Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 889
Whether creating cartoons for adults, composing songs, writing plays, or devising poems and accompanying illustrations for children, Shel Silverstein demonstrated keen observational skills, wicked, subversive wit, a fondness for wordplay, and an uncanny ability to make his audiences think about a wide range of subjects. Silverstein’s popular songs—such as “The Cover of the Rolling Stone,” “A Boy Named Sue,” “The Unicorn” and “Sylvia’s Mother”—will probably be heard for years to come. His award-winning poetry and drawings for children (which have been favorably compared to the works of Roald Dahl, Edward Lear, Dr. Seuss, and Maurice Sendak, among others) will undoubtedly be read, recited, and enjoyed as they engage the imagination of generations of youngsters and their parents.
Certainly, by classical standards—such as those established by Robert Louis Stevenson in A Child’s Garden of Verses (1895) or by A. A. Milne in When We Were Very Young (1924)—Silverstein’s poetry is flawed, bordering on doggerel. His rhyme schemes are often haphazard and irregular, and the poems do not always scan well. His verses are filled with slang, and the author has a tendency to drop the final g in gerunds in an effort to impart folksiness. Silverstein’s rhymes are sometimes forced; he employs slant rhyme with impunity. He sometimes deals with topics (like nose picking) that can make adults uncomfortable.
However, since children generally care little for poetic technicalities, the positive aspects of Silverstein’s poems greatly outweigh the negative. The poet is a natural storyteller with the ability to capture a complete thought or tell a full tale—containing a beginning, middle, and an end—with concision. The majority of his children’s verse is short, up to twelve lines, and stanzas frequently repeat a theme or reiterate a key concept so that the poems are easy and fun to memorize. It is not difficult to imagine young boys or girls and their parents breaking into laughter while reading the verses. Silverstein introduces memorable characters or creatures with peculiar-sounding names and distinctive traits that are used humorously as examples in imparting advice. Though the poems are typically silly or nonsensical, dealing alternately with real-life events or fantasies, they often have a humorous twist that gives them extra depth and substance. Best of all are Silverstein’s charming illustrations that complement his words and aid in a child’s learning process.
Where the Sidewalk Ends
Published in 1974, excerpts of Where the Sidewalk Ends were released on audiocassette in 1983 (with the poet reciting, singing, and performing the selections). This album won a Grammy Award for best children’s recording. A twenty-fifth anniversary compact disc of this recording, supplemented by some new material, was released in 2000, illustrating the timeless popularity of the work, which originally won an American Library Association Notable Children’s Book Award, a New York Times Outstanding Book of the Year Award, and other honors. In addition to the evocative title poem, Where the Sidewalk Ends contains more than 120 poems, among them such perennial children’s illustrated favorites as “Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me Too,” “It’s Dark in Here” (in which the narrator is writing from inside a lion), “Boa Constrictor” (the narrator is being slowly swallowed by the snake), “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out,” “The Unicorn” (which explains why there are none of the mythical creatures around today), “The Bagpipe Who Didn’t Say No” (the object of affection for a turtle), and the delightfully preposterous “Recipe for a Hippopotamus Sandwich.”
A Light in the Attic
Silverstein’s first new collection of children’s poems and drawings after a long hiatus, the multiple award-winner A Light in the Attic, proved he had not lost his touch during the layoff. Once again, the author dealt in whimsical fashion with a wide range of topics of interest to the young. Included are pieces concerning real (“Bear in There”) and mythical (“The Dragon of Grindly Grun”) beasts, rhyming stories of strange characters (“Backward Bill,” “Twistable, Turnable Man,” “Cloony the Clown”), wry observations (“Hammock,” “Picture Puzzle Piece,” “Reflection”), bits of useful advice (“How Not to Have to Dry the Dishes,” “Little Abigail and the Beautiful Pony”), and just plain silliness (“Shaking,” “Rhino Pen”). In one of the most poignant poems, “The Little Boy and the Old Man,” the two title characters commiserate about behaviors—wetting their pants, crying, and being ignored—that they share in common.
Falling Up, the last collection of children’s poems published during Silverstein’s lifetime and dedicated to his son, Matt, is perhaps the author’s strongest effort in the genre. All the expected touches are here—explorations of characters, real and imaginary (notably “Allison Beals and Her Twenty-five Eels” and “Medusa”), animal stories, examinations of typical childhood activities, outrageous puns, and playful excursions into the quirks of language (such as “The Gnome, the Gnat and the Gnu”)—and each is illustrated in the author’s inimitable style. Especially memorable in Falling Up are poems that demonstrate how to count (“The Monkey”), use rhyme creatively (“Pinocchio”), present thought-provoking ideas (as in “Warmhearted,” in which a fashionable animal rights activist wears a real live fox), or gently chide preconceived notions (such as “Strange Restaurant,” wherein an eatery’s personnel are all cows, chickens, fish, or vegetables, making ordering food impossible without offending someone).
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