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Shel Silverstein, best known for his books of children’s poetry that also contain his idiosyncratic illustrations, spread his creative energies in surprisingly diverse directions. In addition to his work for youngsters, he composed songs recorded by famous people, wrote well-received plays for adults and collaborated with major figures of the American stage, and drew cartoons for decidedly adult publications. Such diversity makes Silverstein hard to pigeonhole.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Cartooning for Children, and for Grown-ups, Too
Born in Chicago on September 25,1932, Silverstein began his long and diverse career in the arts as a cartoonist for the Pacific edition of the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. Silverstein, a child of the Great Depression, came of age during the morally unambiguous days of World War ii, when young men willingly volunteered to fight in Europe, North Africa, and Asia against the Axis Powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan. in his own early adulthood, Silverstein joined the U.S. military, and was stationed in Japan and Korea. After leaving the military, Silverstein became a cartoonist for the men’s magazine Playboy in 1956.
Silverstein’s career as a children’s author began in 1963, with the publication of Uncle Shelby’s Story of Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back, a tale about a lion who acquires a hunter’s gun and practices until he is good enough to join the circus. Silverstein later confessed that he had never intended to write or draw for children, until a friend convinced him that he should. Although Lafcadio and its follow-up, Uncle Shelby’s Giraffe and a Half (1964), met with moderate success, it was not until the publication of The Giving Tree (1964) that Silverstein first achieved widespread fame as a children’s writer. The story of a tree that sacrifices its shade, fruit, branches, and finally its trunk to a little boy in order to make him happy, The Giving Tree experienced slow sales at first, but its readership steadily grew. In fact, it found a broader audience; the tree seemed to many readers to embody an altruistic, spiritual ideal, and the book was cited in religious services and Sunday schools.
In the early 1970s, Silverstein began to develop the style he is best remembered for: his self-illustrated children’s poetry. In 1974 he published the best-selling collection of poems titled Where the Sidewalk Ends. The book earned him favorable comparisons to Dr. Seuss and Edward Lear. The poems in Where the Sidewalk Ends can be witty, humorous, and profound, and they often conceal, in the guise of silliness and whimsicality, important observations about childhood fantasies and realities. This is especially true in such poems as ”Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out” and ”The Gypsies Are Coming.” The collection and its 1981 successor, A Light in the Attic, continue to be popular with both children and adults.
Developing Other Passions
Beginning in 1981, Silverstein embarked on yet another aspect of his creative career by writing plays for adults. One of his best-known works in this form, The Lady or the Tiger Show (1981), has been performed on its own and with other one-act works collectively entitled Wild Life. Updating a short story by American novelist and fiction writer Frank Stockton, The Lady or the Tiger Show features a game-show producer willing to go to extreme lengths to achieve high ratings. Placed in a life-or-death situation, the contestant on the show is forced to choose between two doors. Behind one door lies a ferocious tiger, while the girl of his dreams is concealed behind the other; the result is a satire of show business and media hype.
The 1980s also saw a number of collaborations with one of the American theater’s most respected figures: David Mamet, the playwright, scriptwriter, director, and novelist. Mamet, whose work is characterized by complicated plots and fast-talking, foulmouthed characters, would not seem to be a natural partner for the kid-friendly Silverstein, but their collaboration proved fruitful. The two cowrote the screenplay for Mamet’s 1988 film Things Change, which starred Joe Mantegna and Don Ameche, and two of Silver-stein and Mamet’s plays, The Devil and Billy Markham and Bobby Gould in Hell (1989), have been published and produced together under the collective title Oh, Hell. Performed as a monologue, Silverstein’s The Devil and Billy Markham relates a series of bets made between Satan and a Nashville songwriter and singer. The play allowed Silver-stein to integrate theater with yet another of his creative pursuits: music. Over the years, Silverstein had been a working songwriter, composing music and penning lyrics for many of Country and pop music’s famous names. For example, he wrote the Grammy-winning ”A Boy Named Sue” (1969), which has since become one of the legendary Johnny Cash’s most popular recordings.
With Falling Up (1996), Silverstein returned after a fifteen-year break to poetry—which, like his earlier work, was ostensibly for children but which contained much to appeal to adults. This collection of 140 poems and drawings ranges in subject matter ”from tattoos to sun hats to God to—no kidding—a garden of noses,” wrote Susan Stark in the Detroit News.
