Shel Silverstein

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Anne Collins (review date 22 June 1981)

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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 of incomplete circles of varying characters. They meet with the smile-while-your-heart-is-breaking humor of someone reciting a list of fleeting love affairs: “Some fit but could not roll. Others could roll but did not fit.”

The moral is that of geometry run through a 1960s wringer. The Big O is the most self-sufficient of shapes—self-contained, self-motivated and with the ability to appreciate and inspire such perfect wholeness in others. The Big O advises the missing piece, “Corners wear off and shapes change.” And the triangle, flopping and bumping, learns how to get from one point to the next. The Silverstein sermon reeks in a gentle way of the California-bred wisdom of enlightened self-interest: we all have to be able to roll on our own before we can roll together. Thank you, Lord.


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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...

(This entire section contains 1945 words.)

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a children's book author with the publication ofThe 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.

Publishers Weekly (review date 18 September 1981)

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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 both sometimes drop their spoons, wet their pants and cry, and worst of all, grownups pay no attention to them. Silverstein's inspired ink drawings illustrate each poem, with an especially provocative scene accompanying his ideas on “Rockabye Baby”: “Don't you know a treetop / Is no safe place to rock? / And who put you up there, / And your cradle too? / Baby, I think someone down here's / Got it in for you.”

Principal Works

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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 David Mamet] (screenplay) 1988

*Oh, Hell!; Two One-Act Plays [with David Mamet] (play) 1991

*This work includes Silverstein's The Devil and Billy Markham and Bobby Gould in Hell, by David Mamet, both of which were produced in 1989 as a double-bill.

Variety (essay date 22 June 1983)

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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 a young man who dons a gorrilla suit and sneaks into the animal's cage to live for a while to sort out his life. The beauty of the play is in the logic of the youth who achieves a sort of spiritual freedom by choosing to be a capitive, while the friends who brings his mail, messages, sandwiches and not-always-good news of his girl, who is the captive of his narrow, banal life. The piece is expressively acted by Ron Silver as the willing zoo inmate and Paul Guilfoyle as the friend. Art Wolff has directed.

“The Disappearance of the Jews” offers a pyrotechnical display of David Mamet's ear for street dialog, in this case involving two young men sitting around discussing their hopes, fears and dreams, including some broken. It is about language and the interstices where the concrete becomes symbolic and vice versa. Gregory Mosher's staging brings out the resonances and calculated rhythms of the language.

“Hot Line” is an extended situation sketch in which about 15 minutes of material is extended to an hour format. It is not so much that the piece becomes tiresome—it is interesting and frightening all the way, but suggests that Ealine May hasn't figured out how to compress the theme into manageable form.

The show involves Peter Falk as a phone counselor on a suicide hot line, with May as a semi-pro hooker who ultimately talks herself into taking a lethal dose of pills, partly to punish the counselor and the men she thinks he represents. The psychology may be slightly facile, but the author-actress is convincing as the woman who has taken an abstraction to its illogical extreme, and the supporting cast is excellent, as is the staging by Art Wolff, who also directed the work.

Nancy Larrick (essay date October 1986)

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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 rarity in 1910. Radio and television were only an inventor's dream, and few houses were wired for electricity. In the great cities thousands of children under ten were spending long hours as factory laborers.

In all probability these were not the children William Ernest Henley had in mind when he compiled his long-enduring anthology of poetry: Lyra Heroica: A Book of Verse for Boys (1910). But his statement of purpose for this 396-page volume is typical of the times:

“To set forth, as only art can, the beauty and the joy of living, the beauty and blessedness of death, the nobility of direction to a cause, an ideal, a passion even—the dignity of resistance, the sacred quality of patriotism, that is my ambition too.”

Very serious. Noble and somewhat self-righteous. And very pedantic.

Seventy-five years later A Light in the Attic: Poems and Drawings by Shel Silverstein (1981) was breaking all poetry book sales records in the United States: 164 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller List as of April 27, 1986, and total sales of well over two million copies priced at $13.50 each. (It should be noted that rarely has a book of poetry made this prestigious list and never before a book of poetry for children.) Shel Silverstein's drawings may seem crude, even distorted; his humor is often harsh and exaggerated. But even at his most hilarious, he is quite likely to leave his reader with a serious idea to ponder, a touch of beauty all the more beautiful because it is unexpected.

Silverstein's two books of poetry for children, Where the Sidewalk Ends (1974) and A Light in the Attic (1981), mark a new era in poetry for children in the United States. But how did we traverse such a distance in only seventy-five years?

In a quick look through some of the anthologies of the Lyra Heroica period, I met certain poems again and again: Gray's “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” Julia Ward Howe's “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “King Henry's Address Before Agincourt” by Shakespeare, and Milton's “Hymn on the Morning of Christ's Nativity.” Frequently there was a sprinkling of the maxims of Isaac Watts and occasionally the sentimental verse of Eugene Field.

The titles of many anthologies of poetry for children in this period are revealing: Poems for Memorizing, Poems for Little Men and Women, Cheerful Children, and Children's Garlands from the Best Poets. Although compiled for children, these are, by and large, unsmiling anthologies.

You can imagine my surprise and delight to come across “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat” in one anthology. I found nothing else from Edward Lear, whose Book of Nonsense with its hilarious limericks, made-up words, and eccentric caricatures, was published in 1849. And I found nothing from Lewis Carroll, whose Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass came out in 1865 and 1871. No quoting of the Duchess: “Speak roughly to your little boy / And beat him until he sneezes. …”

And nothing from the young American poet, Laura E. Richards, who joyously entitled her first volume Hurdy Gurdy (1902).

Also nothing from Walter de la Mare, a young English poet who was brash enough to entitle his book Peacock Pie (1913).

Clearly the heavy Victorian influence on poetry for children in the first two decades of this century did not hold the stage alone. Perhaps Louis Untermeyer was right when he said, “The parlor poets of England had outsung themselves. Other voices, other moods were emerging.”

By the time NCTE spread its wings to include elementary school teachers and in 1924 to publish a journal for them, the Elementary English Review, those other voices and other moods had soared into prominence in the world of American poetry for adults.

Edwin Arlington Robinson, with sharp epithet and unerring artistry, had created poetic portraits of men whose lives, from a worldly standpoint, were failures. In 1915 Spoon River Anthology was published. Here Edgar Lee Masters synthesized the small towns of the Middle West with what Untermeyer calls “a condensation of grocery-store gossip … stark, unflinching, unforgettable.”

In the same year Robert Frost's North of Boston appeared in its first American edition—more reticent and quietly sympathetic, but focusing on contemporary rural or small town folk and their world.

In 1916 Carl Sandburg's Chicago was published. It was his first full-fledged book and began

Chicago: Hog Butcher of the World,
                                        Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat.

Jeers and protests came from the academicians. But less scholarly folk felt at home with Sandburg's purring dynamos, the gossip and laughter of his work gangs, the gigantic and tireless energy of the machine. Sandburg's cries rang out powerfully, brilliantly. The rhythm of his free verse hammered home the toughness of life itself, echoed the syncopation of the jazz band and could cool it to a new kind of tenderness.

By 1917 this “new poetry” was ranked as “America's first national art” and had become a sweeping success.

As might be expected, this ferment in the world of poetry for adults had strong influence on poetry for children. Titles of the new anthologies of poetry for children began to break away from the old Victorian dullness; for example: Rainbow Gold (1922) compiled by Sara Teasdale, This Singing World (1923) compiled by Louis Untermeyer and Silver Pennies (1925) compiled by Blanche Jennings Thompson. Subtitles of the last two announced “Modern Poems.” Untermeyer included poems of Conrad Aiken, Walter de la Mare, James Joyce, and Robert Frost.

Mrs. Thompson used the work of the moderns too, but with each poem she included her own preachy little note: “The greatest blessing in the world is work … this poem should make us more cheerful and contented” introduced the poem “Work” by Henry van Dyke. By 1959 Silver Pennies enjoyed a twenty-ninth printing so book buyers of that day must have liked her choice of poems as well as her Victorian admonitions.

In the late twenties and early thirties, a number of juvenile collections of poetry were published, each by a single modern author—poems originally written for adults in some cases, but all appealing to children. Among them: Johnny Appleseed by Vachel Lindsay (1928), Forty Singing Seamen by Alfred Noyes (1930), and Early Moon by Carl Sandburg (1930). Free of moralizing notes, with inviting titles and sometimes intriguing illustrations, they seemed to reach out to children. These new poets were bringing the new realism to poetry for children in America.

Robert Frost is quoted as saying, “There are two types of realist: one who offers a good deal of dirt with his potato to show it is a real one; and the one who is satisfied with the potato brushed clean. I am the second.”

Not surprisingly, it was the clean-potato realism which first made its way into poetry for children. Boys and girls in the poems of A. A. Milne, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, and Eleanor Farjeon, for example, are certainly real children, believable children, laughing, playing, skinning their knees, and asking questions with childlike spontaneity. But the problems they encounter are very mild ones. (Remember “Has anybody seen my mouse?” in Milne's poem?)

They are all pictured as white children, of course, living in comfortable homes, where family security seems assured. It is a romantic world, but in the focus on what seem to be living, breathing children, we see the first seed of the new realism sprouting in poetry written for children.

But through the years the clean-potato realism which showed children jumping rope or swinging “up in the air so blue” began to gather a little dirt. Today we are more likely to find them on skateboards “skimming an asphalt sea” as in Lillian Morrison's “The Sidewalk Racer” or watching television as Eve Merriam describes in “Tube Time.” Now we have poems about tape recorders, the car wash, and the washing machine that cracks up.

In the poem “Eviction” Lucille Clifton (1984) remembers when her family was evicted: “… boxes stacked across the walk / and couch springs curling through the air.”

In “Listening to Grownups Quarreling,” Ruth Whitman (1984) tells of

standing in the hall against the
wall with my little brother, (until)
… I was shaken, shaken
like a mouse between their jaws.

In the sixties and early seventies some of the most plaintive poems came from young writers, still in school, but embittered by the deprivations and racial discrimination they faced. Several anthologies of poetry written by city children grew out of storefront workshops of the sixties, notably The Voice of the Children compiled by June Jordan and Terri Bush (1970). Bitterness and fright prevail. Thirteen-year-old Vanessa Howard writes:

I am frightened that
the flame of hate
will burn me
Will scorch my pride
scar my heart
It will burn and I cannot put it out

And from Lucia Martin, also from New York City:

The walls
Ever closer
I cannot breathe.
Oh God! I don't want to die in Harlem.
Yet living there is hell.

The realism of isolated voices in the fifties became a massive protest in song and poetry in the sixties and seventies.

The Beatles were singing

He's a real Nowhere Man
Sitting in his Nowhere Land
Making all his nowhere plans for nobody.

(© 1965 by Northern Songs, Ltd.)

Tom Leher was singing

Just two things of which you must beware:
Don't drink the water and don't breathe the air.

(© 1965 by Tom Leher)

Everybody was singing with Peter Seeger

Where have all the flowers gone
Long time passing?

(© 1961 by Fall River Music, Inc.)

These songs were not created for children, of course, but in the late sixties and early seventies Scholastic published three paperback books of Favorite Pop Rock Lyrics for distribution through school book clubs and made spectacular sales records.

By that time American children were spending long hours in the adult world of television, hearing songs such as these, seeing pictures of polluted streams, city riots, protest marches, and wartime horrors.

So they were ready for Eve Merriam's (1976) commentary on war, which she calls “Fantasia”:

I dream
giving birth
a child
who will ask
what was war?”

When children of this period were asked why they preferred one poem over another, the usual answer was “I like this one because it's real. The other one is too sweet.” I came to believe that “too sweet” is the most damning judgment today's child can make about a poem.

Eve Merriam is never too sweet. Indeed she takes a strong and often minority stand on such issues as pollution, phony advertising, television addiction, and the threat of war. But like Tom Leher, she uses a light satire that is amusing while being sharply critical.

Listen to these lines from “Umbilical” (1970):

You can take away my mother,
you can take away my sister,
but don't take away
my little transistor.

Of family life in the electronic home, she writes (1976):

I'm sorry says the machine,
Thank you for waiting says the tape recorder,
Trying to connect you says the voice in the
          vacuum at the end of the line.
I'm sorry that sister is not in working order.
Please verify your brother and try him again.
I'm sorry that mother is out of service.
Thank you for waiting, that father you have
          reached is a temporary disconnect.

And certainly Shel Silverstein is never “too sweet”—not by any measure. Read “Jimmy Jet and His TV Set” (1974)—about the boy who watched television so continuously that he grew into the set itself—and you see Silverstein pushing his humor to make a vivid protest. Or read “The Little Boy and the Old Man” (1981) and you recognize his ability to touch the heart strings without a trace of sweetness.

One time a fourth grader was telling me about his favorite poem—“This Is My Rock” by David McCord. I couldn't resist saying “The poet is a friend of mine whom I admire very much.” “Yes,” said Michael, “he's just like me. He feels.”

The simplicity and wisdom of that statement spell out what I have come to think of as the second quality children of the eighties expect of poetry. First, it must be real. Second, it must have feeling.

Very few poems anthologized for children in 1910 meet these demands. The newer poetry for children may deal with the same subject matter, but it is handled with realism and feeling.

Almost one hundred years ago Tennyson wrote of old age and death in “Crossing the Bar,” a poem which was widely anthologized for sixth graders until the twenties. Now we never see it in an anthology for children. It would be easy to say, “Old age and death have no appeal for children,” and stop there.

Yet one of the most popular poems among children today is about old age and death: “The Little Boy and the Old Man” by Shel Silverstein.

What a contrast! Tennyson's poem is very formal with complex poetic metaphor but nothing that speaks directly to the young. The Silverstein poem, first published in 1981, is the gentle conversation between the little boy and the little old man who find they share the same difficulties and feeling of being misunderstood. The simplicity and conversational tone of these ten lines make it “real” to children and adults of the eighties. And after reading this little poem, I think that young and old will say of Silverstein: “He's just like me. He feels.”

It has been a long and sometimes rugged journey from the poetry of Tennyson to that of Shel Silverstein, but it tells the vivid story of the change in poetry for children in the years 1910 to 1985.


Clifton, L. “Eviction.” In J. Cole (ed.), A New Treasury of Children's Poetry. New York: Doubleday, 1974.

Henley, E. (ed.). Lyra Heroica: A Book of Verse for Boys. New York: Scribners, 1910.

Jordan, J., and T. Bush (eds.). The Voice of the Children. New York, Holt, 1970.

Merriam, E. Finding a Poem. New York: Atheneum, 1970.

———. Rainbow Writing. New York: Atheneum, 1976.

Silverstein, S. Where the Sidewalk Ends. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.

———. A Light in the Attic. New York: Harper & Row, 1981.

Whitman, R. “Listening to Grownups Quarrel.” In J. Cole (ed.), A New Treasury of Children's Poetry. New York: Doubleday, 1984.

Further Reading

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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.


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

Review of the theatrical production An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein, criticizing the series of one-act plays as tiresome, dated, tasteless, feeble, and lacking in humor.

Livingston, Myra Cohn. “The Light in His Attic.” New York Times Book Review 91, (9 March 1986): 36-37.

Discussion of the underlying moral messages in Silverstein's poetry for children.

Simon, John. “The Devil and Billy Markham.” New York 22, (18 December 1989): 105.

A review of the double-theatrical bill Oh, Hell, featuring Silverstein's one-act play The Devil and Billy Markham with David Mamet's one-act Bobby Gould in Hell.

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

Review of Silverstein's one-act play Gorilla, praising the work as a “savagely wry tragicomedy.”

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

Review of the theatrical double-bill Oh, Hell, criticizing Silverstein's one-act play The Devil and Billy Markham as silly, tedious, underdeveloped, and juvenile.

Additional coverage of Silverstein's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 40; Black Writers, Ed. 3; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 5; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 107; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 47, 74, 81; Contemporary Authors—Obituary, Vol. 179; Junior DISCovering Authors; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; Major Twentieth-Century Authors, Ed. 2; Something About the Author, Vols. 27, 33, 92; Something About the Author—Obituary, Vol. 116; and St. James Guide to Children's Writers, Vol. 5.

Ruth K. MacDonald (essay date 1986-1987)

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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 distaste for poetry, except for the most simple rhyme, resulting from the second reason, the way poetry is introduced to children in school. Poetry has for some time had to be “taught” to children: presented in a pedagogical, systematic way, with emphasis on the literary and didactic values in the poems. In fact, since Isaac Watts, children's poetry has been, in the main, designed to preach. Most children, and adults as well, realize that the poetry they were introduced to as school children was designed to propagandize them in manners and values predominantly Protestant and puritanical; in fact, from the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries, the didactic mode of children's poetry was the only justification that most educational theorists could find for presenting poetry to children. The entertainment value, if any, was clearly and distantly secondary. Poetry had “spinach” value—good for you, but with little appeal to the palate.

In the late twentieth century, the situation has improved somewhat. If anything has changed in children's poetry, it is the voice of the poet in addressing the presumably juvenile audience. No longer willing to present poems primarily designed to teach, contemporary poets strive to find a voice that does not condescend, but rather invites the child, as an equal of the poet, to join in a poetic moment. For all that this is an innovation, as X. J. Kennedy and Dorothy Kennedy note, old-fashioned patterns of rhythm, rhyme, and sound dominate even the most contemporary of children's poetry. It is as if “shaken only a little by those winds of change that in the 1960s and 1970s swept the mainland of American literature, poetry for children today seems an offshore island doing its best to stay serene” with poetic devices clearly antiquated in poetry for adults (75).

Perhaps this resignation to traditional poetic forms is due in part to those qualities which the research shows that children most prefer in poetry. Two studies, one a survey of the research, the other a survey of actual children, show that those qualities children like best in their poetry are identifiable rhythm, rhyme, and sound patterns. But even more telling than the devices used in the poems is the tone of the poems. The overwhelming preference, among actual children and as reported of children in the research, is for humor in poems (Terry 20; Fisher and Terry 223).

The only contemporary children's poet to have made a reputation on a large scale and predominantly as a humorist is Shel Silverstein. His two volumes, A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends, succeed where other volumes have failed: that is, on the best-seller lists; in franchises of bookstores such as B. Dalton and Waldenbooks, where only those volumes which have consistently good sales occupy shelfspace for any length of time; and in public and school libraries, where other volumes of poetry for children gather dust. The commercial success of these two volumes is not due to impulsive purchases by children; with a price tag beyond $10, the books exceed most children's disposable income. It is a truism in children's literature that for a book to succeed beyond library reputation, adults must buy it, and it must have some appeal to adults—something beyond a child's nagging plea—in order to motivate them to buy it. Beyond his work as a cartoonist in Playboy, Silverstein is a little-known artist. And clearly his connection with Playboy does little to recommend him to an adult purchasing a book for a child, given the conservative, moralistic bent of adult American attitudes toward what children should read. If the Playboy connection ever becomes widely known, sales of Silverstein books will undoubtedly skyrocket, as censors seek to ban the books from both library and bookstore shelves and both children and adults snap up copies to find out what's so objectionable.

