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Shel Silverstein

By Sarah Amick, CRRL Intern

Shel Silverstein was a unique writer with many artistic talents. While generally best known for his poetry and literature for children, he was also a cartoonist, composer, lyricist, and folksinger. He was born Sheldon Allan Silverstein on September 25, 1930, in Chicago, Illinois. In the preface to her book entitled Shel Silverstein, Ruth K. MacDonald writes, "Shel Silverstein is admittedly not a great technical poet; he will not be remembered for the advances he has made in the rhyme, meter, diction, or form of his poetry, which children have come to love so much. What he has accomplished is bringing poetry-- perhaps more accurately described as light verse-- to children who would otherwise avoid it." I believe that Silverstein had made a huge impact on children's literature, and his poetry has undoubtedly influenced children of all ages.

Silverstein was unfamiliar with the great poetry of his time but had a desire to write at a young age. He developed his writing style and skills as a boy. He served with the U.S. military forces in Japan and Korea during the 1950s, where he also worked as a cartoonist for the military newspaper, the Pacific Stars and Stripes. After his military service, Silverstein became a cartoonist for a magazine. He expressed his musical talents in many ways, including Johnny Cash's hit song, "A Boy Named Sue," which Silverstein wrote, along with other folksongs. The Irish Rovers recorded his poem, "The Unicorn Song," and Silverstein composed music for the movies, Ned Kelly (1970), Who is Harry Kellerman and Why is He Saying Such Terrible Things About Me? (1971), and Thieves (1977). He also co-wrote the screenplay for the film, Things Change (1988).

Silverstein began his career as a children's author in 1963 with the publication of his first book, Uncle Shelby's Story of Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back. He said that he had never planned to write or draw for kids. It was his friend, Tomi Ungerer, who insisted that he consider this career path by taking him to editor Ursula Nordstrom's office. There she convinced him that he could do children's books. His extremely successful book, The Giving Tree, was also published in 1963. This book impressed both children and adults in classrooms and churches, and it brought Silverstein his first widespread fame. He wanted to reach out to as many people as possible with his writing, and he hoped that people of all ages would be able to identify with his books. Some of his other popular books are The Missing Piece (1976), and The Missing Piece Meets the Big O (1981).

He continued publishing successful children's books, along with his extremely popular children's poetry collections, many of which also contain his own illustrations. His first collection of poems, Where the Sidewalk Ends, was published in 1974. A Light in the Attic followed it in 1981. Both books were on the New York Times Bestseller List for extended periods of time, and they continue to be popular today among children and adults. He published a third collection of poems called Falling Up in 1996. Silverstein died of a heart attack on May 10, 1999, in Key West, Florida.

Throughout my childhood, Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic were among my very favorite books to read. I remember when my neighbor, who was a couple years older than I, introduced me to these poems, and we read and laughed over them together. Today, I still appreciate the humor, originality, cleverness, and just plain enjoyableness of Silverstein's writing. Some of my favorite poems include "Early Bird" and "Sick" from Where the Sidewalk Ends.

In the Library

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Books by Shel Silverstein:

Falling Up: Poems and Drawings

The Giving Tree

A Light in the Attic

The Missing Piece

The Missing Piece Meets the Big O

Runny Babbit: A Billy Sook

Uncle Shelby's A Giraffe and a Half

Uncle Shelby's Story of Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back

Where the Sidewalk Ends

Who Wants a Cheap Rhinoceros?

Biographical information and critical literary articles on Silverstein and his works are accessible through the library's online database, Literature Resource Center.

On the Web

Academy of American Poets, Poetry Exhibits: Shel Silverstein
The site includes a brief biography in recognition of this modern American poet. The Official Site for Kids
The official site has fun stuff for kids, ecards, biographical information, and ideas for teachers and parents.