Shel Silverstein Essay - Silverstein, Shel

Silverstein, Shel


Shel Silverstein 1932-1999

(Full name Sheldon Silverstein) American poet, illustrator, playwright, screenwriter, songwriter, and author of children's books.

The following entry presents criticism of Silverstein's life and career from 1981 through 2001.

Shel Silverstein was perhaps the most widely popular children's book author of the twentieth century. Critic Megan Rosenfeld has aptly dubbed him the “poet laureate of kids.” Silverstein's verse story The Giving Tree (1964), as well as his volumes of poetry for children, Where the Sidewalk Ends (1974), A Light in the Attic (1981), and Falling Up (1996), have been longtime bestsellers, translated into numerous languages, and internationally celebrated. Silverstein's verse and illustrations in his books for children are celebrated for their whimsical sense of humor, satire, and absurdity. Although sometimes compared to Dr. Seuss, Silverstein's poetry for children has a more rebellious edge, often promoting iconoclasm and anti-establishment antics, and frequently ridiculing the rules of conduct put forth by adults. Nonetheless, Silverstein's message to children often has strong moral implications. The Giving Tree, for example, is a story of self-sacrifice and selfless devotion that has been interpreted as a Christian parable. Most of Silverstein's stories and poems for children eschew the preachiness and didactic moralizing that often characterizes children's books. Silverstein is also known for his adult humor, such as his many cartoons published in Playboy magazine.

Biographical Information

Silverstein was born on September 25, 1932, in Chicago, Illinois. Throughout his career, Silverstein remained a very private person, giving few interviews and revealing little about his childhood and personal life. Silverstein served in the military during the Korean War, where he was stationed in Tokyo as a cartoonist for the military newspaper Pacific Stars and Stripes. His long and varied career as a writer and illustrator, spanning nearly half a century, includes cartoons, children's books, adult humor, song lyrics, musical compositions, one-act plays, and a screenplay. From 1956 until 1982, he was a contributing humor writer and cartoonist for Playboy magazine. Silverstein's cartoons have also been published in numerous mainstream magazines, such as Time. His first children's book, Uncle Shelby's Story of Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back, was published in 1963. Silverstein first gained widespread recognition as a children's book author with the publication of The Giving Tree, a storybook in verse. His reputation as a major children's author was furthered by several subsequent volumes, including Where the Sidewalk Ends, A Light in the Attic, and Falling Up. A number of Silverstein's poems originally published in Playboy were included in these volumes for children. Silverstein was a contributor to the volume Free to Be … You and Me, an anthology of poetry, stories, and song lyrics for children that emphasized individual self-expression, gender equality, and diversity. He recorded several albums in which his poetry for children is recited or set to music. Among these sound recordings are The Giving Tree and Other Shel Silverstein Songs (1992), sung by Cowboy Steff, as well as Where the Sidewalk Ends (1985), and A Light in the Attic (1986), featuring poetry “recited, sung and shouted” by Silverstein.

As a song lyricist, Silverstein helped to launch the career of the band Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show. He composed many of the band's most popular songs, including “Cover of the Rolling Stone,” “Sylvia's Mother,” and “Sing Me a Rainbow.” He also composed popular songs performed by Johnny Cash, such as the well-known “A Boy Named Sue.” The Irish Rovers recorded his song “The Ballad of the Unicorn.” Other recording artists who have performed songs by Silverstein include Alan Sherman, country-and-western singer Loretta Lynn, and the folk music group Peter, Paul, and Mary.

Silverstein's output of dramatic one-act verse plays for adults includes The Lady or the Tiger Show (1981) and The Devil and Billy Markham, which was produced in 1989 as a double-bill with David Mamet's one-act play Bobby Gould in Hell, and collectively published as Oh, Hell: Two One-Act Plays (1991). Silverstein authored one screenplay, Things Change (1988), a comedic gangster film co-written with David Mamet.