So what is it about Silverstein's books that make them a commercial success? The first possibility to be eliminated must be the literary excellence of his poetry. Rarely venturing into the uncharted territories of free verse or blank verse except when narrating a story in near-prose form, and seldom stumbling into novel vocabulary, a Silverstein poem remains unalterably committed to traditional language, rhyme, meter, and stanzaic formats. Even with this dedication to older poetic forms, Silverstein shows himself as a less-than-perfect craftsman. His rhymes are frequently imperfect, and he frequently makes easy work for himself by rhyming -ing and -tion words. Sometimes -ing words lose their terminal g, so that other words ending in -in' can be inserted for the rhyme. The rhythms are rough, sometimes scanning not at all, with no particular poetic justification. Beyond his lack of craftsmanship is the fact that most American adult readers, and juvenile readers as well, see appreciation of metrical excellence as a trait limited to teachers and scholars, as intellectual peculiarities which send elitists into aesthetic trances but generally have no appeal for the average reader.

So it is not for literary or technical excellence that Silverstein is ranked so highly among readers. My guess, confirmed by reactions of elementary classroom teachers and students, and by the slender body of criticism surrounding Silverstein's poetry, is that it is the humor, a kind that appeals to both adult buyers and child readers. Such words as “uproarious,” “zany,” and even the more tepid “delightful” dominate the reviews of both Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends. Among the reported favorites in the volumes are “Sick” (Sidewalk 58-59), which John Hemphill confirmed was the most popular poem among seventy-two 4th, 5th, and 6th graders in a survey he did in Tallahassee, Florida (38-44). Also reportedly popular is the “Boa Constrictor” in Sidewalk (44-45), which has been sung by Peter, Paul, and Mary on a children's record. Given the lack of literary appeal and therefore literary scholarship on Silverstein's work, there are doubtless many others which are popular among children but which remain undocumented.

The range of humor in evidence in the books makes them appealing to a wide range of school-aged children. It is safe to say that the books are designed for literate children, not for the preliterate. The humor in the poems depends on being able to read them and to interpret the pictures that accompany them. An acquaintance with, though not necessarily a love of, the written word and a rudimentary ability to take the cues rendered in the pictures make the poems inaccessible to children as yet unable to read and to interpret the illustrations. The poems also contain a range of humor designed to appeal to children from first to sixth grade, and to older children, including adults, nostalgically but accurately recalling the kinds of humor that most attracted them earlier in their lives.

Though the scholarly investigation of humor is fairly recent and fraught with the difficulty of gaining serious respectability, given the propensity of the subject matter to take over the tone of the investigation, still there are developed theories of children's humor and how children acquire various senses of humor. Wolfenstein and McGhee are the foremost theorists in the field, the first a Freudian, the second still psychological, but more developmental rather than sexually analytical in approach. In spite of their divergence of perspective, both report, though for differing reasons, basically the same stages in the development of humor in the child.

The first stage, starting at a year, has less to do with the child producing humorous situations, and more to do with the child recognizing contextual clues in an interaction that indicates that the situation is “just for laughs.” This expertise is developed from the child's earliest interactions with an adult or older child, especially with interpreting facial expressions as a sign of intent, so that humor, rather than fear, is the result of the interaction. Between the ages of two and three, the child sees as humorous the reversals of sex by change of name or ascription of gender. “Bobby is a girl” is hilarious to a child at this stage of development. More Freudian interpreters of the situation may see it as an aggressive unsexing of another child acquaintance, which it need not be if it's “just for laughs” and for the comic appreciation of a new point of view (Bariaud 19, 24). Slightly older children find humor in play with names, especially nicknames, which Wolfenstein finds particularly offensive to adults, as a residual of some ancient, primal instinct about the sacredness of naming (75), and which less mythic analysts may still find offensive, since Americans acquaint names with personal identity and dignity.

Children at ages four and five think that humor consists of making funny motions and faces. Their linguistic humor is reserved for the contemplation of impossibilities, sometimes based on linguistically induced possibilities: “Have you ever seen a horse fly?” (as opposed to a horsefly). Such questions do not demand an answer, as a riddle might. In fact, when Wolfenstein sought to teach children of this age riddles, they did not understand the punch lines and saw no humor (139, 147). Their own versions of funny stories were improbable and shapeless, tending toward no other particular end than an entertaining set of circumstances.

Beginning at age six, children appear to like joking riddles, both the listening to them and the telling of them. Both Wolfenstein and McGhee report the emergence, like clockwork, among six-year-olds, of the “little moron” jokes. Neither reported particularly precocious children learning these rotely memorized jokes early, nor did they see slow children learning them later. Neither did either specify the particular developmental point at which such jokes begin to appear funny to the child or begin to appear as part of the child's repertoire of humorous performances. While Wolfenstein does point to the consistent themes in the moron jokes of fear of exposure and stupidity (98, ff.), she also reports the concise verbal quality of the jokes which children feel the need to reproduce precisely (141-44). It is also a stage where the child is able to control the body long enough to keep it still during the telling of the joke (Wolfenstein 143); silly gestures are not part of such stories. Wolfenstein also reports the phenomenon that children of this age do not admit to having learned the joke from someone else, or having memorized it; they claim that they have always known it, or that it just exists (99, 123, 132). For them, it is part of the cultural unconscious that simply emerges when the time for telling them is right—this latter is my interpretation of children's sense of the eternity of such stories.

Concurrent with the appearance of the first moron jokes, the joke riddles of other kinds appear. It is important to note that the child in early grade school is dependent on rote performance of these jokes; the skill of the storyteller, the mood of the audience, the sustaining of the audience's interest are not yet matters of concern (Wolfenstein 21, 143; Bariaud 34). But the repertoire of humorous appeals expands, and it is here that Silverstein finds his youngest audience. For the child this age, Silverstein provides joke riddles, such as “What Did?” (Light 16-17)—“What did the carrot say to the wheat?” / “‘Lettuce’ rest, I'm feeling ‘beet.’”

Memorizing a Silverstein poem can be a relatively simple experience, since some of the poems are only four lines long. The rhyme and rhythm, as well as the short attenuation of the situation until the punchline, all help the young reader/reciter remember the poem. The memorizing makes the poem no longer Silverstein's but the teller's, making it for the child reciter a part of that vast lore of childhood that simply is, without authorship. Bathroom humor, the kind that concerns not only feces and urination but also the exposure of the posterior, is a prominent feature both in children's humor at this stage and in Silverstein's books. For example, there is this short, easily memorized poem that combines bathroom humor with a younger sibling rival as the humor's butt:


Teddy said it was a hat,
So I put it on.
Now Dad is saying,
“Where the heck's
                    the toilet plunger gone?”

(Sidewalk 74)

Bathroom humor appears shortly after the child learns control of his body functions; the silliness often rests in the baby-talk words that adults use to describe feces and urine. Older children of reading age still find this subject matter humorous, though they demand more complicated joke forms to relate their amusement in and fascination with this otherwise forbidden topic (Bariaud 27). Silverstein amply fills this need for jokes and riddles about bathroom behavior and exposure. While children demand the book and read it, if these volumes ever find their way into the hands of the conservative and censorious, there will be book-banning attempts. As it stands now, the illicit experience of reading these scatological poems provides fun for children at an age when the delights of reading and of poetry may still be shrouded in schoolteacher obscurantism. These are not poems for the teachable moment; they are simply to be enjoyed.

As the child's ability to tell a funny story grows with length and complication of narrative, Silverstein's poems provide the length, breadth, and variety of joking to fill most children's needs. This need stems partly from tensions that children frequently feel during their first years at school; they feel the pressure to achieve, not only from teachers but from parents as well. The “uproarious” relief that Silverstein's poems provide, if one may borrow a term from the reviewers, and the sheer volume of poems in the collections, make the Silverstein books good resources for stress reduction. For example, there are the stories about odd children, such as “Jimmy Jet” (Sidewalk 28-29), who watches so much television that he turns into a TV set; the result is that he becomes the center of family attention as they sit down nightly to watch him; thus, though the poem might seem a warning about the perils of overindulgence in television, the moral, if there is one, is undercut by the attention that Jimmy gets. Pamela Purse in “Ladies First” (Light 148-49) finds herself being eaten by a cannibal because she insists on being first in line for all seeming privileges. These oddballs, much like the characters in Ogden Nash's poems for children, are enough like modern children themselves and yet bizarre enough that children can both identify with them and yet hold them at arm's length long enough to laugh at their absurdities and extremities.

The subject matter of Silverstein's poems is the greatest determinant of his success with children. While he sometimes chooses subjects like the weird children cited above, the more frequent butts are parents, teachers, and the lessons they try to impose on children. The most obvious of these adult-bashing poems is “How Not to Have to Dry the Dishes” (Light 12), which suggests the way out of this onerous household chore: simply drop one. Who would trust such a clumsy child with such delicate work after such an incident?

The poem most damning of adult wisdom is “The Little Blue Engine” (Sidewalk 158), a parody of The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper (1925). Encouraging children to try hard, to accomplish in the face of intolerable odds, to do so by positive mental attitude—these virtues have attained the status of sacred doctrine in the lore of nurturing American children. Piper's book continues on nursery shelves in spite of its insipid illustrations, trite situations, and a moralizing tone of voice nearly intolerable for adult readers of any sophistication. Silverstein's title refers to the same little locomotive, who in Piper's version is also called “the little blue engine.” By using the less obvious title, Silverstein manages to keep the parody less obvious to the first-time reader, though by the end of the first stanza, the line “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can” signals to the reader the source of the root story.

Silverstein attenuates the suspense here the same way that Piper does—by forcing the engine up a high promontory, which takes all the engine's mental and mechanical energy to achieve the summit. But Silverstein does not allow the engine success. The last stanza shows the backsliding of the engine with cartoonlike action words: “CRASH! SMASH! BASH! / He slid down and mashed into engine hash.” The minuteness of the train's remains is emphasized by the internal rhyme of the second line—a rare instance of Silverstein's exercising true craftsmanship in the service of poetic expression. In concluding the poem, the poet offers, as is so common in American literature for children, an obvious statement of an obvious moral, this one undercutting utterly the apparent truth of Piper's classic: “If the track is tough and the hill is rough, / THINKING you can just ain't enough!” Most children recognize the veracity of this statement from the results of everyday living; the authoritative, truth-telling voice of the poet, which refuses to condescend to moralizing high and lofty sentiments, makes the statement all the more appealing to the child reader. Though some adults may be appalled at Silverstein's handling of this enshrined story, many more will appreciate his willingness to deal so summarily with the debunking of this “truth.” Silverstein refuses to give the child a prettified poetic experience, as earlier, and sometimes even contemporary poets for children do when they are particularly preoccupied with aesthetic experiences. By such a refusal, Silverstein places himself in the tradition of American humor identified by Jesse Bier in The Rise and Fall of American Humor, the humor which debunks, by both reversal and anti-proverbialism (105).

“Little Abigail and the Beautiful Pony” (Light 120-21) is more obviously subversive of parental authority. The story of a little girl who dies, pining away for want of a pony, has as its literary source the stories from sermons in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the sentimental fiction of the nineteenth century, of both good and bad children who died young, to find either eternal grace or damnation. It is not clear until Silverstein's prose disclaimer at the end of the poem which Abigail is—is she one of those excessive children who deserve their dreadful ends, or is she a poor, neglected child who deserves to have her wish granted? Silverstein's parenthetical closing, “(This is a good story / To read to your folks / When they won't buy / You something you want.)” clearly addresses the child and the purpose: parental manipulation. Most children have rudimentary devices for getting what they want from their parents, but the fact that Abigail wants a pony, a common childhood wish and yet one seldom granted, and the fact that her saga is a story which can be used against parents the way they sometimes use stories to thwart children, doubles the extremity and the hilarity of Abigail's story. The picture of Abigail on her deathbed, attended by her anguished parents, with balloon comments coming out of their mouths—“Oh, If she were only alive, I would buy her a hundred a hundred ponies!”—gives further cues to the humor resulting from bathos which Silverstein achieves in the poem.

Other poems make fun of the lessons children learn at school, such as “The Edge of the World” (Sidewalk 89), whose picture is the illustration on the dustjacket of the volume. In spite of what children learn at school about Columbus, circumnavigation of the globe, and astronomical observation of our planet by astronauts, the evidence of their senses points to the conclusion that the world is flat. Silverstein presents this evidence in much the same way that a teacher would—with condescending introduction: “And I can tell you, boys and girls, / The world is FLAT!” This utterance comes from a world traveller, who claims to have been to the edge of the earth and actually observed it. It is the claim not only of the explorer, but also of the storyteller, both of whom claim veracity based on sometimes dubious evidence. In either voice, Silverstein appeals to children, rather than putting them off with the preachy voice of the teacher. The picture, showing a girl, a dog, and a fire hydrant precariously placed to fall off the edge, are equally appealing and amusing. Here and elsewhere, Silverstein places himself firmly in the American tradition of the teller of tall tales, with fiction deliberately exaggerated for comic effect, undercutting the stereotypically sanctimonious voice of the teacher who may claim as truth equally outlandish statements.

As McGhee points out, as children mature and approach their teens, they are able to tolerate humor with themselves as the butt (Bariaud 34). They become storytellers themselves, able to use intonation, timing, and mood creation to develop a story sufficiently to result in a humorous punch line. Silverstein's longer poems lend themselves to such storytelling, especially the tall tales—about being late for school in “Kidnapped!” (Light 159), or about not taking out the garbage, in “Sara Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out” (Sidewalk 70-71). This willingness of older children to see their own behavior as the source of humor indicates a level of maturity, signalling the end of Silverstein's appeal. While teenagers report resurrecting old jokes that they might otherwise consider that they have outgrown (Bariaud 38), and while adults can similarly regress to the jokes of their childhoods (Wolfenstein 156), a steady barrage of humor of the level Silverstein presents does not hold attraction for these older readers the same way it does for younger readers. While adults can be convinced to buy the book for children based on their own transitory pleasures in Silverstein's jokes, children of elementary age find themselves compelled to read through for yet another entertaining session of sustained humor.

Only once does Silverstein's humor challenge the boundaries of more mature amusement, with the only poem that is even vaguely sexy, “They've Put a Brassiere on the Camel” (Light 167). “They,” the unspecified villains of childhood fun and good sense, put this brassiere across the two humps so that the camel will be “decent” and “respectable.” While the underwear here is explicitly connected with female sexuality, the same kind of amusement can be found in other Silverstein poems about underwear for either sex, or the lack thereof. The root of the humor is exposure; while the camel is hardly exhibitionist when it does not have a bra, other poems about dropped pants and naked posteriors appeal to the same level of humor that the camel poem does—presexual, insecure, laughing at nudity for its own sake, with no real titillation. While the poem appears at first glance to tread on the toes of propriety, the ridiculous picture of the lingeried zoo animal has no sexual appeal and would offend only the strictest of censors.

Silverstein wisely keeps the book from degenerating into a collection of simple school-aged jokes by interspersing not only a variety of lengths of poems, but also a variety of tones. Unrelenting humor is hard to sustain; Silverstein as a professional cartoonist knew when to change gears. For the more thoughtful side of even the young reader, there are such poems as “Hug o' War” (Sidewalk 19), a pun on the game tug o' war, which results in the pleasing but not necessarily uproarious game where “Everyone giggles / … and everyone wins” in a marathon of good feeling. Like a conscientious objector, the child narrator announces at the beginning, “I will not play at tug o' war.” While sounding suspiciously like the voice of a 1960s peace protestor, the narrator still manages to bring to the fore the alternatives to making war—in this case, a non-sexual way of making love.

More potent and deadly serious is the story of “Generals” (Sidewalk 150-51), where two generals feel obligated to hold a battle one day, rather than follow their initial impulses to play hooky from their work. The result is that they destroy each other on the battlefield, clearly demonstrating the evils and not the glories of their endeavors. Race relations, as in “No Difference” (Sidewalk 81—“We're all worth the same / When we turn off the light”) and child and senior citizen neglect, as in “The Little Boy and the Old Man” (Light 95), are other concerns expressed in the volumes with particular poignancy. The most consistent, serious concern is promoting the child's own powers of creativity, to write poetry himself, to amuse himself and others, to think both seriously and humorously. Silverstein's direct, vivid expressions and obvious enjoyment of the same kinds of topics that children find humorous make these encouragements palatable; no teacher here is assigning a poem to be written, no adult is commanding children to enjoy themselves in spite of their own inclinations. The poet is simply a large child himself, capable of perhaps more complex linguistic productions than a child might be, but on the other hand, a large person still in touch with the smaller person within.

McGhee points to several positive attributes he found consistently among children who were able to produce humor for themselves and others: their language and social skills were more developed; they were more energetic; they showed more assertive tendencies in groups; and they showed more concern for, as well as ability to get for themselves, the positive regard of others (McGhee 259). At any age, a teller of humorous stories knows the pleasure of being the center of attention and hearing the laughter of listeners. Silverstein knows it, too, and manages to provide the opportunity for children to get some of this pleasure for themselves.

Hamlin Hill claims that there is unlikely to be a single humorist who will speak for the late-twentieth-century United States, because of the multiplicity of experiences and voices among a diverse people at this time (225). Silverstein's works have yet to attain a longevity to merit such a claim for his fame, and two volumes rarely constitute a claim to a whole career of articulating the humor of an entire nation. But it may be the case that, in retrospect, Silverstein as the poet of American childhood and humorist of American child life may achieve something of that stature for the children who have already read the books. When they become adults and hand the books on to their own children and pupils, Silverstein may find even his toilet jokes hallowed.

Works Cited

Bariaud, Francoise. “Age Differences in Children's Humor.” Ch. 1 in Paul E. McGhee, ed. Humor and Children's Development: A Guide to Practical Applications. New York and London: Haworth Press, 1989. 15-45.

Bier, Jesse. “From The Rise and Fall of American Humor” (1968). Rpt. in Clark, William Bedford and W. Craig Turner, eds. Critical Essays on American Humor. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984. 99-106.

Fisher, Carol J. and C. Ann Terry. Children's Language and the Language Arts. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982.

Hemphill, John. “Sharing Poetry with Children: Stevenson to Silverstein.” The Advocate 4 (Fall 1984): 38-44.

Hill, Hamlin. “The Future of American Humor: Through a Glass Eye, Darkly.” Clark, William Bedford and W. Craig Turner. Critical Essays on American Humor. Boston: G. K. Hall. 219-25.

Kennedy, X. J. and Dorothy M. Kennedy. “Tradition and Revolt: Recent Poetry for Children.” The Lion and the Unicorn: A Critical Journal of Children's Literature 4, 2 (1980-81): 75-82.

McGhee, Paul E. “The Role of Humor in Enhancing Children's Development and Adjustment: Chapter Commentary.” Ch. 12 in Paul E. McGhee, ed. Humor and Children's Development: A Guide to Practical Applications. New York and London: Haworth Press, 1989. 249-74.

