A Light in the Attic Critical Essays

Shel Silverstein


(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

Silverstein never underestimates his readers. He knows that young people think as much as anyone about serious issues such as death, watching too much television, and growing old, and he addresses these topics and his readers forthrightly. Yet, given a choice, Silverstein prefers poking fun to pontificating. While he refuses to talk down to juvenile readers, he retains a childlike appreciation of the absurdity of life, whether that absurdity be exhilaratingly nonsensical or startlingly bleak.

He also knows how to have fun with words. His poem “Nobody” plays with the possible meanings when a negative term becomes a subject, while “Poemsicle” is a study in perseverance using “sicle” as a suffix. The universally beloved “The Meehoo with an Exactlywatt” is a takeoff on Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” comedy routine. “Ations” is an eighteen-line poem containing nine lines with final words ending in the suffix “-ation.” “Anteater” puns to create an “aunt eater,” and “Wild Strawberries” ponders the best way to tame an intractable berry.

Silverstein appreciates the satisfaction derived from a good comeuppance, as in “Ladies First,” a poem about Pamela Purse who insisted on being first, right up to the moment that she met the cannibal Fry-’Em-Up Dan. “Fancy Dive” describes Melissa of Coconut Grove, who did “thirty-four jackknives, backflipped and spun,/ quadruple gainered, and reached for the sun,/ And then somersaulted nine times and a quarter—/ and looked down and saw that the pool had no water.” If “Fancy Dive” touches the edge of grimness, “Who Ordered the Broiled Face” is downright and delightfully gruesome. “Overdues” describes an obsession with a library book that is forty-two years overdue. “Ticklish Tom” was tickled so much that he rolled out of school, through the town, into the country, and onto a railroad track; now “Tom ain’t ticklish anymore.” There is the “Strange Wind” that blew so...

(The entire section is 819 words.)