Silverstein's many literary awards include the 1974 New York Times Outstanding Book Award for The Giving Tree, the 1981 School Library Journal Best Books Award for A Light in the Attic, and the 1982 International Reading Association's Children's Choice Award for The Missing Piece Meets the Big O. He died of a heart attack on May 8, 1999, in his Key West, Florida home.

Major Works

The Giving Tree, an illustrated storybook in verse, concerns the relationship between a boy and an apple tree. As the story develops, the tree selflessly gives the boy everything he asks for—first its fruit, then its branches, and finally, its dead stump. During the course of the story, the boy ages, becomes a man, and grows old. The Missing Piece and its sequel The Missing Piece Meets the Big O are illustrated children's stories in verse. In The Missing Piece, a circle goes in search of a section of itself that is missing. Once it finds its missing wedge, however, the circle decides that the search was more fun than actually finding what it was searching for. The Missing Piece Meets the Big O retells the story from the perspective of the missing piece. Where the Sidewalk Ends, A Light in the Attic, and Falling Up, Silverstein's volumes of collected verse for children, include poems of varying length, with simple rhyme schemes. These humorous poems encompass reversals of common sense or common knowledge, childhood schemes for getting out of chores, satirical commentary on adult rules and attitudes, scatological bathroom humor, and much pure silliness. In the title poem of Falling Up, the speaker relates that he tripped on his shoelace and “fell up” into the sky, whereupon he got sick to his stomach and “threw down.” The title of Where the Sidewalk Ends refers to the poem “The Edge of the World,” in which the narrator discovers that the world is indeed flat, no matter what the teachers say. In “How Not to Have to Dry the Dishes,” the narrator suggests that if you drop a dish and break it, you will not be allowed to wash the dishes any more. “Sara Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out” addresses a similar theme of avoiding household chores. The child speaker in “Kidnapped!” explains to the teacher that he is late for school because he was kidnapped. In “Little Abigail and the Beautiful Pony” a girl dies because her parents refuse to buy her a pony; her parents live to regret not giving her what she wanted. Childhood fantasies of reversing parent-child power dynamics are expressed in such poems as “Remote-a-Dad,” in which a child is able to control his father with a remote control device. In “Clarence,” a child responds to a television advertisement for purchasing a new set of parents by mail-order; he then sells his old set of parents in a garage sale. Silverstein's poems often depict eccentric characters, such as “Melinda Mae,” who decides as a child that she is going to eat an entire whale—a goal she spends eighty-nine years fulfilling. “The Bagpipe Who Didn't Say No” is the tale of a turtle who falls hopelessly in love with a bagpipe. Silverstein's penchant for pure silliness encompasses childish fascination with bodies and bodily functions. “Warning” cautions the reader that picking one's nose may be hazardous because a vicious snail residing in the nostril can bite off one's finger. In “They've Put a Brassiere on the Camel” the two humps on a camel's back are deemed indecent and are covered up with a giant brassiere. In “Hat” a child wears a toilet plunger on his head as a hat.

Other Silverstein poems for children express more sincere sentiments, as well as strong moral messages, though usually couched in silly terms. The dialogue poem “The Little Boy and the Old Man” features a little boy and an old man who discover that they have a lot in common, such as the tendency to drop things, to cry, and to wet their pants. Silverstein's moral messages tend toward the liberal, such as the anti-war message of “The Generals,” in which two generals agree that war is silly, pointless, and boring—but continue nonetheless to fight until both are dead. “Hug O' War” promotes interpersonal affection as an alternative to violent warfare. “No Difference” and “Colors” convey a message of interracial harmony.

Among Silverstein's many one-act verse plays, perhaps the best known is The Lady or the Tiger Show. Based on a short story by Frank Stockton, The Lady or the Tiger Show concerns a television game show in which the contestant must choose one of two doors; behind one door is a ferocious tiger, and behind the other is a beautiful woman. The one-act play The Devil and Billy Markham has been described as a verse monologue or extended country-and-Western song. Billy Markham is confronted by the Devil, who has interrupted a fishing trip to interrogate Billy on his past sins. A woman he once spurned is brought onto the scene to testify about Billy's terrible treatment of her.

