their behaviors towards others within that world. Both The Giving Tree and The Mountain That Loved a Bird urge children to specific attitudes and actions both in their definition of self and in their search for other, and in the development of the relationship between the two. In Tree, the story may persuade the female reader to a life of sacrifice and persuade the male reader to expect such sacrifice. Alternately, in Mountain, the story may persuade readers of both genders that through freely giving of one's self and honestly recognizing others anything is possible.

Literature helps determine the parameters for choices children eventually make in their definition of self, their recognition of other, and the nature of their relationships. While to attribute motives for the selection of literature is difficult, there is a possibility that some adults may choose The Giving Tree, however unconscious]y, because it teaches girls to give of themselves selflessly and teaches boys to expect such gifts. Certainly, The Mountain That Loved a Bird provides an alternate view by demonstrating the power of mutuality in relationships. As adults we must accept responsibility for the choices we make in the books shared with children since ultimately our choices tell us both something about the rhetoric of relationships.


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MARY ELIZABETH BEZANSON is Assistant Professor of Speech Communication at the University of Minnesota, Morris. DEBORAH L. NORLAND is Assistant Professor of Education at Luther College, Deborah, Iowa.

Copyright 1995, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly (WILLA) of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is granted to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.

Reference Citation: Bezanson, Mary Elizabeth, and Deborah L. Norland. (1992). The definition of self, the recognition of other in two children's stories. WILLA, Volume I, 28-30+.

by Radiya Rashid