Silverstein, Shel. A Light in the Attic. New York: Harper and Row, 1974.

———. Where the Sidewalk Ends. New York: Harper and Row, 1974.

Terry, Ann. Children's Poetry Preferences: A National Survey of Upper Elementary Grades. NCTE Research Report 16. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1974.

Wolfenstein, Martha. Children's Humor: A Psychological Approach. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press, 1954.

Melanie Kirkpatrick (review date 12 December 1989)

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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, occasional scatology and inventive theology, Oh, Hell probably wouldn't be Sen. Helms's idea of a swell night on the town.

But there are better reasons not to like the show, especially David Mamet's Bobby Gould in Hell, which fills the program's second half with nearly unmitigated and often pointless tedium.

The curtain rises on an irritated young gentleman in pajamas, slippers and dressing gown in what looks like the well-appointed library of an exclusive men's club. It's Bobby Gould (Treat Williams), the nasty movie producer who had a temporary fit of kindness in Mr. Mamet's Speed-the-Plow last year.

A moment later an elevator descends dropping off a man in fishing regalia. In the program, he's coyly identified only as “The Interrogator,” but the tiny red horns on his hat and the swirl of smoke that heralds his arrival give away his true identity. And now the barrage of Mamet-jabber begins, as the Interrogator (W. H. Macy) quizzes Bobby on his lifetime of misdeeds, especially one involving a certain lady friend. Bobby stoutly defends himself until, finally, to settle the matter, the Interrogator summons the lady in question, who appears in thirtysomething dishabille: nightshirt and socks, TV zapper in hand.

The lady (Felicity Huffman) settles the point, all right. She turns out to be so bossy and neurotic—spouting a rapid-fire blend of psychobabble and recriminations—that Bobby and the Interrogator exchange a knowing look of male solidarity before the Interrogator summons a thunderbolt to launch her back home.

With the lady's departure, the dialogue loses what little fire it mustered till then, degenerating into a simple-minded question-and-answer session on Great Issues. The Interrogator asks, “Why do we all sin?” “I think we are lonely. We want God to notice us,” Bobby replies.

Mr. Williams, perhaps inspired by the PJ's he's wearing, sleepwalks through the role of Bobby. It's hard to believe he had enough pizzazz in him to pursue the earthly vices attributed to him. At least the others in the cast often make the babbling bearable. Mr. Macy is a suitably oily, smooth-talking Satan and Ms. Huffman is amusingly maddening as the woman scorned. But it's Steven Goldstein, as the Interrogator's Assistant, who is the most fun to watch. He's fussy, exacting and fawning when the Interrogator is around and officious and accusatory to Bobby.

Bobby Gould in Hell, which lasts about 45 minutes, is far outshone by the witty encounter with Satan that precedes it, Shel Silverstein's The Devil and Billy Markham. This one-man show in verse is billed as a “play,” but it's really an extended country-and-western song, partly crooned, mostly recited.

Mr. Silverstein, who's the author of several one-act plays, children's books and songs, tells the tale of a down-on-his-luck blues singer who makes a pact with the devil and eventually wins. It's raucously performed by rock singer Dennis Locorriere, formerly of Dr. Hook. With his shoulder-length locks and wildly expressive voice, Mr. Locorriere makes both a lewd, seductive Satan and a cocky, winsome Billy.

The highlight is a song describing the devil's helluva wedding to Billy's girl-friend. Satan invites all his buddies, yielding up some wacky combos: Oscar Wilde putting the make on Billy the Kid, Adolf Hitler doing the bugaloo, Ivan the Terrible making a pass at Susan B. Anthony, Catherine the Great cozying up to Paul Revere's horse.

Variety (essay date 13 December 1989)

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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 Markham, is a shaggy-dog narrative poem about a down-and-out Nashville songwriter who dices with the devil and outwits him. Steeped in scatology and bawdy hippie barroom humor, the 50-minute piece aims at Rabelaisian effects but mainly induces Shel shock before it arrives at the high point, a funny list song about a celebrity-packed wedding reception in hell.

It's performed with gravelly-voiced gusto (and an impressive memory) by rock singer Dennis Locorriere. Authors whose more fully developed plays have been rejected by Lincoln Center must be wondering at the showcasing given to this juvenilia by Mamet's screenwriting pard.

Mamet is writing in a whimsical vein in Bobby Gould In Hell, in which an ill-tempered devil upbraids a recently deceased candidate for the eternal flames in an anteroom of Hades, designed as a reading room in an old-money private club. (Is A.R. Gurney writing a play about lowlife Chicago hustlers?)

The sarcastic mod Lucifer, irritated because his fishing trip was interrupted, browbeats the anguished defendant, a smoothie who habitually seduced and abandoned women. There's a conflict to be sure, and some funny comedy-of-exasperation from the impatient interrogating devil who's played with sharp edges by W.H. Macy.

The devil and his groveling aide produce a young woman victim of the sinner, and her exchanges with the devil are laughworthy. But Mamet doesn't bother much with logical progression or motivation. It's purely verbal comedy, often funny because he's such a gifted dialog writer, but unsatisfying as a dramatic event.

Treat Williams does what the part calls for as the initially defensive, eventually contrite malefactor, and Felicity Huffman's indignant snippiness is enjoyable. But Oh, Hell is minor league stuff.

Mimi Kramer (review date 25 December 1989)

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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 Markham and Mamet's “Bobby Gould in Hell”—they opened December 3rd under the blanket title “Oh, Hell”—both seek to explore man's moral nature, using the image of confrontation with the Devil. Both seem to suggest that an eternity in Hell is better than a lifetime spent with women. This, in itself, is not a new idea. From time immemorial, men have been trying to forge a link between women and satanic or infernal experience—at least as far back as Homer, whose Odysseus literally had to go through Hell to get home to his wife. My feeling about The Devil and Billy Markham and “Bobby Gould in Hell” was, basically that Homer should be eating his heart out along with Dante, Milton, Marlowe, and George Bernard Shaw.

Billy Markham is a long narrative poem that sees life—specifically, human effort and aspiration—as a series of suckers' games with the Devil. Written in the tradition of Robert W. Service (with a nod to Stephen Vincent Benét), it concerns a benighted country singer who doesn't know enough not to play double or nothing. Performed with great showmanship and élan by Dennis Locorriere (late of the rock group Dr. Hook), it's a little like a cross between a Grateful Dead song and Eddie Murphy's “Raw,” and that's pretty much all you can say about it without stealing Silverstein's thunder, since the poem's primary virtue lies in the way it builds. You can wonder at the excesses of Silverstein's anarchic imagination set against the comparative discipline of his verse (particularly the way he deviates from his rhyme scheme in moments of heightened drama). You can note the curious relationship between Billy Markham and “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” whose title it of course echoes. Benét's story, with its quiet, wry, thirties humor, offered a bookish comment on New England parochialism and American values. Silverstein's epic is loud, coarse, vulgar, and shamelessly entertaining. The shamelessness is part of the point: Silverstein seems to want to offend (especially the women in the audience). But the combination of saltiness and sentimentality which characterizes Billy Markham seems also part of an attempt to outdo Benét by summing up all of American culture—America's voice, its topography, its sense of justice and picture of Western civilization—as do the musical turns Silverstein has given Mr. Locorriere to perform, which run the gamut from Chuck Berry to the Methodist hymnbook. You can play along with Silverstein, or you can choose to be offended. What you cannot do is describe The Devil and Billy Markham without in some sense diminishing it.

A juxtaposition of the ordinary with the outlandish lies at the heart of both Mamet's and Silverstein's humor. The movie they wrote together, “Things Change,” was a Mafia thriller couched in the terms of a fairy story, and one naturally assumed that in the division of labor Silverstein—the songwriter, poet for children, and writer of whimsical one-act plays—had provided the fairy-tale element and Mamet the noir ambience. The most refreshing thing about “Oh, Hell” is the way each playwright seems to be working in the other's medium. After all, the world of pool halls and con games, where Billy Markham takes place, is Mamet's turf, just as obscenity has come to seem his special province. Nearly all the obscenity in “Oh, Hell” belongs to the Silverstein piece, all the whimsy to the Mamet. It's as though the two men had agreed to swap souls for a term. Mamet, for his Hell, chooses the comparatively sedate setting of a men's-club library (evoked by John Lee Beatty), and in contrast to Silverstein's Devil—all feces and fornication—Mamet's Interrogator seems almost missish: a fishing enthusiast (played with knock-you-dead style and panache by W. H. Macy), whose salient characteristics are a prep-school speech mannerism and a penchant for flamboyant sarcasm. Into this exclusively male environment—ruled by Macy and Steven Goldstein, as his sorely tried straight man and assistant—Mamet brings the hero of “Speed-the-Plow” and a woman he once treated badly (Felicity Huffman).

Mamet's Hell is a place for moral inversions: the Devil is a kind of Fisher King who wants to get Bobby Gould to admit to wrongdoing; Gould won't, because “it would not be right.” And that's funny, in view of who Bobby Gould is, for Gould is in this play largely to stand for the archetypal Mamet hero: the man who is eminently criticizable by the lights of conventional morality (because he lies, cheats, steals, and blasphemes as a way of life) but whom we come to view as a sort of hero, either because his language charms us (the blasphemy-as-poetry syndrome) or because he does what he does so exceedingly well. The Mamet hero is a self-avowed crook, but he's honest about what he is; that's the one thing he's straight about—not being a good man. Given Mamet's Shavian morality and his sense of tradition, it was a dead cert, really, that one of his heroes would wind up in Hell defending himself to a woman he'd wronged. For the purposes of “Bobby Gould in Hell,” the title character is—like Shaw's Don Juan—the Common Enemy of Woman. He's Everycad, and that's what makes it so comical—such a brilliant casting and directorial coup on Gregory Mosher's part—to have Gould played here not by the wicked, swift, subtle Joe Mantegna (who created the character in “Speed-the-Plow”) but by Treat Williams, with a look of dumb suffering and the demeanor of a dog who can't understand why he's been put out for the night.

The casting of Miss Huffman is equally sly. It was she who, replacing the rock star Madonna as the seductress-with-an-idea in “Speed-the-Plow,” came close to turning it into a different play, not because of how Madonna performed but because of how she had been directed. Of the two styles of acting that Mamet fosters—the projection of a wild, idiosyncratic plausibility (Mantegna) and the complete absence of any defined persona (think of the flat, dead, toneless deliveries he elicited from Lindsay Crouse in “House of Games”)—he and Mosher chose the latter for Madonna. In doing so, they turned the character into a blank. It didn't really matter that the woman never got her say: we didn't know who she was. Miss Huffman, having studied with Mamet and Macy, is schooled in the technique of projecting a plausible persona, and when she took over the role the woman became an ambiguity rather than a nonentity.

It mattered terribly then that “Speed-the-Plow” lacked what any respectable psychomachia should have—a confrontation between the two people fighting for Bobby Gould's soul. “Bobby Gould in Hell” is like the last act that Mamet never wrote for “Speed-the-Plow.” In it he purports to do what you might call giving the bitch her due. Miss Huffman's character is, in its way, as generic as Mr. Williams': she is both the victim of a one-night stand and a woman whom Gould stayed around long enough to be doing her laundry. Mamet plays nasty tricks on her: he brings her onstage with hair unbrushed and bathrobe all unlaced, sports socks downgyved to her ankles, and carrying a toothbrush and a remote control; he makes her a medical assistant; he even (how shaming!) has her lose her train of thought in the middle of a Mametesque monologue. And, while he allows the woman's point of view a hearing, he actually puts it in the Devil's mouth. But he does give Miss Huffman a chance to tell Bobby Gould off, and after turning the ultimate female revenge fantasy into a misogynist's nightmare he brings Gould round to the point where, I think, most women would want to see the men about whom they have this particular dream. The tour de force is that he makes us echo the play's single blasphemy. In the second-to-last of a series of coups de théâtre (and this play uses every trick in the book), Mamet (with the help of George Schindler) makes Miss Huffman disappear in a blinding flash; but more impressive than any of the pyrotechnics is the fact that by the time he does we're guilty of the very thing that Bobby Gould has been put on trial in Hell for.

This latest play of Mamet's is a tour de force in a number of ways—not least because it seems to put paid to so many of the myths that have grown up around Mamet, among them the myth about endings (“Bobby Gould in Hell” has about five endings; every time you expect one of those abrupt, “Oh, well, I guess the playwright just fell over dead” resolutions, Mamet goes on, offering another perspective) and the idea that Mamet writes in the style he does because it's the only one he can handle. Of the three distinct sequences that make up “Bobby Gould”—the opening bit between the three men; the bit with the woman; and the last bit, after the woman goes—only two have the ring of a Mamet play. The middle, except where Miss Huffman is made to lose her place, is devoid of that slow, ponderous pattern of rhetorical question and Talmudic answer we have come to think of as Mamet's style.

So what I want to know is this: of the two worlds depicted in Mamet's play—the womanless world (where people talk like something out of a David Mamet play) and the real one, with woman (where people talk normally)—which is really Hell?

Robert Brustein (essay date 29 January 1990)

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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 David Mamet and Shel Silverstein, produced at the smaller Mitzi E. Newhouse under the collective title Oh, Hell, are brand new.

It's nice to find Lincoln Center Theater back at the ranch house after sorties around various Broadway corrals, and even nicer to be able to detect some consistent artistic direction following several early years of vagueness and improvisation. The emerging policy would seem to be American revivals in the larger theater and new American plays downstairs, which pretty much reflects the aesthetic preferences of artistic director Gregory Mosher. The schedule will no doubt vary to accommodate the odd South African offering, possibly some classics, an occasional new play from abroad—but no one minds a few departures once you make some effort at self-definition.

This policy will not satisfy New York's need for a repertory acting company, but it may help to distinguish the goals of Lincoln Center Theater from the aims of current Broadway producers. Its production of The Tenth Man, on the other hand, evokes the ghost of Broadway past in the spectral shape of Paddy Chayefsky. Chayefsky is an enigma. His tough-minded screenwriting—particularly movies like The Hospital and Network (and possibly even Altered States)—is far superior to his earlier writing for the theater, which was invariably squishy, portentous, domesticated midcult. Having grown to admire Chayefsky from his movies, I was hoping to like this revival of The Tenth Man a lot better than Tyrone Guthrie's 1959 production, which gave me heartburn. Ulu Grosbard's is a stronger version on the whole, but it hasn't improved my dyspeptic condition. The Tenth Man remains an indigestible dose of mystical kitsch and boiled-cabbage kabbalism.

The play was originally written to amuse a suburban audience with ambiguous feelings toward its immigrant forebears—the kind of assimilated Jews that Philip Roth satirized in his early stories. The action takes place in a ramshackle synagogue in Mineola whose Orthodox worshipers are full of disdain for Reform Jews who “sit around like Episcopalians, listening to organ music.” Yet, perhaps in deference to these same Jews (who after all constituted his audience), the playwright has the congregation pray not in Hebrew but in English, put on “phylacteries” rather than t'fillin, and seek out “quorums” instead of minyans. Chayefsky's version of Yiddish humor is also dispensed in assimilationist translation, most of it based on the bewildering impact of bustling New York on cloistered innocents from the Old Country. There are jokes about cemetery plots, the decline of Orthodoxy, and ungrateful daughters-in-law, the most successful being an extended vaudeville shtick concerning two Jews who never before strayed from Mineola trying to find the right subway to Williamsburg and always ending up in New Jersey.

Instead of being practical and realistic, in other words, Chayefsky's Jews are simple, loveable, and filled with mystical awe—suitable qualities for their role as affectionate Dwarfs to the play's hapless Snow White. Here Snow White is called Evelyn, a disturbed girl spirited from an asylum by her grandfather, while the Wicked Stepmother is Current Scientific Error in the shape of rational Freudianism. To accommodate the playwright's preference for supernatural explanations of psychological afflictions, the main plot is a variant of Ansky's The Dybbuk without tears, with Evelyn's paranoid hallucinations interpreted as demonic possession (the dybbuk being a vengeful Kiev whore named Hannah).

When a young man enters, defeated, cynical, suicidal—an unbelieving analysand disillusioned with life and love—Evelyn offers to marry him. In his presence, the girl's distemper takes a somewhat different form. She thinks she's a de Mille movie star. Not surprisingly, he thinks she's psychotic. When he finds the marriage impractical, she concludes that he too is possessed of a dybbuk that will not allow him to feel. In the ceremony that follows, it is his demon that is exorcised, and capable now of love, he prepares to cure the girl with the strength of his passion.

“He still doesn't believe in God,” observes the exorcist, “he just wants to love. And when you think of it, gentlemen, is there any difference?” This is the way that problems of madness, suicide, and anomie were resolved in the theater of the late 1950s, no doubt along with coronaries, carcinomas, and the cold war. Presumably, the rite of exorcism was also a simpler matter 30 years ago, when demons were more benign. The possessed heroine of The Tenth Man is hardly obliged to vomit green slime or rotate her head 360 degrees. In Chayefsky's symphonic metaphysics, diabolism is largely an occasion for romantic scherzos with the orchestra playing variations on “All You Need Is Love.”

Grosbard's Chagall-like production manages to capture some of the schmaltz-herring flavor of the play with the help of seasoned acting by Joseph Wiseman, Jack Weston, Sidney Armus, Ron Rifkin, Alan Manson, and Bob Dishy. Dishy—doing a variant of his sour waiter in Cafe Crown—is particularly endearing as a socialist-atheist who hangs out at the schul because he has nothing better to do. His hooded eyes, bent back, and grim-set lips add a note of reality to an otherwise fanciful evening. Peter Friedman also sours the pot a little in the part of the young man (the first of Chayefsky's suicidal heroes), but there's no particular electricity flowing between him and Phoebe Cates, who stumbles over the uncontracted dialogue of Evelyn and the Slavic flourishes of her Kiev dybbuk. I liked Santo Loquasto's set, though, with its grimy windows and linoleum floor flecked with traces of old paint, and the new thrust configuration of the Beaumont is a fine solution to a once forbidding space.

Downstairs at the Mitzi E. Newhouse there's more about guilt and redemption in the form of Mamet's and Silverstein's short plays. Actually, it's more accurate to call Silverstein's The Devil and Billy Markham a musical-narrative monologue on the order of The Face on the Barroom Floor or Dangerous Dan McGrew; I suspect it reads a lot better than it plays. This is not the fault of the performer, Dennis Locorriere of the Doctor Hook group, who sings and speaks the piece with unflagging energy (he has the grating voice and matted hair of Nick Nolte in Down and Out in Beverly Hills). It's simply that the ear soon tires of dactylic quatrains and the unvaried adventures of the raunchy hero in hell.