Critical Reception

Critics generally agree that the greatest strength of Silverstein's poetry for children lies in his effective use of humor. Commentators also note that the appeal of Silverstein's verse for children is partly due to his simple, regular rhyming schemes. Silverstein's verse has been praised for its speech-like qualities, lending itself to oral recitation and musical accompaniment. These qualities render Silverstein's poetry accessible and easy-to-read for children. Many critics have noted, however, that Silverstein is by no means a skilled or inventive technician, in terms of meter and rhyme.

The Giving Tree has been widely regarded as a parable celebrating selfless generosity on the part of the tree. The book has been interpreted as a Christian parable and has attained a degree of popularity in Sunday school classes as well as Christian sermons. Others have interpreted The Giving Tree as an allegory for man's exploitative relationship to nature. Some feminist critics, however, have faulted the book as a sexist parable in which the feminine tree sacrifices life and limb to meet the demands of a selfish, ungrateful male. Ellen Handler Spitz, for example, offered a harsh critique of the gender dynamics implicit in The Giving Tree. Spitz asserted that the book “presents as a paradigm for young children a callously exploitative human relationship”; Spitz continued, “It perpetuates the myth of the selfless, all-giving mother who exists only to be used and the image of a male child who can offer no reciprocity, express no gratitude, feel no empathy—an insatiable creature who encounters no limits for his demands.”

At large, Silverstein's anthologies of poetry for children have been widely well-received by children and critics alike. Silverstein's poetry for children represents a landmark in the history of children's literature, introducing a tone of cynicism previously deemed unsuitable in poetry for young minds. His irreverent, iconoclastic, anti-establishment sense of humor was also groundbreaking in the realm of children's literature. Commentators have observed that the edgy, cynical tone of much of his poetry for children speaks frankly to the confusion, instability, and loneliness experienced by many children in the late-twentieth century. Ruth K. MacDonald asserted, “As a truth teller about childhood's conditions in the late twentieth century, Silverstein has found acceptance among his dual audiences, both adult and youthful.” Critics further praised Silverstein for his use of voice, which avoids the didactic, patronizing tone of much poetry for children; he in fact often mocks or satirizes the preachy tone employed by adults in addressing children. Many critics have also noted that Silverstein's poetry does contain positive messages for children, encouraging them to be imaginative, exploratory, self-actualizing, and skeptical of adult perspectives. His messages promoting peace over violence and diversity over prejudice have been constantly applauded.

Principal Works

Uncle Shelby's Story of Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back 1963

The Giving Tree 1964

Where the Sidewalk Ends: The Poems and Drawings of Shel Silverstein 1974

The Missing Piece 1976

A Light in the Attic 1981

The Missing Piece Meets the Big O 1981

The Giving Tree and Other Shel Silverstein Songs 1992

Falling Up: Poetry and Drawings 1996

The Lady or the Tiger Show [from the short story by Frank Stockton] (play) 1981

Gorilla (play) 1983

Things Change: A Screenplay [with...

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Anne Collins (review date 22 June 1981)

SOURCE: Collins, Anne. “The Lessons of Fearful Geometry.” Macleans 94 (22 June 1981): 51.

[In the following review of Silverstein's book The Missing Piece Meets the Big O, Collins comments on the moral message of the story.]

This [The Missing Piece Meets the Big O] is a funny, ephemeral little picture book, a bit like a 60-second National Film Board short caught on paper. Shel Silverstein has a great talent for anthropomorphizing basic geometric shapes. One thick black wavery line runs through the whole book and out of it grows the saddest triangle (“The missing piece sat alone waiting for someone to come along and take it somewhere”) and a bunch...

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Publishers Weekly (review date 18 September 1981)

SOURCE: Review of A Light in the Attic, by Shel Silverstein. Publishers Weekly 220 (18 September 1981): 155.

[In the following review, the reviewer praises A Light in the Attic as a treasure for fans of Silverstein's poetry.]

