Well known as a cartoonist for Playboy and other magazines, Silverstein has become one of the most popular American authors of children’s books—an achievement that he claimed never to have sought. His most successful books were eccentric collections of light verse, such as Where the Sidewalk Ends: The Poems and Drawings of Shel Silverstein (1974) and A Light in the Attic: Poems and Drawings (1981). Although the first of these books has frequently been used in middle-grade classrooms, both books were pulled from the shelves of Minot, South Dakota, public school libraries in 1986 by an assistant superintendent who objected to their “suggestive illustrations.” Three years later, students in Duval County, Florida, public schools were required to obtain their parents’ permission to borrow A Light in the Attic from school libraries—because the book contains a cartoon of a person whose bare buttock has been stung by a bee.
Also in 1989, Where the Sidewalk Ends was removed from library shelves in Riverdale, Illinois, public schools because its poem “Dreadful” was accused of being in bad taste. “Dreadful” was challenged again four years later at a Pennsylvania school district for suggesting that “someone ate the baby.” A mother’s complaint about allusions to suicide in A Light in the Attic’s “Little Abigail and the Beautiful Pony” led to that book’s being banned from second-grade classes in Huffman, Texas. Both of these volumes of verse were challenged at various school libraries for encouraging rebelliousness.
In 1988 Silverstein’s parable The Giving Tree (1964) was locked away in 1988 by a Boulder, Colorado, public librarian who considered it sexist because it glorified female selflessness.
Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry: American Poets)
The son of Nathan Silverstein and Helen Silverstein, Sheldon Alan Silverstein grew up with a sister, Peggy, in Chicago. Lacking in the usual social skills—academic excellence, athletic prowess, or the ability to dance—he was a loner at Roosevelt High School, where he began to draw and write, and independently developed his own unique style. After graduation, he briefly attended the University of Illinois and the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts before enrolling at the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University. Drafted into the U.S. Army in 1953, Silverstein served overseas in Japan and Korea, where he learned to play guitar, write songs, and sing, and where he was employed drawing cartoons for the military publication Pacific Stars and Stripes. After leaving the service in the mid-1950’s, he returned to Chicago, where he contributed cartoons to Look, Sports Illustrated, and other periodicals, especially Playboy magazine, where his work appeared frequently for more than forty years.
In the late 1950’s, Silverstein began writing, playing, and recording music. His first album, Hairy Jazz (1959), included several original songs and his interpretations of jazz standards. He followed up with several additional albums of original music, and his novelty songs—including “The Unicorn,” “Boa Constrictor,” and “Yes, Mr. Rogers”—were covered by such artists as the Irish Rovers, Dr. Hook,...
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