Mamet's Bobby Gould in Hell is also concerned with a damaged stud doomed to the infernal regions. It is receiving a more elaborate production and has more substance as a play—but not much. Mamet's dramatic genius is beyond dispute, and his place in our theater is assured, but now that he's entering the mainstream, he should beware of losing his edge. Bobby Gould in Hell, like his movie Things Change, is a pièce rose, rather than a pièce noir like American Buffalo or Glengarry Glen Ross; and I'm not so great a fan of his whimsy as I am of his scalpel-like incisions into the body politic. The eponymous hero of Bobby Gould in Hell bears the same name as the sleazy producer of Speed-the-Plow, but he's hardly the same character. Joe Montegna's Bobby Gould was a ruthless, fast-talking manipulator prepared to sacrifice friendship to expediency, and vulnerable only to sexual confidence games. Treat Williams's version of the character is oddly diffident and defensive, shy and puzzled in his bathrobe and pajamas, hardly a candidate for such remorseless diabolical attention.

This attention is provided by the Devil himself—assertively played by W. H. Macy as a humorless, impatient “Interrogator” in a red beard and long rubber boots. He'd been headed for a fishing trip but something “bad” called him down to Bobby's well-appointed apartment. Although the Devil wants him to confess to evil behavior (including a threat to put a toaster up his girlfriend's tush), Bobby will only admit to being “a straight-B sort of man.” Still, every time he tries to escape through the door of his own apartment, he is confronted with a blast of smoke and flames from the pyrotechnic department.

But what is Bobby guilty of? Perhaps he didn't call his uncle when he came down with the flu. When the girlfriend of toaster fame materializes, wearing a pink wrapper, sucking a lollipop, and wielding a TV remote control, we learn that Bobby “screwed me and he told me he was going to call up, and he never called up.” Not much of consequence there either. The Devil is ready to give up and sign his release. “Why do we sin?” he asks, and Bobby answers, “I think we're lonely—I think we want God to notice us.” Finally, Bobby learns the true reason for his damnation. He always acted as if whatever he did was good. The Devil concludes, “You are a bad man. You were cruel without being interesting.” Having confessed his sin and said he was sorry, Bobby is allowed to go home, while the Devil says, “And the rest of you folks—catch you later.”

The confrontation between Bobby and the Devil is similar to that between Peer Gynt and the Button Moulder. Both men are remorseful mediocrities, guilty of half-and-halfness, of failing to be either a great saint or a great sinner. But Bobby is a much less interesting figure than Peer, and Mamet is a much more forceful writer when dealing with extremes of human behavior (as he demonstrates most powerfully in Some Freaks, a series of essays filled with complicated probes into himself and his contemporaries). Bobby Gould in Hell has some value as a jeu d'esprit. But in this play, our most gifted playwright seems to be doing practice jumps on the board before his next plunge into the dark turbulent waters of American life.

Publishers Weekly (review date 16 November 1992)

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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 familiar tunes as “The Unicorn,” which explains that the animal is no longer with us because it was too busy playing to board the ark. The well-known title poem is beautifully orchestrated, its refrain set in ballad form with fiddle and mandolin strains adding poignance. Clever lyrics and bouncy music are well served by Cowboy Steff's country twang and a children's chorus. This newest collection of Silverstein songs is bound to become a staple in family music collections.

Publishers Weekly (review date 29 April 1996)

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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 black-and-white format that duplicates his earlier books. Like Roald Dahl, Silverstein's cartoons and poems are humorously seditious, often giving voice to a child's desire to be empowered or to retaliate for perceived injustice: one child character wields a “Remote-a-Dad” that will instantly control his father, and another dreams of his teachers becoming his students so that when they talk or laugh in class, he can “pinch 'em 'til they [cry].” The poems focus on the unexpected—a piglet receives a “people-back ride” and Medusa's snake-hair argues about whether to be coifed in cornrows or bangs. Sometimes the art traffics in grossout, as when William Tell gets an arrow through his forehead or a cartoon character sticks carrots in his sockets because he's heard that carrots are good for his eyes. Although some parents and teachers may cringe at such touches, Silverstein's anti-establishment humor percolates as he lampoons conventions (the stork not only brings babies but “comes and gets the older folks / When it's their time to go”), or discards decorum (a small gardener zips up his pants after watering the plants “that way”). No matter that the author's rhythms and rhymes can be sloppy, or that his annoying insistence on leavin' off the endin' to his ING's seems artificially folksy, Silverstein's ability to see the world from, as he says, “a different angle” will undoubtedly earn this book a wide audience. All ages.

Maj Asplund Carlsson (essay date spring-fall 1996)

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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 invariant meaning: “What did the author mean?” nor the individual response: “What does it mean to me?” but rather to find a textual solution of a wider and more decontextualized kind: “What does it mean?” Then, taking a text which is relatively obscure, how do readers actually find liberty to develop a personal meaning and where is the text fixed, leaving no room for doubt. This paper will present two separate studies of reader response and discuss the issue of constraint and liberty in readers' conceptions of two different texts.

In my Göteborg study, readers' experience of literary texts has been influenced by a research approach in education, “phenomenography” (see Marton, 1981, 1992). It is a research method designed to discover and to describe the qualitatively different ways in which phenomena that students encounter in mainly educational contexts are experienced, conceptualized, or understood. An experience is always an experience of something, be it a novel, an arithmetic problem, or density in physics. Phenomenography claims that the experience or understanding of phenomena in the world is essentially of a relational character. This means that we can refer to the experience either from the perspective of the agent, the individual who has the experience, or the object or phenomenon in question. We can say that the individual understands the phenomenon in a certain way or that the phenomenon appears in a certain way to the individual. The experience is thus between the two and becomes neither a part of the individual nor the phenomenon. Biologically speaking, it is of course the individual who experiences the phenomenon, but we can choose to describe the experience in terms of the phenomenon as the individuals, in this case the readers, see it and not as a property of the readers.


In another study, we used a children's picture-book, Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree (Asplund Carlsson 1993). The 246 readers were between 8 and 20 years old, and the task given to them was to “Write down what you think and feel about this story.” Again, the phenomenographic method of analysis was used in order to describe the experience of the story in qualitatively different ways of understanding.

The two stories were perceived as having some similarities in their allegorical or parabolic structure. The young readers above the age of 12, in particular, felt that they had to identify the nature of “the boy” and “the tree,” just as the older students in the other experiment were faced with the problem of the status of “the man” and “the Law.” Their global understanding of the children's story was framed with the point of departure of their focus on the tree, her character and actions, as well as the boy, his character and actions.

Some children thought of the tree as being a human and thus the two figures could be characterized as two friends or as two lovers. One child put emphasis on the unselfish love expressed by the tree's behavior and compared it with the unselfish love of Jesus Christ. Thus, the nature of the tale as a parable was stressed. Here a similarity in behavior and attitude is the basis for the interpretation of the symbol. The tree and the boy could also be described as a parent-child relationship, and again the unselfish behavior of the tree, like a mother, was the basis for comparison.

The tree could also represent nature and the boy could represent humankind. The tree as a symbol for nature is more in line with the tree being a tree and not a human being, mother, lover, or friend. The boy could also be a symbol of materialism and the tree the object, although not necessarily a natural object, but any object of a materialistic yearning.

The global understanding of the tale was closely related to the interpretation of the figures of the tree and the boy. On the first level, where the figures were not interpreted, their ways of being and acting as such were particularly focused on. Sometimes, greater emphasis was put on the tree than on the boy. The tree's way of being (kind and thoughtful) and her way of acting (giving) were focused on. Here, the tree is the good example showing the reader how to behave, the good way of being and acting. The example was explicit, while the principle it exemplified was not expressed in the responses.

In other cases the boy was more focused on his way of being and acting. The tale could be said to be about the boy as a negative example; that his way of being (greedy and wanting), or his way of acting (taking and hurting), make explicit the purpose of the tale to teach the reader that one should not behave as the boy does.

Children in all age groups noticed that the boy is growing, aging, and changing. In some cases they related his growing to his way of being and acting and sometimes even excused his acts by his growing older. On a more abstract level, the tree and the boy were perceived as illustrating principles. The same focus on the tree, as expressed by the younger children in a more concrete way, stressed unselfish love. On this level of abstraction, the tale was perceived as an illustration of the principle of unselfish love, which gives without wanting anything in return.

The focus is on the boy, with a more general and abstract interpretation focused on the ingratitude of mankind towards nature and the boy as an example of materialism. The tale was understood as an illustration of modern society, which is expressed as “take as much as you can.” On a more abstract level, the fact that the boy is growing up illustrated to the readers the principle of change and development. The older readers, above the age of 17, expressed an even more advanced level of understanding of the tale as an example of the interplay of conflicting principles. There were children who did not merely focus on the tree as an example of giving and the boy as an example of taking in separate units. In these cases, even the relation between the boy and the tree could illustrate a principle, for instance, in the form of an ideal balance of where odds and ends meet in the end. The frustrating part of this balance was read as being in the middle section of the tale, where the boy takes and the tree gives. This form of disruption represented a break in the reader's sense of equilibrium. For them, the tale could be said to illustrate the unfairness in the behavior of the two protagonists, in particular the boy, and the moral principle of giving and taking.

Development and change was also interpreted in relation to the contrast of love and materialism in the boy's life. In this experience of the tale, expressed by the adolescents, the reader was able to see the complementarity of giving and taking in relation to the changes that take place in the course of time. For example:

This story wants to tell us, I think, that as children we live for the day, we do not worry about everything we haven't got and we do not value material things as much as love; when we grow older we try to come to terms with our spiritual search, our need for love through striving for higher material standards of living; we forget the fact that we cannot reach inner peace through material things.

To sum up, we could say that the children expressed an understanding that the tale is:

  1. An example of a) the tree as a good example; b) the boy as a bad example; and c) the boy as representing change when growing up;
  2. As an example of the principle of a) giving without taking—love; b) taking without giving—materialism; and c) development and change;
  3. The relation between principles a) giving and taking; b) the conflict of love and materialism in the development of a person.

As we can see, 1 and 2 both focus on the tree, where the former emphasizes the example of the tree and the latter the inherent message in the tale, and they also refer to the title of the tale: The Giving Tree. Two and 3 both focus on the boy. Whereas the categories in 1 all refer to a less abstract level, categories in 2 reflect the level of implicit principles. Three reflects the relation between the two protagonists in a more or less complex way. It is possible to say that 3 is a combination of categories in 2, whereas parts of 2 include categories of 2 and 3, with an emphasis on the boy. Thus, the categories describing the children's global understanding of the tale form a hierarchy, based on the two levels of abstraction and the third level of complexity.


We have identified a number of distinctly different ways of readers' experience of two different stories, “Before the Law,” and The Giving Tree, by the application of an empirical approach to interpret and to describe a literary text. The result of the application is that not only does our study reveal something about the readers, but it also reveals something about the texts. We also argue that the readers' experiences can be ordered in relation to the way in which they reflect the complexity of the texts. We cannot claim that the most complex responses are “best” in any absolute sense, or the “right” answer to the issue of textual meaning, but we claim that it is the best among those that we have found following the data obtained. There is a clear qualitative distinction between the different levels of categories as illustrated in the figures.

In the case of “Before the Law” we found that the more complex understanding co-varied with a particular way of reading. That is, with the use of reflective variation (see Marton, et al.), the readers varied their perspective of the text between and within readings and finally concluded that neither perspective would solve the text in a satisfactory way. In the case of the second text, The Giving Tree, a more complex understanding was found with the older readers.

Where readers seem to find room for a personal interpretation is first of all in the understanding of the characters, and central figures, who they are and what they exemplify. The interpretations of the symbols showed a great variety, although not an unlimited variety. On the level of statement or content they varied more than on the level of conception. The conception of “the Law” as a spiritual order is qualitatively different from the notion of “the Law” as a social or legal order, while the differences within these two main conceptions of “the Law” are by nature not qualitative. Neither do the interpretations of the tree as friend, lover, mother, Jesus, or nature differ in kind; the difference was perceived more on a semantic level.

What is invariant in the interpretations of these two stories is the relation, and in particular the power relation, between the figures. “The Law” and the door-keeper are superior to the man just as the boy in the other tale is in his free will in relation to the tree. It is an empirical observation that textual meaning can be found the invariant core of relations found in all of the interpretive responses to a particular story, while figural meaning is variable to a limited extent, depending on the sample of readers. The perspective taken is also possible to vary with the focus on different parts of the relation. A more complex understanding will thus be the outcome of a variation of both symbolic interpretation and perspective.

Works Cited

Asplund Carlsson, Maj. The Giving Tree: Children's Experience of a Tale. University of Göteborg: M.A. Thesis, Department of Literature, 1993.

Asplund Carlsson, Maj, László Halász, and Ference Marton. Some Paradoxical Effects of Attempts to Facilitate Readers' Understanding of a Kafkaesque Paradox 1 (1994). University of Göteborg: Department of Education and Educational Research, 1994.

Asplund Carlsson, Maj, Ference Marton, and László Halász. “Readers' Experience and Textual Meaning: An Empirical Study.” Journal of Literary Semantics 22 (1993): 104-23.

Marton, Ference. “Phenomenography—Describing Conceptions of the World Around Us.” Instructional Science 10 (1981): 177-200.

———. “Phenomenography and ‘The Art of Teaching All Things to All Men.’” Qualitative Studies in Education 5 (1992): 253-67.

Marton, Ference, Maj Asplund Carlsson, and László Halász. “Differences in Understanding and the Use of Reflective Variation in Reading.” British Journal of Educational Psychology 62 (1992): 1-16.

Silverstein, Shel. The Giving Tree. New York: Harper & Row, 1964.

Ruth K. MacDonald (essay date 1997)

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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 to his vision of the book as original work published for a single, intended market. From the cover to the final poem, the book has a clearer sense than does Sidewalk of its audience and the length of its narrative and better expresses children's interests, needs, and unspoken fears and desires. The acknowledgments page contains the only poem printed elsewhere and otherwise simply gives credit for inspirations from other people. The lack of acknowledgments again hints at the single-minded effort that Silverstein puts forth here. Ursula Nordstrom still receives her just mention, but there is no evidence of difficulties and coaxing between poet and editor, perhaps because Silverstein was more experienced and more sure of what he was doing in this volume.

There are fewer long poems here than in Sidewalk, none longer than a two-page spread, and thus none of Sidewalk's text density. The shorter poems are grouped together across two-page spreads, each with its own illustration but usually with some unifying elements to the spread: a shared baseline horizon, a gesture on one page met by a responding gesture on another, or similar design elements from one illustration to the next. The simplicity of the illustration style in Sidewalk has been modified somewhat; Silverstein has produced more fine-line drawings and gives more detail to individual characters, but he still pays no great attention to background details. Background details are not Silverstein's strength, nor are they required in the cartoon style. Instead, he concentrates on individual caricature and action, and the characters' exaggerated features make their prominent characteristics all the more laughable.

In some ways, in spite of the lack of longer, more complex narrative poetry, Attic is a volume of poetry for a slightly older child than that intended for Sidewalk. There is more focus on school and schoolwork, more clever, artful dodging of adult prohibitions, and more wordplay. The several voices that Silverstein assumes as poet and adult are more coaxing and teasing, as if the child were more reticent and had more complex skills with which to avoid adults than the younger, more easily engaged child assumed in Sidewalk. On the other hand, there are fewer topical poems, none about war or race relations, the kinds of current events that Silverstein deals with in the earlier volume. Thus the target reader may not be any older or more mature. Perhaps Silverstein said all he had to about these subjects in Sidewalk and therefore chose, consciously or otherwise, to move on to new material here.


Like Sidewalk,Attic's structure is typical of a volume of poetry in that it has an introductory poem and a concluding one. The book begins with the title poem, “A Light in the Attic,” and repeats the cover illustration.1 The illustration features a face with a forehead formed like the dormer of a house. The roof with a chimney peaks at the top of the head, and a window with open shutters reveals yet another small head, marked only by two eyes, peering out at the reader above the more complete facial features of the larger, expressionless face below. Someone is up in the attic peeking out the window, providing action, thought, and general brainpower to that lower face with the unfocused eyes. The poem is a variation on the old adage about the porch light being on but nobody being home; the light represents active intelligence.

The picture on the cover, which places the head on a background of stars, suggests a floating house or that the head is disembodied. Inside the book, however, the picture has no such celestial background and shows only the face, turned at a slight, off-center, critical angle. Thus the viewer focuses more tightly on the face and its emotionlessness without being distracted by the vast expanses of space in the background that the cover suggests. The poem itself is about the light in the attic being on and the speaker being able to see that light in spite of its hidden location behind shutters in a darkened house, or behind the blank stare of the head. The speaker lures the shy light out of hiding, gently teasing and coaxing. He or she then tries to make eye and voice contact to get the light to burn brightly and therefore get the intelligence and wit to play without reticence. The “flickerin' flutter” of the light suggests some kind of impediment to shining more brightly—is it shyness, or fear, or some other lack of will?

As Myra Cohn Livingston has said, Silverstein is trying to get the reader to turn on the light,2 or, to use biblical language, to take the lamp from under the bushel and let it shine before the world. Although the biblical meaning might seem inappropriate for such a worldly poet as Silverstein, his discussions of God and God's actual presence later in the book support this reading of the poem, at least upon rereading the entire book. The shyness of the presumed audience is first sounded on the half-title page, where a childlike form peers out from behind an immense book; only the eyes and the hint of a nose are visible, a pose that indicates possessiveness about the book in the illustration as well as shyness about revealing self to the viewer. The imagery of light is picked up on the full-title page with a bare light bulb that hangs down next to the title, its switch clearly visible; the clear bulb on a white page makes it difficult to determine whether this light is on or off, but throughout the book, lights on and minds open is the preferred state of consciousness.

The cover's celestial theme is carried on throughout the book, from the second illustration, which shows someone swinging from a rope tied to a star far above a city below, to other poems about flying and about astronomical bodies, including God in his heaven above. The theme of the head and its various odd, detached, and changeable features also continues throughout the book. Sometimes these poems are quite odd, as in “Who Ordered the Broiled Face?” (112), in which the face is delivered on a platter. Sometimes Silverstein chooses to reflect on this theme, as in “Hinges” (135), which is about wishing heads were hinged so we could let all the “bad stuff” out and keep the good stuff in. The poems are, of course, appropriately illustrated with faces that have all sorts of odd parts. As the center of intelligence and identity, the head and face are clearly central to humanness and creativity. Silverstein's consistent reference to heads throughout the book shows not only his understanding of children and their jokes about heads but also his encouragement of weird as well as thoughtful uses for heads in general.

The final poem, which this time is not a series, as in Sidewalk, but stands alone, encourages the child to exert himself, both physically and imaginatively. “This Bridge” (168-69) recounts all of the book's adventures and glorious sights that the child has already experienced in the poet's company. The ending couplet sums up the poet's final stance about his efforts to amuse and the child's need to participate: “But this bridge will only take you halfway there— / The last few steps you'll have to take alone.” In the last analysis, each person is dependent on individual effort and willingness to take risks. The final word “alone” suggests, quite accurately, that there are some things, including poetry, amusement, and imagination, that are the ultimate responsibility only of the individual. Poets can provide passing pleasure, as can illustrators. But to continue on a path of lively life experience, child readers must take responsibility for their own mental actions and activities. If the light is on in the attic, if the child reader makes use of active intelligence, then making progress over the second half of the bridge to even more fun and adventure will not be difficult.