It seems certain that the new book by the inimitable author-illustrator will be as eagerly welcomed as The Giving Tree and his other bestsellers. This [A Light in the Attic] is a big, fat treasure for Silverstein devotees, with trenchant verses expressing high-flown, exhilarating nonsense as well as thoughts unexpectedly sober and even sad. For instance, the dialogue between a very old man and a small boy reveals that...

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Variety (essay date 22 June 1983)

SOURCE: “Three New Plays.” Variety 311 (22 June 1983): 93, 96.

[In the following review of Silverstein's one-act play “Gorilla,” the reviewer praises the work as a “savagely wry tragicomedy.”]

Every playwright seems to have an eccentric one-acter that expresses his real personality and reveals his mind and heart. Among the three works here, “The Disappearance of the Jews,” by David Mamet; “Hot Line,” by Elaine May, and “Gorilla,” by Shel Silverstein, it is the latter, an author of books, songs and cartoons for children, who has the most finished of the playlets.

Silverstein's “Gorilla,” a savagely wry tragicomedy, concerns...

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Nancy Larrick (essay date October 1986)

SOURCE: Larrick, Nancy. “From Tennyson to Silverstein: Poetry for Children, 1910-1985.” Language Arts 63, no. 6 (October 1986): 594-600.

[In the following essay, Larrick asserts that Silverstein's volumes A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends marked a new era in poetry written for children.]

Birthdays often suggest a look backward to beginnings. On the occasion of the seventy-fifth birthday of NCTE, I decided to look back to children's poetry of the year 1910. What was it like then and how did today's poetry for children emerge?

The contrasts in poetry are startling, but so are the contrasts in the times. Telephones were a...

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Ruth K. MacDonald (essay date 1986-1987)

SOURCE: MacDonald, Ruth K. “The Weirdness of Shel Silverstein.” Studies in American Humor 5, no. 4 (1986-1987): 267-79.

[In the following essay, MacDonald discusses the commercial and popular success of Silverstein's books of poetry for children. ]

Poetry for children has long been one of the great unexplored areas in children's literature. Few reputations, either by poets or by critics, have been built on it, since most acclaim and notice goes to novels. What criticism exists derives from the “beauties” school—pointing out the beauties, the excellences of this poet, that line. The reasons for this neglect are two-fold: the American population's general...

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Melanie Kirkpatrick (review date 12 December 1989)

SOURCE: Kirkpatrick, Melanie. “Hellish Evening at Lincoln Center.” Wall Street Journal (12 December 1989): A18.

[In the following review of the theatrical double-bill Oh, Hell, Kirkpatrick describes Silverstein's one-act play The Devil and Billy Markham as a witty one-man show in verse, performed as an extended country and western song.]

A flier Lincoln Center Theater recently sent out to its members included a note saying that Sen. Jesse Helms would not approve of Oh, Hell, the new double bill now playing at the Mitzi E. Newhouse. I don't know if this was meant as a come-on or deterrent, but I bet they're right. With its frequent obscenities,...

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Variety (essay date 13 December 1989)

SOURCE: “A Review of Oh, Hell, written by Shel Silverstein and David Mamet.” Variety 337, no. 10 (13 December 1989): 89.

[In the following review of the theatrical double-bill Oh, Hell, the reviewer criticizes Silverstein's one-act play The Devil and Billy Markham as silly, tedious, underdeveloped, and juvenile.]

s Hell isn't much fun in Oh, Hell, the double bill that opens the Lincoln Center Theater's season at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater. David Mamet's contribution is intermittently amusing but below par for him, and the Shel Silverstein opus is silly and tedious.

The Silverstein piece, The Devil And Billy...

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Mimi Kramer (review date 25 December 1989)

SOURCE: Kramer, Mimi. “Double or Nothing.” New Yorker 65 (25 December 1989): 77-8, 80.

[In the following review of the theatrical double-bill Oh, Hell, Kramer observes that both Silverstein's The Devil and Billy Markham and David Mamet's Bobby Gould in Hell explore man's moral nature through confrontations with the Devil.]

