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.
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.
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.
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.