The precariousness of being only halfway there, even at the end of the book, is dramatically portrayed in a single illustration that fully fills the two-page spread. The bridge of the poem's title starts on the lower left side of the left page, its arch continuing upward and across to the right page, following the path that the reader or viewer typically follows in reading, or surveying, an illustration. Unfortunately, this is only a half-bridge; the small, barely defined character looks out on its promontory to the space below; the bridge must be finished to meet the other side, where the exotic onion-topped towers and crenelated forts and pyramids lie. Without some kind of plan to build, some leap, or some imaginary construct that will permit return to the ground below, the character will be frozen in space, unable to return or go forward.

Luckily, the place from which to leap seems quite clear; the unfinished bridge resembles a diving board, already bent and ready to toss the child up and over to the other side. But without effort and perhaps some daring on their part, children will be stuck halfway, neither here nor there. Here Silverstein is urging children to take an active role in their futures; they should not permit life just to happen but take some action—almost any action—to shape it. Standing still, settling only for the experience of the book and going no further, is simply not an option. The poem's serious tone works as a counterbalancing conclusion for all the silliness the rest of the book contains; Silverstein is not without didactic purpose in this volume, and he sends the child reader forth to try out some of the lessons he has taught. As the book's closing poem, “This Bridge” functions as a summation of Silverstein's attitude toward childhood and maturity. Ultimately, each individual is alone, with only the encouragement of others to rely on. But each individual carries responsibility for his or her own success. Fortunately, most everyone has the ability to turn on the light in the attic, and with some risk-taking, most everyone can succeed, even gloriously. There is no sense of being left hanging here, with no place to go, as at the end of Sidewalk's “Search.” One step, one leap forward, and the reader is moving on. This is a much more satisfying ending than in the earlier volume. The forward motion is already behind the reader, who has only to follow through.

Attic's organization seems both easier and yet tighter than that of Sidewalk. On the one hand, Silverstein seems to be working less hard at being poetic; the serious poems take on serious topics but succeed better. The organization across a page turn is easier to see, both because the two-page spread is used more effectively to illustrate two poems at the same time and because the poems seem to be grouped in more obvious ways. The reader does not need to ponder the connection between the two poems facing each other because either the illustration or the topics make the connection clear. Some poems are so metrically easy that they are not really poems at all but dialogues set in short lines, like a joke or a story in prose set to look like poetry. The wordplays come easily, and the diction is common, not occasionally elevated and archaic, as it sometimes is in Sidewalk. Overall, Silverstein is trying less hard to be poetic and succeeding better in illustrating what he does produce, whether or not it is technically poetry.


Attic is Silverstein's most daring book because it picks up those themes of physical exposure in his Playboy cartooning that are appropriate for children, if offensive to adults. There are many bare butts in this book, including one that has been stung by a “Spelling Bee” (81), which spells out “Hello … You've been stung by a bee” across the exposed lower cheeks. A forgetful character in “Something Missing” (26) remembers to put on everything except his pants when he gets dressed. Of course, his absentmindedness is fully illustrated. The most disgusting poem, “Quick Trip” (116-19), a four-line poem that stretches across four pages, is about the “quick-digesting Gink,” a monster who eats children, passes them through his digestive tract, and excretes them unharmed on the final page, where they tumble out without a mark on them. Without using a single word about feces and without showing the actual act of elimination, the poem implies the unmentionable without actually breaching propriety. Although this poem does not actually deal with exposure, it does speak about the unspeakable and is more raunchy than the poems found in Sidewalk. And yet the four-line poem does not say directly what it so obviously means, and so Silverstein avoids getting into difficulty with censors.

Attic is also the only book in which Silverstein approaches issues of sex and sexiness. The cumulative effect of this book, which is filled with deflated hopes, jokes at the expense of others, poems about arguing, and the unnatural strictures that parents place on children, is like that of an emotional roller coaster; it is a tour de force of crazy people and crazy ideas. A last attempt at daring to offend and breach conventions about appropriate topics for children, “They've Put a Brassiere on the Camel” (166-67) is funny at least partly because of the camel's exposure and its wearing of unmentionable lingerie. But it is also funny because of the way the brassiere is shown fitting the camel: across the two humps. No other animal would be quite so appropriate; the camel's full gaze, slightly lopsided, with heavy-lidded chagrin, is focused on the reader. This frank eye contact of illustration with viewer is usually limited to characters who wish to be admired by the reader, as Nodelman notes;3 here the admiration turns to guffaw because of the brassiere's silly fit and the unnecessary covering of an animal that is difficult to make sexy at all. The eye contact admits the reader/viewer into the inner circle of those who understand how ridiculous this attempt at decency is—and children are part of this circle.

The people who perpetrate this odd act are referred to simply as “they,” the same “they” of common parlance who typify stupidity and rigidity; among children, “they” are also usually adults, and by referring to authorities as “they,” Silverstein effectively distances himself from their camp and their stupidity. “They” force the camel into the underwear to make it “decent” and “respectable,” even though a quick glance at the picture shows how dramatically they have failed. There is nothing indecent about the camel in the first place, and the act simply draws attention to the animal rather than making it more acceptable and less noticeably flagrant in some violation of propriety. The poem is really about nudity, and laughing at it for its inherent appeal to children, rather than about sex issues. This animal has no sex appeal and would offend no one; the camel wearing the brassiere is more shocking than the animal in its natural state.

In this book, Silverstein celebrates nudity for its naturalness and pleasure and displays it not because it is funny but because it feels good. In the vein of feeling natural and being in touch with one's own pleasures and feelings, Silverstein offers “Tryin' On Clothes” (76). The young speaker tries on a farmer's hat and a dancer's shoes, finding neither comfortable or useful. Finally, the child tries on “the summer sun” and “the grass beneath bare feet” and finds both pleasurable, concluding that “[n]ature's clothes just fit me best.” The poem admits the full-body experience of clothes as well as fresh air. It's not as much a matter of how clothes look but more about how they feel from the inside. The speaker in this poem insists that they be comfortable. The humorous theme of exposure here surfaces slyly in the last stanza; until this point, clothes shopping is limited to hats and shoes. Being natural and true to one's self and not trying to fit in someone else's shoes—or hat—sometimes means being unconventional. Being one with nature and one's natural self does not always mean disrobing, but a wholeness of self is certainly one of the messages here. Even the exposure joke is a small one; this is a poem not of high hilarity but rather of quiet satisfaction and all-encompassing comfort. The illustration does not offer a public display of nudity but rather impishly reveals a small person, whose upper torso is half hidden by the farmer's enormous, floppy hat, trying on the shoes. The face is not visible, and the rump appears clothed by shorts of some kind. There is no embarrassed look at the viewer, no gaze seeking to engage at all but simply the act of trying on clothes in dress-up play, as Silverstein describes in the early part of the poem. Although there is plenty of rearend nudity in this book, Silverstein manages to move the issue on from humor to more weighty issues of naturalness.


Attic does not degenerate into a series of silly jokes about bathroom subjects and others that dare to be inappropriate. There are the odd characters and short poems of one-line jokes, but Silverstein also takes up serious issues, well spaced between jokes that are nonetheless weighty and important. Silverstein adopts a tone of serious social concern only once, in one of the most memorable poems, “The Little Boy and the Old Man” (95). The meeting of the minds of both young and old is simply yet poignantly and movingly depicted. The boy opens by describing the pain he feels in his treatment by adults, who should know better than to be so thoughtless. His embarrassed admissions, about being unable to control his bladder, about being unable to control eating utensils, about crying, about being ignored, all meet with sympathetic admission by the old man of similar treatment and circumstances. In the boy's final complaint, that “[g]rown-ups don't pay attention to me,” he is engaged both physically and empathetically with the old man: the “warmth of a wrinkled old hand” is reassuring and comforting, especially because the old man admits that he is ignored by adults too.

The circularity of youth and old age is almost Shakespearean, recalling the nine ages of man in which the last stage of life, old age, mimics the first stage, infancy. In this poem, however, the similarity between the two stages is based on mistreatment rather than on physical inability. The poem is devastating in its treatment of adults, those in control who might admit that at least old people are fully human if they cannot admit the same of children. But the shame they inflict and their utter disregard indict the middle-aged from both ends of the age spectrum. The old man reassures the child that embarrassing lapses are not so embarrassing and laughs as he acknowledges his own shortcomings. But such laughter is not possible at the end—abuse and neglect cannot be shrugged off so easily.

But as is typical throughout this book, Silverstein does not remain on this ponderous, sad note, nor does he repeat it. Instead, the poem is placed quite appropriately between one about babies and one about indulgent grandparents. “Rockabye” (95), which precedes and faces “Little Boy,” provides a lead-in with its sympathetic treatment of babies. The poem deals with the baby in the lullabye who is swinging in the treetop. The speaker duly points out the precariousness of the perch and indirectly acknowledges the sibling rivalry the lullabye inspires in the last two lines: “Baby, I think someone down here's / Got it in for you.” The baby looks out from the basket, only its wide, surprised, perhaps fearful eyes visible on an otherwise bald, featureless head. The basket, woven of rope, seems more like an imprisoning net than a cradle.

Most explicators of “Rock-a-bye Baby” point out the contradiction between its rather violent words and the quiet, comfortable melody that accompanies them. It is not hard to reach the conclusion that the sentiments express an older sibling's disdain for the arrival of a baby in the family. In Silverstein's poem, the speaker stands on the ground with the person who is the source of the vengefulness; in fact, it is possible that they are one and the same person. The poem points obliquely at a sibling as the perpetrator of jealousy but in a voice that seeks to caution in a helpful way. Although it is probably not Silverstein's intention to help explicate the original lullabye, his poem does again raise the question that the original does: why are the baby and cradle up in the tree in the first place? Who would place a baby at risk, and why is this an appropriate occasion for a lullabye at all?

This poem's placement, preceding “The Little Boy and the Old Man” on the left side of the two-page spread, suggests a balance between the topics, of babies and old people, and suggests a topical connection between the two poems. The placement of “The Little Boy and the Old Man” makes sense in terms of the coupling of poems in each spread and of the reader's expectation of such a connection by page 95. That “The Little Boy and the Old Man” is not illustrated is also not surprising. The relationship between the two characters, which would have to be established in an illustration, is not so important. Rather, it is the commonality of past experience and opposition to grown-ups that unites them. “The Little Boy and the Old Man” is not a poem about action or silly caricature, so Silverstein's typical cartoon technique would not be particularly effective in extending the poem's meaning. Without illustration, the poem deals even more centrally with language and feeling. There are other poems in the book that are not illustrated, to the similar good effect of focusing on language and theme.

What is unexpected is that “The Little Boy and the Old Man” is followed by “Surprise” (96-97) after the page turn. “Surprise” is a poem about an entirely different kind of old man, an indulgent, world-traveling grandfather. This old man is not oppressed by the world but is a master of it in his travels. He sends wonderful gifts through the mail to his grandchildren from all the exotic places he visits. It would appear that the grandfather's ports of call are chosen by the poet not just for their wide span across the globe but also for the possibilities their names offer for rhyming. For example, a “cockatoo” arrives from “Katmandu”; “Myrtle Beach” rhymes with “a turtle each”; and “an iguana came” rhymes with “from Spain.” Now grandfather is “in India,” which narrows the possibilities of what might be in the oddly shaped box in the illustration. One of the grandchildren looks up at its sizable bulk with eager anticipation. The other, who is smaller, turns away fearfully, echoing the baby's appearance in “Rockabye,” with only eyes and hairless head to define his face.

The poem's text is on the left-hand side of the spread, above and to the left of the illustration, which the reader is likely to consider both before and after reading the poem. The large box stands on four legs, with eyeholes and a trunk outlined by nailed boards. In spite of its boarded and obscuring surface, the box obviously contains an elephant, which connects with the poem's title: the surprise is an elephant. The final line, “My Grandpa always thinks of me,” can be seen as a child's unequivocal assessment of the gifts, especially since grandparents are seldom so exotic or extravagant as to send wild animals. The desire to have a circus of odd animals is one most children understand, and the arrival of an elephant is a wish come true.

On the other hand, a slightly older child reader will see the fear in the younger child's eyes and begin to question the gift's appropriateness. The “smelly goat” from Spain is not exactly described as an ideal pet from a truly thoughtful grandparent, and the elephant may be just as problematic. If it's the thought that counts, not the gift, one can justly wonder what this giver had in mind. Could it be revenge on the children's parents? In light of the previous poem about the nastiness of the middle-aged, this is a possibility. In any case, the odd packaging and the unlikelihood of an elephant arriving through normal shipping channels makes the poem so fantastic that the more serious considerations about grandparents and their understanding of gifts are unlikely. As an antidote to the earlier poem about the sadness of childhood and old age, this poem succeeds in reestablishing grandparents as active, exotic sources of enjoyment. Silverstein's ability to consider the circumstances of people of all ages signals a mature viewpoint here. The wide range of ages suggests that simple dichotomies in perspective are just a start in considering the range of possibilities in life.

The other poem of particularly evocative power in this volume is “Whatif” (90). The contraction of the question “what if” to a single, rapidly spoken word signals the conversational tone here, which mimics oral speech, and the torment of the whatifs as they are fired off obsessionally by the child speaker. The ability to consider the possibilities of life, to ask the question “what if,” marks the reader's level of maturity as well. “What ifs” are possibilities that normal children's questioning, probing minds can entertain only if they have enough life experience to look beyond the present moment and situation and see that there are other possibilities beyond. Here, the “whatifs” are all negative, the kinds of large and small torments that worry children but that adults frequently have enough experience to set aside as unlikely or unimportant or in some way remediable. The poem does a remarkable job of describing the thought processes of the insomniac and the kinds of anxieties that keep children awake at night. Some of the child narrator's questions are trivial; “What if the bus is late?” has an easy answer: there's not much you can do about it, so why worry?

But Silverstein's narrator does not balk at confronting some of life's most unthinkable possibilities: “What if I get sick and die? / … What if my parents get divorced?” Silverstein balances the horrifying, the trivial, and the fantastic in the list of “whatifs” by alternating them throughout the poem. His child narrator does not hesitate to bring the topics up, indicating here a new level of boldness and authenticity of the child's experience. Children do think these thoughts, in the rapid-fire, depressing quantity in which Silverstein presents them and in nighttime isolation from comfort. Admitting that such possibilities exist, in writing, in a volume of poetry, does nothing to reassure the child except to give voice to ideas that otherwise go unspoken in the middle of the night. Simply admitting that other people, even children, think like this puts Silverstein and this volume on the leading edge of describing childhood experience honestly and fully. If part of the poet's obligation is to tell the truth, Silverstein takes on this responsibility fully and authentically, especially in this poem.

In “Deaf Donald” (143), Silverstein deals with the serious issue of physical disability. Donald signs “I love you” in a rebus illustration to Talkie Sue. Unfortunately, he cannot communicate with her. She is unable to “listen” to his sign language, and so his love goes unrequited. Perhaps the failing here is hers, though she is not really the poem's focus, as its title suggests. That she does not know how to listen in his language is thoughtless, but it is Donald's loss and society's lack of understanding of the deaf that get serious attention in this poem. This poem is part of the tradition of unrequited love and mismatches among unequals seen in Sidewalk and occasionally elsewhere in Attic; the theme of “The Oak and the Rose” (165), in which the oak simply grows out of reach of the smaller rose, is closer to that of the personal-freedom poems discussed later. But the focus in “Deaf Donald” on a missed opportunity for love between an appropriately lovable man and a thoughtless woman make this poem less humorous and more poignant, especially because it deals with a lack of understanding about disabilities.

Of course, this poem provides no solutions to mainstream society's ignorance of the disabled. It is another interlude between the humorous poems and those with more serious intent. But even the humorous poems have trenchant points. For example, the difficulty of answering questions, especially those posed in simpleminded dichotomies, is also a theme in this book. In “Zebra Question” (125), a child speaker asks the animal, “Are you black with white stripes? / Or white with black stripes?” The zebra, normally considered a gentle animal, prey, not predator, acts out of character. It retorts with a barrage of personal questions to the speaker about being mostly good or bad, being noisy, happy, neat, or their opposites. The questions are posed with an edge, but they point to the fact that people—and animals—cannot be adequately defined by simple either/or oppositions. The child speaker is duly chastised and silenced at poem's end, and the zebra's rapid, colloquial piling up of questions certainly puts the child speaker off. The child reader, on the other hand, rather than being silenced into submission, is likely to challenge logical assumptions about the world, to go beyond either/or and realize that there are gradations between opposites, other possibilities than simply the most obvious or its reverse. The nature of opposites, the immaturity of oppositional thinking, and the logical tools of analysis are raised in such poems as this. These themes force the child reader beyond the easy, simple assumptions and solutions that children so easily embrace in their early stages of socialization and that adults sometimes offer in situations that children realize are much more complicated. In this way, Attic is much more aggressive than Sidewalk in challenging children's thinking patterns and in helping them experience more than the volume's humor. Life is more complicated than either a simple answer or a funny joke.

“Zebra” faces another poem that is an extended pun that goes beyond simple wordplay. “Nobody” (124) starts out with the cheap theatrics of the disappointed child: “Nobody loves me, / Nobody cares.” The speaker has nobody for a friend, nobody for an admirer, but then looks around for a personified Nobody and finds, instead, somebody. This particular pun is as old as Homer's Cyclops in the Odyssey but certainly has an up-to-date appearance here. Suddenly the lament about nobody is banished, and “Nobody's gone!” This inability to remain morose is characteristic of youth and its easily changeable moods that make clinical depression unlikely. But the poem's pun, that nobody is actually a person, prepares the way for the “Zebra Question” on the following page. The puns, the stupid questions, the simplistic thinking gone awry are all sources of humor as well as pointers to the book's deeper questions and considerations. The longer the poem, the more likely it is that Silverstein is getting at something more than a punch line or a joke.

Further exploring the themes of opposites, Silverstein shows that simple opposition can depend on angle or perspective in the poem “Backward Bill” (40-41). Bill is a cowboy who pursues backwardness obsessively, like a limerick character, but who is given great range to display the various ways in which things can oppose one another. He pays his boss on payday, describes his wife as “[m]y own true hate,” and even reverses letters in onomatopoeias. For example, his gun goes “gnab,” though it is still a gun, not a nug; his spurs “neigh” and his horse goes “clang.” Reversal is applied in a variety of ways here, and Bill remains happy, never reversing his disposition, as he rides off, not backs off, into the sunset, not the sunrise, “a-carryin' his hoss” at the end of the poem. On the right page, facing his poem to the left, Bill rides off with a broad smile, his horse facing anxiously and antiprogressively to the left while Bill faces right, an apt illustrational representation of his life circumstance: which way is he going? Reversal depends on how it is pursued and how relentlessly, but in any case it is a source of humor as well as a thought pattern with which to investigate serious issues.