After more than thirty years spent living as a woman among men, I find that nothing men have to say (or feel they have to do) about women ever surprises me. Which is probably why I got such a kick out of the Shel Silverstein/David Mamet double bill at the Lincoln Center Theatre. Silverstein's The Devil and Billy...

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Robert Brustein (essay date 29 January 1990)

SOURCE: Brustein, Robert. “Jewish Metaphysics.” New Republic 202 (29 January 1990): 27-8.

[In the following essay, Brustein chronicles the themes of guilt and redemption in The Devil and Billy Markham and criticizes the play for lacking variation in both tone and verse.]

Lincoln Center Theater is currently engaged, upstairs and downstairs, with plays deriving from Jewish metaphysics, which is to say with devils, demons, and dybbuks. This represents more unity than we've yet seen from this normally eclectic (I hesitate to say expedient) institution. Paddy Chayefsky's The Tenth Man at the Vivian Beaumont is 30 years old, while the two one-act pieces by...

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Publishers Weekly (review date 16 November 1992)

SOURCE: Review of The Giving Tree and Other Shel Silverstein Songs, by Shel Silverstein, sung by Cowboy Steff. Publishers Weekly 239, no. 50 (16 November 1992): 25.

[In the following review of the album The Giving Tree and Other Shel Silverstein Songs, the reviewer praises the clever lyrics and bouncy music as appealing to children, and recommends the album for family music collections.]

Though a few of the songs [in The Giving Tree and Other Shel Silverstein Songs] may soon become tiresome for adults, these selections from longtime favorite Silverstein will provide young listeners with hours of toe tapping and singing along. There are such...

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Publishers Weekly (review date 29 April 1996)

SOURCE: Review of Falling Up, by Shel Silverstein. Publishers Weekly 243, no. 18 (29 April 1996): 73.

[In the following review, the reviewer recommends Silverstein's poetry volume Falling Up as an appealing book for children and comments on the clever, darkly subversive, anti-establishment humor of Silverstein's poetry.]

All the things that children loved about A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends can be found in abundance in this eclectic volume [Falling Up,] Silverstein's first book of poetry in 20 years. By turns cheeky and clever and often darkly subversive, the poems are vintage Silverstein, presented in a...

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Maj Asplund Carlsson (essay date spring-fall 1996)

SOURCE: Carlsson, Maj Asplund. “Readers' Experience of Textual Meaning: An Empirical Approach.” Reader: Essays in Reader-Oriented Theory, Criticism, and Pedagogy 35-36 (spring-fall 1996): 67-79.

[In the following essay, Carlsson applies reader-response criticism to a survey of readers' interpretations of two different stories: The Giving Tree, by Silverstein, and “The Law,” by Franz Kafka.]


Research on reader response has generally agreed upon the fact that interpretation of a literary text is neither universal nor idiosyncratic in its nature. The purpose of the reader's project of interpretation is not primarily to find the...

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Ruth K. MacDonald (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: MacDonald, Ruth K. “Poetry with the Electricity On.” In Shel Silverstein, pp. 77-107. New York: Twayne, 1997.

[In the following essay, MacDonald provides extensive discussion and analyses of the poems collected in Silverstein's A Light in the Attic.]

A Light in the Attic is far and away Shel Silverstein's best work for children, and the most daring. It was clearly designed as a book by itself and for itself rather than as a collection of pieces published elsewhere that were cut, pasted, tweaked, added to, and changed for book-length publication for youth readership, as was Sidewalk. The book's design speaks to Silverstein's focused effort and...

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Ruth K. MacDonald (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: MacDonald, Ruth K. “The Poet's Place.” In Shel Silverstein, pp. 116-32. New York: Twayne, 1997.

[In the following essay, MacDonald discusses Silverstein's status as an author of poetry for children and evaluates the poems collected in his volume Falling Up.]

Poetry has long been one of the great unexplored areas in children's literature. Few reputations, of either poets or critics, have been built on it, since most acclaim and notice goes to novels. What criticism exists for poetry derives in many cases from the “beauties” school of criticism—pointing out the poetry's beauties, such as a poet's or a line's excellence, without any particular...