Though Silverstein refused to grant interviews later in life, his successes in multiple genres served him well: he maintained homes on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, in Key West, Florida, and in Sausalito, California. On May 10, 1999, Silverstein suffered a heart attack and was later found dead, in his Key West home. He had two children: Shoshanna, born in 1970, who died of a cerebral aneurysm at the age of eleven, and Matthew, born in 1983.
Works in Literary Context
The genre for which Silver-stein is mostly remembered, children’s poetry, has its origins in the mid-nineteenth century, when the concept of childhood as a special time devoted to growth, imagination, and learning took hold. No longer seeing children as miniature adults, British and American culture began to recognize a potential market for literature that would appeal directly to the imaginations of children. The boundary between popular literature and literature meant specifically for children was at first blurred. For example, Charles Dickens’s Christmas Books—most notably A Christmas Carol (1843)—were not directly marketed for children, but are now primarily placed in that genre. But with Lewis Carroll’s works of fantasy, especially his Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), and with the nonsense poetry of Edward Lear, a new age of inventive children’s literature was born. Carroll and Lear’s direct descendants in delightfully silly literature include Dr. Seuss and Roald Dahl. Though Shel Silverstein’s illustrated poems have not spawned the immense sales accorded Dr. Seuss, they too have found a permanent place in the library of childhood classics.
Works in Critical Context
The Giving Tree
Although chiefly known as a poet, Silverstein’s most popular work has proven to be his illustrated prose book The Giving Tree. Beloved by millions of readers for its simple tale of unconditional love, the work has also been criticized by those searching for other, deeper meanings. William Cole, writing for The New York Times Book Review, concedes that the book ”touches a sensitive point clearly and swiftly,” but offers a more skeptical view of the message: ”My interpretation is that that was one dumdum of a tree, giving everything and getting nothing in return.” Jean Marie Heisberger and Pat McLaughlin, in a review for New Catholic World, also point out that the tree ”seems to be rewarding … selfishness in a kind of masochistic way.” Barbara A. Schram, writing in Interracial Books for Children, finds an even more ominous message: by categorizing the tree as ”she,” Schram argues, ”it is clear that the author did indeed have a prototypical master/slave relationship in mind.”
The Missing Piece
In 1976 Silverstein published The Missing Piece, which, in common with The Giving Tree, has been the subject of varying interpretations. This volume chronicles the adventures of a circle who, lacking a piece of itself, goes along singing and searching for its missing part. But after the circle finds a wedge, he decides he was happier searching without the missing wedge than he is with it. As Anne Roiphe explains in The New York Times Book Review, The Missing Piece can be read in the same way as
the fellow at the singles bar explaining why life is better if you don’t commit yourself to anyone for too long—the line goes that too much togetherness turns people into bores—that creativity is preserved by freedom to explore from one relationship to another. . . . This fable can also be interpreted to mean that no one should try to find all the answers, no one should hope to fill all the holes in themselves, achieve total transcendental harmony or psychic order because a person without a search, loose ends, internal conflicts and external goals becomes too smooth to enjoy or know what’s going on. Too much satisfaction blocks exchange with the outside.
- MacDonald, Ruth K. Shel Silverstein. New York: Twayne, 1997.
- Rogak, Lisa. A Boy Named Shel: The Life & Times of Shel Silverstein. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2007.
- Cole, William. ”About Alice, a Rabbit, a Tree …” The New York Times Book Review (September 9,1973): 8.
- Heisberger, Jean Marie and Pat McLaughlin. Review of The Giving Tree. New Catholic World vol. 222, no. 1328 (March-April 1979): 92.
- Honan, William H. ”Shel Silverstein, Zany Writer and Cartoonist, Dies at 67.” The New York Times (May 11, 1999).
- MacDonald, Ruth K. ”The Weirdness of Shel Silverstein.” Studies in American Humor (Winter 1986-1987).
- Mercier, Jean F. ”Shel Silverstein.” Publishers Weekly (February 24, 1975).
- Review of A Light in the Attic. Publishers Weekly (September 18, 1981).
- Review of Falling Up. Publishers Weekly (April 29,1996).
- Roiphe, Anne. Review of The Missing Piece. The New York Times Book Review (May 2, 1976).
- Schram, Barbara A. ”Misgivings about ‘The Giving Tree.”’ Interracial Books for Children vol. 5, no. 5 (1974): 1, 8.
- Stark, Susan. Review of Falling Up. Detroit News (May 1, 1996).
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