Silverstein shows his willingness to take on any subject and any authority in the poetry in Attic about God. “Importnt?” (sic, 54) begins with deep consideration by suggesting that an individual's most appropriate stance is humility before God. In the poem, an extended discussion between two letters of the alphabet, lowercase a and capital G, the a asserts its central place in many words and therefore in the existence of the things those words describe—such as heaven and earth. After this boastful speech, capital G shows graphically that this proud assumption is not true—the words are still understandable even when the a is missing. As G says, “Nd erth nd heven still would be, / Without thee.” Even with the missing vowel, this line is readable. Silverstein's use of the archaic “thee” signals a different kind of diction and topic than his usual colloquial, informal tone and subject. Although the voice of big G sounds normal and humanly reasonable, the language of prayer and of religious discourse appears at the end in the final word. No one but God should assume such importance as little a has mistakenly taken on. The two letters are shown conversing with each other on something soft, like a cloud—perhaps this conversation is happening in heaven; the a is shaped like a typeface “a”, and his head seems bowed in humility over his belly. The large G seems to talk down to him, but not in his stance or tone of reprimand: he simply looks down from on high. The poem's humor, which is quite mild, is all at the expense of the braggart little a. Is this Silverstein's indirect way of calling the little a a little ass?

Elsewhere, Silverstein is more irreverent about God, but gently so and with a firm layer of humor. “God's Wheel” (152) offers a child the possibility of taking on God's job of steering the world. The child then starts bargaining, like a job applicant in an interview or a selfish child taking on chores: “How much do I get?” is the most crass request of several that question God's job in task-specific terms. The child does not see this as a great opportunity but as just another chore, and he sees God as an employer or parent capable of being manipulated. God's conclusion is the right one: “I don't think you're quite ready yet.” The child has an argumentative tone, and the way he thinks about the job and his understanding of the nature of its responsibility are sadly immature. The poem is a humorous one; not many children or poets or even prophets or apostles get to argue so successfully with God.

Although “God's Wheel” poses no deep or difficult questions, the idea of talking to God in tones other than prayerful ones breaks new ground in poetry for children. In the illustration, a child figure behind a steering wheel directs the world. Even Silverstein does not attempt to illustrate God directly, leaving the task instead to such greater artistic talents as Michelangelo. Silverstein does take on the nature of human evil in “Hinges” (135), which suggests that evil could be removed from human brains in a kind of lobotomy if only the skull gave convenient access through the “hinges” mentioned in the title. But this is a short poem and does not demand or require much contemplation. The divine presence, which appears in this book intermittently, is usually ready to contribute to a heavenly joke.


Other such poems of authenticity appear in the volume, though they are not as devastating; instead, the poet finds a lighter, more humorous vein. “The Homework Machine” (56) describes a child using what most children want. Few homework exercises are designed to engage a child enough to make them attractive. With the considerable range of machines available to take the drudgery out of so much of what goes on in the house, and the inventor's idealization and cleverness, it is not surprising that so many children have wanted a homework machine and have fantasized about building one. The contraption shown here is full of Rube Goldberg reels and conveyor belts and gears and is, as the narrator says, the “most perfect contraption that's ever been seen.” The vocative “oh” in the first line, in which the narrator sings the praises of this wonderful invention, suggests the speaker's lyrical, expansive state of mind at the poem's opening.

The first homework question that the speaker asks of the machine is one of simple addition: “nine plus four?,” to which the perfect machine incorrectly responds, “[T]hree.” The speaker's distress is deflating and understated, especially in comparison to the joyous extravagance of the opening: “Oh me …” This is clearly not a functional appliance, as any child might have predicted. It is not even as good as a common calculator. Although the poem stands on its own for reading and recitation, the picture of the magnificent machine further manifests Silverstein's intention by adding an explanation to the machine's shortcomings: inside, a small, babylike child is doing the actual work, scribbling answers on pieces of paper. Like many of children's homemade machines, it is more for show than for real effectiveness. This is one of Silverstein's machines that does not seem dated; even though the illustration shows a contraption that uses a tape like that of an adding machine, it still looks complicated enough to impress even children of the electronic, digital age.

One of the book's most effective themes is Silverstein's conspiracy with his child readers to avoid work and get what they want out of their parents, a continuation of the theme sounded in “The Homework Machine.” The shorter poem “How Not to Have to Dry the Dishes” (12) suggests that children should drop a dish in order to avoid being asked to help out with that chore again. With knowing slyness that children will recognize, Silverstein rightly assesses this tactic's likelihood of success. His objection to doing that job is that it is “[s]uch an awful, boring chore,” not that it is difficult. He does not suggest that all chores are boring, but compared to running errands, the alternative suggested in the poem, dish drying pales, though it is a typical assignment for children. Even those who live with kitchens appointed with the convenience of a dishwasher find themselves having to unload the dishes and put them away, part of the duty that the chore of drying usually entails. The repetition of the line “If you have to dry the dishes” echoes adult insistence that children comply, no matter what oral or physical resistance they may offer.

The fact that dropping a dish may result in being forbidden to dry the dishes turns the tables on adults, who in this poem are ominously referred to as “they,” the unidentified oppressors of childhood. Like the “they” in Edward Lear's limericks, “they” in this poem are traditional child-rearers who demand children's assistance in household tasks, especially those that are boring. For modern children, whose labor in such tasks as tending flocks or carrying wood is not required for the household's economic operation, mundane chores are more common. As a uniformly nondescript mass, “they” deserve all the objections and manipulations they get from children, who “they” seem to assume need to be oppressed in order to grow up right.

The slyness of the solution here mirrors the cleverness children develop during their school years in manipulating their parents and conniving their way out of work. The accompanying illustration of a little girl drying a dish nearly half her size indicates just how onerous and unmanageable the task is. Her hiding behind the dish, glancing furtively out at the reader from behind the huge circle of porcelain, accurately reflects the speaker's collusion with the listener and viewer. At the girl's foot is a broken dish; her eyes appear to glance out at the reader and down to the plate in simultaneous glee and anxiety. Perhaps the effect will not be what she wishes and she'll be reprimanded rather than forbidden to dry the dishes again. Perhaps her furtiveness is shame. The “maybe” in the line “Maybe they won't let you dry the dishes anymore” clues readers in to the possibility that taking such a course of action just might not work. On the other hand, the poem's humor and tactic go a long way toward convincing a child of the possibility that events may just fall out the way that Silverstein suggests.

Avoiding work at all is a consistent theme throughout Attic. “Tired” (78) is the complaint of someone who has worked hard all day, watching nature pass by while performing such energy-consuming tasks as “holding the grass in its place” and “[t]iming the sun to see what time it sets.” This speaker even finds it draining to take “twelve thousand and forty-one breaths.” The litany of activities certainly describes a passive day but one of some interest, as it shows a mind actively at work even while the body is physically at rest. This is not a bored, idle mind but an active, cataloging one. The repeated claim that “I'm tired!,” which is given extra emphasis by the full capitalization of “Tired!” in the final line, seems incredible at first glance. But at second consideration the poem's action gives children a model to follow in finding subjects of interest and focus. The poem accurately describes how children sometimes fill up their time, having little to show for it but having expended much energy nonetheless. Sometimes just growing and playing takes energy, just as more laborious kinds of work do. The work here is not measured by outcomes and productivity but by interest and noteworthiness. It is difficult to imagine that all children reading this poem would find it humorous. The experienced and world weary might find it laughable, and certainly the lengthy catalog of useless tasks would add to that effect. Those used to chores would see the joke. On the other hand, children who are less knowledgeable and more open to the interests of these quite ordinary experiences, those who are more easily able to invest themselves in these activities, might find the poem accurate and straightforward, realistic in its assertion of weariness at the end of the day. Growing up and carefully observing the world really are hard work.

Avoiding work or any other obligation as defined by or insisted on by adults is one of this volume's sly, consistent messages. Exactly what “Hurk” (50) is is not clear to the speaker or to the reader, but whatever it is, it is certainly preferable to “work,” its rhyme word. Playing tennis is quite obviously preferable to going to the “dentist,” with which it rhymes; “soccer” rhymes with a visit to the “doctor” and has obviously superior interest. “Work,” however, is so unspeakably objectionable that Silverstein need not elaborate on the attractions of hurk. Nowhere does he proclaim the dignity and fulfillment of work or chores, the most common form of work for children. He seems to acknowledge that a chore is unpleasant simply because it is an obligation. The perversity of human nature, to feel that an activity is onerous when required, but pleasurable when it is optional, is a quirk that Silverstein explores here, as Mark Twain did with Tom Sawyer's whitewashing the picket fence. The acknowledgment of this quirk, by an adult who clearly sympathizes with children, again resonates with authenticity to children's experience.


The flip side of avoiding work is finding something to occupy oneself, especially one's mind. Although a resourceful child will find the tasks described in “Tired” highly entertaining, most children have not been taught the ways of creativity and useful leisure. Children of the television age have found the entertainment therein so accessible and easy that they have difficulty finding other sources of entertainment or mental absorption. Nor do children have purposeful work to do to be helpful and useful to the family and household. Constantly thrust into the position of consumers, children have not found ways to amuse themselves or occupy their time but simply consume the benefits of their care without needing to return the effort. The thrills offered on television and in other electronic forms of entertainment leave them looking for more. Without their electronic equipment, children frequently do not know what to do. Boredom, or waiting for engagement, is a common emotion for the modern child, one that adults may not understand since it is a new condition in child life. Certainly adults are not always sympathetic to boredom.

Silverstein acknowledges the prevalence of boredom here in several poems. “Channels” (87) describes television's inability to satisfy, as the child flicks the dial, proceeding numerically through channels that are sometimes nonfunctional, at other times full of “jive.” The changes in television technology date this poem; the pace of the channel-changing here does not mimic rapid channel-surfing by remote control but rather the more deliberate, slightly slower flicking and crunching of a dial. Even in older technology, channel one was fictional and is present here mostly for the opportunity to rhyme “one” with “no fun,” signaling the poem's attitude toward channels throughout. The reason to stop at channel 10 in the list of deficient entertainment values is partly because 10 shortcomings are more than enough to convince the reader of television's inadequacies. But the list also stops at 10 because there were few channels beyond that in the television era before cable and public television.

In any case, the concluding question to the reader, “Wouldn't you like to talk awhile?,” is a sensible alternative and one that indicates an interest in human interaction rather than electronic passivity. The offer of conversation is one seldom made to children, and its art is being lost. But talking to others is an alternative to the boredom that sometimes overwhelms children in their abilities to find other sources of entertainment. “Channels” is unillustrated, graphically reflecting the channels' emptiness and the lack of visual interest that even an illustrator as creative as Silverstein can bring to boredom. The illustration from the previous page intrudes slightly at the bottom. But the large white space of the page surrounding the essentially vertical poem emphasizes the brevity of the list of the various channels' inadequacies and is an appropriate illustrational reflection of the boredom that television can offer.

Elsewhere, Silverstein is even more dramatic in his portrayal of boredom. “Bored” (110) and “Standing Is Stupid” (111) face each other across a two-page spread. A simple illustration of a boy with a long board spans the two poems. In comparison to the more detailed illustrations elsewhere, this two-page spread is sparse, though the illustration contributes a visual pun. The title of the first poem is a pun on the word “board”; adding the prefixes “skate-”, “out-”, and “surf-” to “board” makes for more interesting words than “board” alone, but the single piece of lumber is all that the speaker can afford. Although he is clearly able to imagine other possibilities for his board and provides the reader with some linguistic humor in the playfulness of his language, the reader can understand why he is “bored.” Only the title suggests the speaker's mental state, but his inability to use the plain board in active, interesting, adventuresome ways is enough to make the title convincing. The boy's nearly blank, somewhat quizzical expression and his static pose with his board starkly reflect his inner state. Although cartooning usually emphasizes action, this particular cartoon boy is as static as his board.

The poem on the right page, “Standing Is Stupid” (111), more fully develops the theme of boredom; clearly the illustration that spans the two pages belongs to the poem on the left-hand page, though the feeling of boredom is more accurately described in the poem on the right. Absolutely every activity the speaker can think of is useless. The activities' emptiness is underscored by the alliteration in many of the lines. “Sitting is senseless” is the most soundful, though the unusual diction in “[h]opping is hopeless” is equally devastating. The speaker's conclusion, “I'll go upstairs and / Lie down again,” seems a fitting ending to all the useless activities he has described. The board/bored pun still resonates at the end of “Standing Is Stupid,” especially because the end of the board, which has a nail in it, is visible at the end of the poem like a final punctuation point. Will the speaker be stiff as a board when he lies down? Will he lie down on the nail? Now, there is a possibility that offers some excitement and humor. Fortunately, a two-page spread, even with the illustration's unspoken humor finishing it off, is as long as Silverstein pursues the subject of boredom; enough is enough.


Fortunately for the bored, postmodern child, Silverstein offers alternatives to boredom even while acknowledging its enervating effects and its overwhelming presence in children's lives. One possibility is the passive but highly engaging activities listed in “Tired” (78), discussed earlier. Others include writing poetry or simply being silly, which Silverstein encourages early on in the book in the poem “Put Something In” (22). Such creative acts as drawing, writing “a nutty poem,” singing, and dancing, no matter what the quality of the performance, are all encouraged by the poem's speaker, who at the end summarizes what all these activities can do: “Put something silly in the world / That ain't been there before.” The slang word “ain't” strikes a note of informality about such performances and encourages children to be silly, easy, and outrageous in their efforts. Being silly is something that children frequently outgrow as they are civilized into adulthood. But Silverstein's message here is that one can be a contributing member of society simply by contributing something silly. Although the work ethic that has dominated this country has suggested that adulthood is a time of productive seriousness, Silverstein stands as a model of an adult who has made something silly and who clearly has given pleasure to children and many adults. The volume stands as an artifact, a witness to the value of silliness and the pleasure that it gives. Silverstein's encouragement of such behavior among children gains approval by his own efforts as well as by the pleasure he seems to assure children they will get and give in such activity.

The freedom to pursue activities and destiny to whatever far ends they lead, the necessity of remaining true to oneself and to nature, and the encouragement to pursue the unconventional are themes from the era in which Attic was written that Silverstein explores throughout. To value freedom and self-actualization was so common in the 1970s that it became a cliché in the 1980s, but the permission to defy societal strictures was a new idea and continues to be of value to children, who sometimes need encouragement to be creative risk takers. The book's hippie nudity is as much a legacy of Silverstein's reflecting on the freedom movement as it is a remnant of his Playboy cartooning or an apt understanding of the humor children find in exposure. In exploring individual freedom, Silverstein is picking up the theme sounded in “Tree House,” from Sidewalk; here he takes the theme even further.

The ultimate ends of such individual freedom are suggested in “Eight Balloons” (58), all of which take off from their bunch to pursue adventures, such as contact with cacti, porcupines, and frying bacon. The saddest of the lot is the one that “sat around 'til his air ran out—Whoosh!” All the rest end with a “Pop!,” which is what Silverstein commends in the final couplet: “Free to float and free to fly / And free to pop where they wanted to.” All the balloons, even the one that sits still, are involved in activities of their own choice. They are not bound together as a group by some unthinking herd mentality, all eight committed to the same activity without other options. Each chooses its own adventure and by that choice its own end, and all eight end with a loud noise, gloriously rather than ignobly. Certainly their ends are more interesting than simply sitting around waiting to be bought, or being ignored. The repetition of the word “free” and the pleasures connoted by the words “float” and “fly,” the alliterative quality of all three together, and the illustration all counteract the possibility that the balloons' ends are tragic. The illustration, which depicts all eight balloons floating above the text like party decorations, makes it difficult to see the poem as a whole in a tragic light. First and foremost, this is a celebration of happy endings, a variation on Silverstein's more usual use of the punch line—there is no reversal here but simply a different understanding of what coming to one's end might mean.

“Ations” (59) faces “Eight Balloons” on the right-hand page, the second half of what appears to be a party invitation, one of the few remaining formalities in children's lives in the late twentieth century. The illustration, which appears below the text, is of a small couple, a boy and a girl, bowing and curtseying one to the other in a deep formal bend. In fact, it is the formalities of human interaction and their labels that concern the poem. Each couplet ends in a word with the suffix -ation, the Latinate ending that makes verbs into more stable nouns. There is a sensible progression to these words: “salutation,” “communication,” “altercation,” “reconciliation,” for example. The poem's purpose is clear in the penultimate couplet: “And all these ations added up / Make civilization.” The poem is a tour de force of precise rhyming, which contradicts Silverstein's less rigorous approach to poetic technique elsewhere; therein lies part of the humor. For Silverstein, civilization is no more than fancy words and manners. Perhaps it's not really as big a deal as adults claim, and certainly the light touch at the end pokes fun of civilized behavior. The final couplet ends with a parenthetical remark by the poet: “(And if I say this is a wonderful poem, / Is that exaggeration?).” Perhaps it is, but this is one of Silverstein's more witty and exact efforts. As a counterpoint to “Eight Balloons,” this poem suggests that freedom from the manners and language of civilization would be a whole lot more interesting and satisfying. Exaggerated manners are for parties and are not worth much elsewhere.

“Adventures of a Frisbee” (70) continues the theme of exploring possibilities while being true to oneself and one's own basic nature. The poem details the life of a Frisbee who

got tired of sailing
To and fro and to;
And thought about the other things
That he might like to do.

Accordingly, on his next toss, he takes off to explore the world, trying on various roles that suit his shape: eyeglasses, dinner plate, pizza, hubcap, phonograph record, quarter. Finding that none of these roles exactly fits his shape, desires, or other characteristics, he returns summarily to his home, “quite glad to be / A Frisbee” once again. There is no regret for trying on these other roles; in fact, there is a pleasure in the ability to try them on and decide for himself their inappropriateness. No one else intrudes in this poem to tell the Frisbee he is making a mistake; he makes the determination himself. The home-away-home formula is not one that Silverstein usually uses, instead favoring the home-away-to-heaven-knows-where pattern. But here, the reaffirmation of Frisbeeness, as well as the pleasures of trying on other roles, suggests that children should know their virtues and try other things but find contentment in who they are and what they can do. This is a poem curiously lacking in regret, which Silverstein suggests children need not feel while trying to be other things. The final message is not to be something you're not meant to be, a strong counterstatement of the urge to be anything you want if only you work hard enough. That the Frisbee enjoys flying about is enough satisfaction here. Life is the process, not the destination. Not at least trying alternatives makes for some unsatisfactory endings. “Magic Carpet” (106) suggests the usual imaginative flight pattern but deplores those who use a magic carpet only for a floor covering; obviously, those who stick with the everyday and prosaic miss out on too much.