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Bart Barnes (essay date 11 May 1999)

SOURCE: Barnes, Bart. “Author Shel Silverstein Dies; Wrote Children's Books, Songs.” Washington Post (11 May 1999): B5.

[In the following obituary, Barnes praises Silverstein as “one of the world's best-loved and widely read children's authors.”]

Shel Silverstein, 66, an author, artist, poet and songwriter who was best known for such bestselling children's books as A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends, was found dead May 10 at his home in Key West, Fla. His body was discovered by two cleaning women. A police spokeswoman said there was no evidence of drugs or weapons, and the cause of death was not immediately known.


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Megan Rosenfeld (essay date 11 May 1999)

SOURCE: Rosenfeld, Megan. “The Poet Laureate of Kids.” Washington Post (11 May 1999): C1, C7.

[In the following essay, Rosenfeld discusses the popularity of Silverstein's books among children.]

Capitol Hill Day School, where my daughter goes to school, held its annual Poetry Night a few weeks ago. The kids arrived lugging books of poems they wanted to read aloud—Edgar Allan Poe, Lewis Carroll. But there was one poet who popped up again and again, his popularity undimmed by time or repetition: Shel Silverstein.

Silverstein died yesterday at 66, of unknown causes and alone. It's hard to think of death in the same sentence as someone who wrote such...

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Publishers Weekly (essay date 17 May 1999)

SOURCE: “Shel Silverstein, 1932-1999.” Publishers Weekly 246, no. 20 (17 May 1999): 32.

[In the following obituary, Publishers Weekly provides a brief overview of Silverstein's career.]

Poet, songwriter, recording artist and cartoonist Shel Silverstein died of a heart attack on May 9. He was 66.

Born and raised in Chicago, Silverstein began his career as a writer and cartoonist for Playboy in the early 1950s. Prior to that, he was a cartoonist for the Pacific Stars and Stripes while in the Army in Japan and Korea.

Silverstein was the author of four bestselling children's books: The Giving Tree (1964),...

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Ellen Handler Spitz (essay date May/June 1999)

SOURCE: Spitz, Ellen Handler. “Classic Children's Book.” American Heritage 50, no. 3 (May/June 1999): 46.

[In the following essay, Spitz, the author of Inside Picture Books, criticizes Silverstein's popular storybook The Giving Tree as a sexist parable, while in the other half of the essay not printed here, she argues for a new reading of “The Story of Little Black Sambo” that pinpoints the “psychological brilliance” of the latter.]

Most Overrated Classic Children's Book: Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree, which has constantly been reprinted since 1964 and sells so well that its publisher has never even bothered to bring it out in...

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Charles Isherwood (essay date 29 October 2001)

SOURCE: Isherwood, Charles. “An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein.” Variety 384, no. 11 (29 October 2001): 35.

[In the following review of the theatrical production “An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein,” Isherwood criticizes the series of one-act plays as tiresome, dated, tasteless, feeble, and lacking in humor.]

According to the program of the Atlantic Theater Co.'s “An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein,” the late Silverstein, who died in 1999, wrote “hundreds” of short plays. Assuming the 10 collected in this omnibus are among the strongest, it's safe to say that Silverstein's dramatic output is not going to have the enduring appeal of his famous...

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Further Reading


Honan, William H. “Shel Silverstein, Zany Writer and Cartoonist, Dies at 67.” New York Times Biographical Service 30, no. 5 (May 1999): 766-767.

An obituary of Silverstein.

Jacobson, Mark. “Swinging.” New York Times Magazine (2 January 2000): 21.

An obituary of Silverstein.

Myers, Mitch. “Shel Silverstein, 1930-1999.” Rolling Stone, no. 815 (24 June 1999): 26.

An obituary of Silverstein.

Ward, S. Meet Shel Silverstein (2001): 24 p.

A brief biography of Silverstein, aimed at young readers....

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