Avoiding other people's solutions and finding one's own are part of this theme of freedom. “Tryin' on Clothes” (76), discussed earlier, reiterates the theme of being comfortable with who one is, especially in being one with one's own nature and with Mother Nature. In fact, being concerned about clothing and appearances at all is pointedly criticized in another poem, “Outside or Underneath?” (107), in which three characters make decisions about purchasing a wardrobe. The poem points to a false dilemma: Bob buys expensive suits but no underwear, since appearance is what counts to him. Jack buys expensive shorts but wears a ragged suit, since it is what he himself thinks and feels about his invisible underwear that matters to him. Finally, Tom gives no concern to clothes at all and buys “a flute and a box of crayons, / Some bread and cheese and a golden pear.” These items, which offer small pleasures and have no value as clothing or coverage, do offer creative possibilities and sensual satisfaction. The joys that a new set of crayons brings, such as the gorgeous precision of their arrangement in a new box and their sharp points and glorious colors, are pleasures of childhood that are particularly piquant and also easily recalled by adults. Although crayons are not exotic, they are exciting, at least when they are new. Cheese and bread are ordinary, though sometimes the two together have romantic connotations for adults. The gold of the pear makes it special and precious as well.

Tom's choice refers to various golden fruits in fairy tales and myths and their great value not only for their jewel-like qualities but also as markers of magic and indicates his singular vision of what is valuable and important. Even the reference to the pear's color as an elegant gold, not simply yellow, marks him as a person of vision and good taste. Tom has the right values; Bob and Jack are dealing with trivialities, whether on the surface or beneath it. Real living is beyond either consideration. Appropriately, this poem has no illustration, since it is not what is visible or even what is hidden that counts.


Unfortunately, especially for children, freedom has limits, usually imposed by parents. Carrying on in the sly, conniving voice of the trickster, Silverstein suggests to children how they can get what they want from parents in one long, melodramatic poem, “Little Abigail and the Beautiful Pony” (120-21). Abigail is begging her parents for a pony, one of urban children's typical desires in the late twentieth century. Abigail even begs politely, using the word “please.” Her parents respond in such accurate parental tones that Silverstein's credibility with a child audience only increases. Her parents retort, “Well, you can't have that pony / But you can have a nice butter pecan / Ice cream cone when we get home.” The poet's use of blank verse—or perhaps just the conventions of poetry, short lines divided on the page with no rhyme and no consistent meter—elevates the language by making it appear to be verse, although it is actually the rhythm and diction of everyday speech. The parents' attempt to deflect Abigail's interest in the pony with food, a typical parental ploy, does not work any more than it works with most children beyond early childhood, those old enough to recognize a ploy. Abigail threatens, “If I don't get that pony I'll die,” and then proceeds to do just that, in spite of her parents' knowing assertion, “No child ever died yet from not getting a pony.” They have dared her, and she has taken the dare. Even Silverstein has taken a dare here; this poem is actually a prose vignette and yet it fits in this volume quite effectively.

The pony is not shown in the illustration, only little Abigail lying on her bed, her parents distraught and tearful on the other page, bemoaning their bad judgment. This is one of the few times that Silverstein uses a true cartoon technique; balloons that contain the parents' words emanate from their mouths. The parents are as sentimental as the poem, so extremely so that it is difficult to take them seriously; this is bathos, not pathos. The mother laments in her cartoon balloon, hand covering her crying eyes, “Oh, if she were only alive I would buy her a hundred ponies!” This is, of course, the vision children have of their own deaths: that they will be sorely missed, perhaps even able to return, and that their parents will be sorry and will give in to every desire. The bathetic tantrum works unequivocally.

Obviously, this poem is so extreme as to be humorous. Like a nineteenth-century consumptive, Abigail wills her own death with such gorgeous theatrics that her parents' reaction is inevitable. The extremity of her thwarted desire and the nearly automatic progress toward her desired resolution, as well as her parents' abject postures at her deathbed, are laughable. Uncharacteristically, Silverstein intrudes at the end of the poem to indicate his intent. This is not a cautionary tale but a useful one, because, as he notes in a stanza in literal parentheses, “(This is a good story / To read to your folks / When they won't buy / You something you want).” The parentheses act as a confidential aside to the child, a code to be eliminated if the poem is ever put to its ostensible use with parents. The frank admission about the need for tools to manipulate parents and the commercial ends of such manipulation bring the poem back into perspective. This is just a game, but Silverstein acknowledges that such games go on between parents and children and that some children can expect better success in getting what they want than the improbable Abigail has had.

The most sadistic poem about parents is “Clarence” (154), who watches commercials on television and believes them. The poem starts out in a direction that seems to suggest that truth in advertising is the theme and that children need to understand the manipulations of marketers. But Silverstein does not at all criticize television or the products sold through it. In fact, the products do exactly what Clarence expects them to. When he sees “A brand-new Maw, a better Paw! / New, improved in every way—” he believes the hype and orders two parents, who arrive by mail. The fate of the old ones is typically suburban: “His old ones he sold at a garage sale,” whence they are carted off to hard labor “in an old coal mine.”

Once again, the narrator intrudes at the end, this time in the voice of the huckster, who claims that the nagging of demanding parents “simply means they're wearing out”—does this line perhaps beg the question who or what is wearing them out? The quick, clean disposal of the obsolete parents, who toil away at a distance, and the happy conclusion that the new family “all are doing fine” is a vengeance fantasy told in the language of the television age. Novelty, delight in new things, and disinterest in old ones make both sets of parents seem like toys or small appliances, which are summarily replaced. Parents are clearly not fully human, nor are they durable goods, which should be repaired rather than discarded. Like cheap toys, they wear out and should be replaced; the new parents can be enjoyed like a new breakfast cereal. In the illustration, on the far right edge of the right page, the old parents, nearly backing out of the picture, wear an expression of mute, stunned surprise, hardly enough to engender much feeling for them. Like a child on Christmas, Clarence greets the mailman with glee when the new set of parents arrives in the mailman's sack.


Of course, the central quality that has kept Attic alive and well through several generations of children and adults is the humor. No matter how deftly Silverstein presents his more serious considerations, the book's overriding appeal is its humor and breadth. In its most obvious form, the humor appears as short caricature rhymes. Between “Abigail” and “Clarence,” and scattered liberally throughout the volume, are short poems, like limericks, that feature odd people with odd bodies and problems. Many, like Clarence, have names, such as Geraldine, who in “Shaking” (18) tries to create a milk shake by shaking up a cow. “The Sitter” (14) is named Mrs. McTwitter, the Mc in her name commonly used to create a humorous title; one recalls Morris McGurk of Dr. Seuss's If I Ran the Circus (1956) and McElligot's Pool (1947). What comes after the Mc is what offers opportunity for rhyme, which in “The Sitter” has a feminine, falling cadence. McTwitter looks a lot like someone who can make such bird noises. She has a pear shape, with an ample posterior for sitting, and a wild-eyed face with a large mass of hair. She looks a lot like Big Bird from Sesame Street. Of course, she is as loony as she looks, since her idea of baby-sitting is hatching the baby by sitting on it. Here the baby's feet peek out from under McTwitter's broad hips.

In many of Attic's poems, the point is simply a pun, sometimes one that shows the humorousness and silliness of the subject and its associated actions. For example, “Overdues” (65) features a hunchbacked, balding old man hugging library books that are overdue by 42 years. Does he owe dues on his overdue books? These poems provide spacing and humor throughout the book; like limericks, they describe individuals who are so odd in behavior, appearance, or name as to be humorous. They do not take on large issues or make large points. Sometimes they simply point to some human foible as a source of laughter. Their presence throughout the book provides breaks and quick pacing, since one is not tempted to linger in contemplation of them. Their frequent puns add to the playfulness of language that Silverstein seeks to encourage.

In somewhat longer poems, these personal failings become comic but fatal flaws. Pamela Purse in “Ladies First” (148-49) insists on her precedence as a female. When she is captured by a cannibal who prepares to eat a whole band of children, she insists, “Ladies first” and of course gets her wish. “Almost Perfect” (169) traces the life story of a girl who is hypercritical of birthday parties, the homework of the children she later teaches, and the hugs of otherwise suitable suitors. When she dies at age 98, God pronounces the same verdict on her: “Almost perfect … but not quite.” Without saying any more, the poet has disposed of her in hell. Barnabus Browning in “Fear” (136) is so fearful of drowning that he drowns in his own overwhelming tears. For these characters, the end is summary death, a satisfying, closed ending to lives not worth preserving or celebrating. In a kind of revenge fantasy, Silverstein satisfactorily disposes of these less-than-fully-human creatures and creates humor at the same time. This is the ultimate punch-line ending—for the character and the reader both.

Silverstein explores the nature and sources of humor in “Cloony the Clown” (74-75), in which Cloony attempts to amuse his circus audience. When he tries to be funny, his audience is distressed; when he relates his own distress, in a long, dramatic monologue to the same audience, they laugh uproariously. He is, of course, frustrated by this odd turn of events, but his conclusion about the sources of humor sounds suspiciously like Silverstein's own: “That is not what I Meant— / I'm Funny Just by Accident.” Some of the best humor is unintentional, though even Silverstein would acknowledge that one can put oneself in the way of such humor. Of course, in “Cloony” Silverstein is exploring the Emmet Kelly phenomenon of the sad-faced clown who manages to amuse in spite of his expression and apparent attitude. Oddly enough, this poem does not end with Cloony's discovery of the nature and sources of humor. Rather, everyone laughs at him while “Cloony the Clown sat down and cried.”

The final emphasis on disappointment not only begs the question about the feelings of the person who is the butt of a joke but also keeps the poem from being too easy an analysis of humor and its sources. Although “Cloony” might be considered less than successful because it does not end at the climax, the deliberately provocative ending provides the poem with a much richer, more complicated tone than simply ending with Cloony's revelation would have done. Whereas Backwards Bill rides off jauntily into his oppositional life, Cloony the Clown is stuck in the center ring with the difficulties and contradictions in his. “Cloony” is one of the book's longest poems and deals with one of its deeper, more complicated subjects.

Elsewhere, Silverstein is less dramatic in his choice of humorous subjects. He relies on things that interest children, such as dinosaurs and evolution. “Prehistoric” (79) lists the names of various dinosaurs, which are both so difficult for children to pronounce and yet so pleasurable to master—how does one pronounce the p in archaeopteryx, and what are all those odd, distinctly un-English letter combinations doing in the language? Dinosaurs are monsters that are clearly under children's control because they are extinct. They are not alive even in zoos or in National Geographic. The dinosaurs' bony remains provide ghoulish and fascinating reminders about their former existence. Their large, threatening qualities place them in a class with dragons, giants, and other mythical beasts that children obsess about in their fantasies in order to learn imaginative control. Attic also contains a poem, appropriately titled “Kidnapped!” (159), a tall tale about being late for school. The reader can only marvel at the glib and breathless pace of the child speaker's complicated excuse for being tardy at school.

Even children's plans that come to naught are the subject of happy poems here. “Rock 'N' Roll Band” (24-25) talks about fame and glory for “seven kids in the sand” who play “homemade guitars and pails and jars.” The poem recognizes that the children will not succeed in their dream to become famous and garner admiration from millions. But the illustration below shows the children glorying in the attempt, singing with wide-mouthed voices, lustily if not well, and enjoying the fantasy. The gift of a “Hammock” (10) from grandmother sounds wonderful, but as the child speaker notes, there's no one to help move the trees into the right position. The character who tries to sell “[s]keletons, spirits and haunts” on the “Day after Halloween” (37) gives children a chance to model adult behavior and also a sense of timing. The child in the illustration has several masks on sticks that she hawks with vigor but without much likelihood of success. Facing this poem is one ominously titled “Never” (36), about all the adventures the speaker has not had—no rodeo experiences, no pirate encounters, no card games with lumber-jacks, and no rides into the sunset after kissing a girl good-bye. The poem concludes, “Sometimes I get so depressed / 'Bout what I haven't done,” mentioning by name an emotion that seldom finds its way into children's poetry but that many children, including most who will read this poem, experience nonetheless.

But is the experience of deflation so devastating? After all, the poem is entertaining in discussing all the experiences a child might consider and amuse himself with if not actually participate in. Writing and imagining are two solutions Silverstein poses for the child as alternatives to both depression and boredom. Even a lowly, discarded “Picture Puzzle Piece” (21) suggests all sorts of possibilities, magical, fantastic, threatening, all of interest. This poem's only illustration is the puzzle piece at the bottom of the page. The poem itself is long and narrow and thus takes up most of the page, leaving little room. Nonillustration is a good choice here. That one can fill up the page and the imagination on one's own is an important message. The stage is set for this poem by one entitled “Signal” (20), on the facing page, about a traffic light that “turns blue / With orange and lavender spots,” signaling who knows what for pedestrians and autos. The poem starts with a schoolchild's obedient recitation of what happens when the light is red or green. The other, wilder possibilities open the door for entertaining the ideas in “Picture Puzzle Piece.”


The made-up word hurk points to Silverstein's attitude about the demands of metrics and poetic form. When a rhyme is needed, Silverstein usually goes for the obvious or the convenient rather than straining language or syntax to create an unusual or more appropriate word. When all else fails, the poet is free to make up a word rather than slave over making the poem technically perfect. In fact, the poet need not go to the point of all else failing; children's own nonce words made up to suit the patterns of rhyme and meter in their chants are mimicked here, by a poet who seeks to make poetry easy and fun by taking the easy way out himself. Amusement, rather than innovative poetic expression, is the aesthetic here.

But Silverstein is much more rigorous about the metrics in Attic than in Sidewalk—he resorts to made-up, forced rhymes less frequently, and in general the rhymes are more precise. Few poems are long enough to warrant stanzas, but those that have them conform to expectations about rhythm, rhyme, and line length established in the first verse paragraph. Silverstein does push the limits of free and blank verse in several poems that pick up the tone of human give-and-take in argument. “The Meehoo with an Exactlywatt” (72) is an extended knock-knock joke inspired by an Abbott and Costello dialogue, as Silverstein notes in his acknowledgments. The dialogue suits the appearance of poetry by providing short exchanges grouped in pairs, an answer that is followed by its questioning response indented below, to form the prose equivalent of a couplet. Italics provide the emphasis needed to bring out the oral qualities of this prose poem and to bring out the exasperation of the meehoo, who has brought his pet exactlywatt for a visit. “Zebra Question” (125) uses this same technique of setting prose on the page like poetry, in paired lines of opposites to mimic the patterns of speech. This is poetry made easy, not just for the poet but for the child reader as well. The poet captures the cadence of everyday speech easily by simply setting it in short lines.

Elsewhere, Silverstein uses the relentless rhyming of falling, feminine rhyme words, a typical device of the poet of light verse. “Ations” (59) uses this Latinate suffix to create rhyme words—salutation, consideration, exaggeration, and six others. “Poemsicle” (133) starts with the word “popsicle” and forms other rhymes using the suffix -sicle. This kind of rhyme makes the poetry appear effortless and yet humorous in its relentless rhyme pattern, which increases the tension and humor of the punch line at the end. In fact, precise rhyme nearly always guarantees humor here. The precision of the rhyming and metrics is one way in which Attic is superior to Sidewalk and a greater poetical accomplishment. That Silverstein can also take on global, pensive issues without haranguing or preaching to or boring the child reader simply increases Attic's stature of accomplishment.

The shorter poems in Attic use rhyme to lesser effect and rely on illustration more. These are generally the poems that develop from the limerick tradition. Silverstein borrows only the limerick's outward appearance, its subject matter, not its strict metrical form. The short poems, sometimes only four, six, or eight lines long, describe oddball people and are usually accompanied by an illustration. In any case, Silverstein does write with regular meter and reasonably accurate rhyme in the short poems, which only intensifies the humor. But the poems are not so tightly constrained by form that the poet's metrical talents become a focus. The limericks are not virtuoso performances in small form but silly events about silly people.

One innovation that Silverstein uses in his narrative poems is alternate endings. As the master of the punch line and the alternative perspective, Silverstein would naturally find this technique particularly appealing. The result is several opportunities for jokes in the same poem. Silverstein uses this technique most obviously in “Hippo's Hope” (88-89), in which the hippo attempts to fly by putting on wings and proceeding to the edge of a cliff. The poem offers three different endings, each one stanza long, on the succeeding page. They are parenthetically labeled for the reader's understanding of the technique: “(Happy ending)” shows the hippo succeeding, “(Unhappy ending)” shows him at the bottom of the cliff, and “(Chicken ending)” shows him deciding to have a snack instead of trying to fly at all. The attenuation of the ending through three different perspectives increases the humor; so do the meaningful words incorporated into the scat song refrains. For example, “high,” “fly,” and “bye” all combine with the repeated “hi-dee” rhyme in the happy ending, and “bones,” “moans,” and “groans” with the “hi-dee” in the unhappy ending: “Bye-hi-dee-boop” and “groans-hi-dee-glop” are two examples. That the poet can instill meaning in nonsense shows his technical control over his humor.


Elsewhere in Attic, the endings are apparent only in the illustration. “Have Fun” (144-45) is a four-line poem that guarantees the absence of sharks at a park pool; no humor is apparent in this poem until the viewer notes the octopus below water level. “Buckin' Bronco” (62-63) promises a bad joke and a rough ride, as the horse is pictured nearly upside down, posterior foremost. The first speaker invites someone to ride this violent beast, detailing the rough quality of the ride in the first three stanzas. Another speaker picks up the dare in the last stanza and seems assured, at least briefly. Whereas all the other stanzas are five lines long, this last one is a short three and a half, as the rider is verbally and visually tossed out of the poem. The last line, “Here is me,” is followed by an arrow pointing to two flying boots exiting off the page on the upper right side.

Some poems comment visually, though not verbally, on each other, linked by an illustration or more usually by two illustrations, in which the figures make eye contact or cast a glance across a two-page spread that the viewer's eye follows. The most humorous of these illustrations is of the tormented person in “Unscratchable Itch” (52), whose hands cannot reach down his back to reach the spot they need to. Across the page, a little waifish girl offers her hand up toward the spot. However, the end of her poem reveals what her gesture means. “Squishy Touch” (53) is about the Midas touch that turns everything to “raspberry jello.” A decomposing pile of victims melts under her feet, a face in profile and a foot still visible in the wiggly mass. The little girl's hand outstretched in the illustration at the end of the poem offers a threat rather than help to the one with the unscratchable itch. The onomatopoeia at the end of every line describing the effects of the touch make this poem delightfully disgusting. As mother disappears with a “(gloosh)” after an unfortunate kiss, the open hand offers a “(sklush)” to the man with his itch.

The unity across the two-page spreads and the great detail in them, especially as compared to the illustrations in Sidewalk, give the reader a more pleasing, more organized experience. These are poems designed to go together, and the book appears less an anthology and more of a varied, though thoughtfully organized, experience. Although the book's overall effect is humorous and although it is the humorous experiences that the child reader remembers, this is not just a collection of illustrated jokes in verse. The book succeeds because of the rhythm of the variety, but it is not a scattershot experience. Although it breaks new ground in its topics of sexiness versus decency, depression, and disposal of undesirable parents, it is so pleasing an experience for children that the pleasure is what remains. Few of the poems are so referential as to require explication or explanation of allusion: one need not know about the Cyclops or Emmet Kelly to understand these poems thoroughly. All the poems' easy accessibility makes the book an easy read for most children.

Yet it is this success in treating these unmentionable topics that many parents and teachers object to. Like a banned book, Silverstein succeeds precisely by offending the keepers of propriety and respectability. He explores topics that have long been the common parlance of childhood, though they have not previously been explored in poetry. For some time, Silverstein's choice of topics succeeded in keeping his poetry in the hands of children but out of the classroom and off the library shelves. But rather than censoring and thereby increasing this book's appeal, teachers and parents have relented and duly admitted Silverstein to the classroom and the home as an introduction to the pleasure of poetry, even at their own expense, as teachers and parents are often the butts of the jokes. As a truth teller about childhood's conditions in the late twentieth century, Silvestein has found acceptance among his dual audiences, both adult and youthful, and in his success and daring in this book has offered these audiences a common meeting ground. As I argue in the last chapter, Shel Silverstein's poetry, at its zenith in Attic, may be the last best hope to encourage Americans to read other American poetry.


  1. Silverstein, A Light in the Attic (New York: Harper and Row, 1981), 7; hereafter cited in the text as Attic.

  2. Livingston, “The Light in His Attic,” 37.

  3. Nodelman, Words about Pictures, 119-20.

Selected Bibliography

Secondary Sources

Berg-Cross, Linda, and Gary Berg-Cross. “Listening to Stories May Change Children's Social Attitudes.” Reading Teacher 31 (1978): 659-63. The authors measured kindergartners' attitudes both before and after reading The Giving Tree to them and found an increase in their empathy and generosity after the reading.

Campbell, Mary. “Silverstein's Mind Filled with Wandering.” Denver Post Roundup (30 December 1973): 10. Short interview.

Cole, William. “About Alice, a rabbit, a tree …” New York Times Book Review (9 September 1973): 8. Admits that the book may be a “male supremacist's fantasy” about the domination of women and the environment. Discusses the book's initial lack of success and then its stardom.

Fisher, Carol J., and Margaret A. Natarella. “Of Cabbages and Kings: Or What Kinds of Poetry Young Children Like.” Language Arts 56, 4 (April 1979): 380-85. Through a survey, the authors confirmed that children prefer humor and familiar content and form over the obscure and challenging in their poetry.

Hemphill, John. “Sharing Poetry with Children: Stevenson to Silverstein.” Advocate 4 (Fall 1984): 38-44. The author experiments with an aggressive reading program for elementary school students to introduce them to poetry. At the beginning of the experiment, the only poet's name that the students know is Silverstein's, and at the end of six weeks their favorite poem is “Sick.” The author attributes the poem's success to its regular rhythm and rhyme and to its blatant humor.

Jackson, Jacqueline, and Carol Dell. “The Other Giving Tree.” Language Arts 56, 4 (1979): 427-29. The authors find it difficult to believe that any reader would take the apparent message of The Giving Tree seriously.

Kennedy, X. J. “A Rhyme Is a Chime.” New York Times Book Review (15 November 1981): 51, 60. Praise for Silverstein's authentic voice and outrageous humor from a well-established poet for children. Identifies occasional lapses into sentimentality and vaguely serious feeling as rare flaws.

Kennedy, X. J., and Dorothy M. Kennedy. “Tradition and Revolt: Recent Poetry for Children.” The Lion and the Unicorn: A Critical Journal of Children's Literature 4, 2 (1980-81): 75-82. Discusses the lack of technical innovation in children's poetry and the tendency of doggerel to masquerade as true poetry for children.

Larrick, Nancy. “From Tennyson to Silverstein: Poetry for Children, 1910-1985.” Language Arts 63 (1986): 594-600. An overview of tendencies in poetry for children, culminating with Silverstein as a voice of children's genuine experience. Notes that as of the end of April 1986, Attic had been on the best-seller list for 164 weeks.

Lingeman, Richard R. “The Third Mr. Silverstein.” New York Times Book Review (30 April 1978): 57. Discusses Silverstein's avoidance of mythical happy endings and fantasy as a real-life possibility.

Livingston, Myra Cohn. “The Light in His Attic.” New York Times Book Review (9 March 1986): 36-37. A well-esteemed poet for children deliberately downplays Silverstein's technical flaws in favor of emphasizing his empowerment of children to be creative. Identifies a didactic intent behind the author's humor.

McDowell, Edwin. “Behind the Best Sellers.” New York Times Book Review (8 November 1981): 50. Discusses the unusual phenomenon of a book of children's poetry reaching the best-seller list.

Mercier, Jean. “Shel Silverstein.” Publishers Weekly (24 February 1975): 50, 52. A short interview with the author that contains new insights into his personal history and philosophy.

Milton, Joyce. Review of The Missing Piece Meets the Big O. New York Times Book Review (11 October 1981): 39. Complains that in this book, Silverstein succumbs to being a “publishing phenomenon.” Insists that children will not understand the book's meaning.

Nichols, Lewis. “In and Out of Books.” New York Times Book Review (24 September 1961): 8. Asserts that the success of ABZ is due to its treatment of young and old people as human beings like everyone else.

Nordstrom, Ursula. “Editing Books for Young People.” In Celebrating Children's Books: Essays on Children's Literature in Honor of Zena Sutherland. Ed. Betsy Hearne and Marilyn Kay. New York: Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, 1981. 143-53. Silverstein's editor at Harper and Row comments generally on the difficulties and pleasures of working with authors for young people.

Roiphe, Ann. Review of The Missing Piece. New York Times Book Review (2 May 1976): 28. Admits that although the story seems aimed at children, its meaning is more likely clearer to “emotionally weary adults.”

Schram, Barbara. “Misgivings about The Giving Tree.Interracial Books for Children 5, 5 (1974): 1, 8. Comments on the themes of dominance and dependence in Tree.

Strandburg, Walter L., and Norma J. Livo. “The Giving Tree, or Three Is a Sucker Born Every Minute.” Children's Literature in Education 17 (1986): 17-24. Identifies the tree as the “giving mother” and the boy as a “spoiled kid.” Finds that few children choose to read the book themselves, preferring to have it read to them by adults unconscious of its alternate messages.

Terry, Ann. Children's Poetry Preferences. Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English, 1974. Terry's research clearly defines children's likes and dislikes in poetry written for and directed to them; she further suggests different ways of presenting poetry in the classroom so that children will grow to like it.

Ruth K. MacDonald (essay date 1997)

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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 explanation of wherein the beauty lies. The reasons for this neglect of children's poetry are twofold: first, except for the most simple rhymes, the American population has a general distaste for poetry, a result of the second reason, the unfortunate way in which poetry is introduced to children in school. Poetry has for some time had to be taught to children, especially since it has lost its currency with the general reading public by becoming increasingly obscure and unavailable to any but the most poetically literate. Poetry has lost its audience because of the hard work it takes to understand both its form and its content.

The result is that children first meet up with poetry in school, where it is presented in a pedagogical, systematic way, with emphasis on the poems' literary and didactic values. In fact, since Isaac Watts, children's poetry has been, in the main, designed to preach. Most children, and most adults as well, realize that the poetry introduced at school is designed to propagandize manners and values that are predominantly Protestant and puritanical. In fact, from the seventeenth century to the present, the didactic mode of children's poetry has been the only justification that most educational theorists have been able to find for presenting it to children. The entertainment value, if any, was clearly and distantly secondary. Poetry has had “spinach” value—good for you but with little appeal to the palate. No one particularly thought to teach children how to enjoy poetry, thereby lessening its appeal even further. So teaching poetry has had a double detriment: it has conveyed the message that, first, poetry is difficult and cannot be understood without extraordinary linguistic tools and skills, and second, it cannot be enjoyed.

Perry Nodelman has admitted that, for all of us who do not read poetry regularly, the life untouched by poetry can be perfectly satisfying. Poetry has no minimum daily requirement; one's life is not deficient because one does not enjoy reading it. America's founding fathers, especially Thomas Jefferson, insisted that citizens of a democracy needed to be literate in order to function responsibly, but such literacy did not necessarily demand poetic sensibility. On the other hand, Nodelman says that many more people would enjoy poetry if only they knew how. He points to those schoolchildren who read poetry without instruction on what and how to enjoy as being ill served.1 Thankfully, Nodelman has nonetheless entered the void and begun teaching the pleasure in poetry that has long been neglected.

Fortunately, readers of Silverstein's poetry need no such compensatory education, and that is one of the beauties of Sidewalk and Attic: no special tools of interpretation, either for the pictures or for the poetry, are necessary. Although the volumes may have richer meaning and experience for those who understand poetic and illustrational techniques, Silverstein's poems are immediate enough that they carry plenty of weight and pleasure without the other knowledge in hand.

In his book Can Poetry Matter?, Dana Gioia likewise decries the distance between poetry and everyday readers but points to the success of regional poets in speaking to their audiences and attracting a readership. A regional poet's ability to speak using the diction that his audience understands, to choose topics in which the audience has particular interest and understanding of, to write about everyday occurrences in a natural, poetic way, serve both the poet and the audience well. Because the regional poet does not attract national or literary interest, the intensely loyal following of his readers is not well known to literary professionals, nor is the regional poet's distinctive success realized beyond the region. Outsiders frequently just don't get it.

Although Gioia speaks mainly of Midwesterner Ted Kooser as his exemplar regional poet,2 all the guidelines that he sets for judging a regional poet a success can be applied to Silverstein, a kind of regional poet whose audience is children in the lower elementary and middle school grades, the region of childhood before adolescence. Silverstein does not expect to speak to a general audience of readers of all ages or even to children in general. If he succeeds with adults, it is because these adults remain actively connected to the child of the age and sophistication that Silverstein has targeted. One of Gioia's statements about Kooser could also apply to Silverstein: “There is little in Kooser's work that would summon forth a great performance. There are no problems to solve, no dazzling bravado passages to master for the dexterous critic eager to earn an extra curtain call. … [T]here is little a critic can provide that the average reader cannot, because the difficulties … are experiential rather than textual” (p. 95). Both Silverstein and Kooser, who do not provide anything for professional critics to latch onto, have attracted their audiences as champions.

Yet Gioia is not without standards to judge poetry's success; even the successful Kooser can fall short occasionally, as can Silverstein. But Gioia's guidelines are fair and sensible and give a handle on how to judge an individual poet's works. The poet's originality, not necessarily of poetic technique but perhaps of topic and voice, the scope of the volume and its integrity as a whole, and the poet's clear sense of addressing a specific audience are Gioia's standards, as are the number of perfect poems and the variety of the voice (pp. 97-98). There are admitted failures in Silverstein's volumes of poetry, as noted in chapters 3 and 4. But there are also those excellent models that are perfect, in expression, diction, word choice, and sometimes even meter, also noted in those chapters.

Finally, it is Silverstein's choice of topics and range of voices that establish his place among poets for children; he has been recognized even among literary professionals for his staying power and popular appeal. His topics are sometimes unspeakable but are certainly thinkable, and Silverstein has succeeded in Alexander Pope's poetic criterion of saying in poetry what is universally thought but nowhere else expressed so well. The voice in the poem “Whatif” (90), from Attic, about the negative possibilities that children are free to consider only during the dark night of the soul and only when they are alone, is one of Silverstein's most potent. Silverstein takes on the voice of the older child considering what might happen to him in the case of certain bad events, some of which are major traumas, such as parental divorce, others of which are less large but no less significant and frightening to a child, such as green chest hair. In “Listen to the Mustn'ts” (27), from Sidewalk, Silverstein takes on the avuncular voice of an adult advisor, encouraging a child in the face of all the social etiquette that limits him; the unclelike voice seeks to free the child's imagination, to let the mind's possibilities range freely. These are two of the more serious and successful poems in the volumes, but Silverstein also manages a range of other voices and topics that reliably succeeds in capturing what schoolchildren think about and how they express it—everything short of the swearing and obscenity that would call down the censors' and other adults' opprobrium.

It is Silverstein's subversion of topic that captures Alison Lurie's attention and commendation. Silverstein's subversion is part of his popular success, although it has mitigated literary recognition of his works. Literary critics continue to devote their attention to a canon of poetry that has messages and techniques acceptable to critics, teachers, parents, and other adults. But there are those books that Lurie calls “sacred texts of childhood,” those works she would therefore call “great” because they “express ideas and emotions not generally approved of or even recognized at that time; they make fun of honored figures and piously held beliefs; and they view social pretenses with clear-eyed directness, remarking—as in Andersen's famous tale—that the emperor has no clothes.”3

Silverstein tells the truth to children, right down to the messy, open, inconclusive endings and occasional sentimentality. He debunks fantasy happy endings as lying to children and inculcates self-reliance as the best protection against life and guarantee of success in it.4 In his wish-fulfillment poems, about disposing of annoying siblings and parents and about manipulating parents, he gives voice to children's unspoken thoughts and sometimes becomes the subjects of children's private conversations. Silverstein's ideas have seldom before become subjects of poetry and are certainly not ideas that adults discuss without preachy rejoinder. But in such poems as “For Sale” (Sidewalk, 52) and “Clarence” (Attic, 154), about disposing of siblings and parents, Silverstein enters the fantasy so completely, with such gusto and approval, that the child readers learn to trust the poet and entwine themselves in the experience of the poetry. In Silverstein's advice poems, which are few but nonetheless genuine, he has the readers' trust so thoroughly that the didacticism is likely to be taken to heart rather than scoffed at for being treacly. Silverstein follows in the tradition of Isaac Watts in this infrequent educational mode and follows eighteenth-century assumptions about children's poetry both delighting and teaching, yet Silverstein's teaching is infrequent enough and the lessons taught so easily embraced that the primary motive never seems pedagogical.

Above all, Silverstein renders pleasure to the reader; that is the primary motive behind his poetry, and in it he succeeds. At the beginning of Perry Nodelman's book on understanding children's literature, aptly titled The Pleasures of Children's Literature, he gives a long list of pleasures that literature for children can give.5 On these counts, Silverstein renders full measure. The jokes are frequent and ribald enough to keep the reader's attention, yet the book is segmented into two-page spreads so that the reader avoids a surfeit of humor. Sidewalk and Attic need not be read continuously, from front to back, but can be sampled, placed aside, and reentered at almost any point. The reader need not put forth much effort to enjoy these books, and the enjoyment is fulsome regardless of the effort. The illustrations are both a lure and a gift from the illustrator; as discussed earlier, they, too, are easily enjoyed, and the code of the cartoon—quick, radiating lines that indicate motion, movement primarily from left to right to encourage forward motion, and few symbols, mostly faces and action with little background—simply supports the book's rapid, pleasurable pace. The easiness of reading both poetry and illustration also underscores the author's overall approach to life—easy, full of motion and progress, with short stops along the way to enjoy the view.

The physical appearance of these volumes simply encourages their easy pleasure. No cheap knockoffs in paperback have appeared. Both Sidewalk and Attic are still constructed of the same high-quality materials used for the first issue, with gold leaf on the spine and the author's signature on the cover. But this cover is seldom seen, since the dust jackets, with their distinctive white background and black illustration and lettering, mark a Silverstein volume with his signature design. The volume of poetry without its dust jacket simply does not appear to be authentic Silverstein. The heavy paper stock makes page turning easy, and the generous white space, between poems, between poems and illustrations, even between individual letters, makes the book a gift for the eye. A book like this is hard to lose and easy to treasure. It is definitely made for keeping when not in use and unlikely to be discarded, either unwittingly or deliberately—this is not a book one is likely to be done with permanently.

Silverstein fails as a technical poet for a reason: he invites the child, as the poet's equal, to join in a poetic moment. In order to do so, the poet must use language and poetic form that a child can recognize. As X. J. Kennedy and Dorothy M. Kennedy note, old-fashioned patterns of rhythm, rhyme, and sound dominate even the most contemporary children's poetry. It is as if “shaken only a little by those winds of change that in the 1960s and 1970s swept the mainland of American literature, poetry for children today seems an offshore island doing its best to stay serene” with poetic devices clearly antiquated in poetry for adults.6 If Silverstein pushes the limits of topics and voice, he wisely avoids pushing the limits of poetry and technique.

It seems likely that Silverstein knew instinctively those qualities that research shows children most prefer in poetry. Two studies, one a survey of the research, the other a survey of children, show that the qualities children like best in poetry are identifiable rhythm, rhyme, and sound patterns. But even more telling than the poetic devices is the poems' tone. Children's overwhelming preference, as reported in the research, is for humor in poems.7 Here Silverstein succeeds without question, even among adult professional literary critics. Such words as “uproarious,” “zany,” and even the more tepid “delightful” dominate the reviews of both Attic and Sidewalk.


After Silverstein's absence of more than 20 years, Falling Up appeared on bookstore shelves as a surprise.8 Twenty years is several generations in children's literature, and the reading public for children's poetry during this time habituated itself to the kinds of poetry that Silverstein had originated and popularized earlier. In fact, other poets carried Silverstein's tradition of the gross and disgusting in verse even further and kept current with new inventions and gadgets and language in the popular culture of kid life that formed the basis of Silverstein's early success. After 20 years, the scatological joking found in Falling Up has become common, and as noted earlier, Silverstein's books have begun to show their age. As a result the bawdy and bathroom humor in Falling Up now seems tame and almost nonchalant.

Much of what is new in Falling Up has to do with poetry about new gadgetry, especially that unavailable to the poet earlier. This is Silverstein catching up with 20 years of technology. Thus there is a poem about using a computer in the writing process, “Writer Waiting” (58). The computer's promise to make writing easier through word processing, however, has no merit unless the poet has a topic, something to write about; the computer fails to generate writing on its own, and the writer using the computer in the poem finds himself with low-tech writer's block. As most adults and children know, only a human can make a computer work, and finding inspiration to write is not easier because of new technology. Thus Silverstein ends the poem typically—a great work is promised while the writer sits at the keyboard, but the punch line is that he can find nothing to write about.

As might easily be expected, there are also poems about the ubiquitous use of electricity to power children's amusement, and there is even a poem about a Walkman and its uses and abuses. “Headphone Harold” (161) is one of Silverstein's peculiarly obsessive children, who insists on walking on the railroad tracks while listening to the radio through his headphones. His doom is obvious—he cannot hear the train coming. Even the TV remote control gets a poem; “Remote-a-Dad” (112) suggests using this dandy appliance to control fathers, the ultimate command being “off,” which extinguishes them. The overloading of circuits powering household entertainment and appliances also gets a poem, “Plugging In” (8). The punch line of the tripped circuit breaker seems inevitable, given the long list of electrical implements the family seems to be using at once.

Silverstein even occasionally flirts with the political issues of the nineties, though he nowhere pursues them as seriously as he does the issues of the seventies in the earlier volumes. In “Description” (78) children vehemently debate about what God looks like. One insists he is black; another, a girl, insists he is a she. But in this poem, which is a series of one-liners, the punch line belongs to the speaker, who claims to have God's own handwriting sample—unlikely though that may seem. The issue about God's appearance is muted by the preposterous, unexplored issue of having God's autograph at all.

There is a poem about animal rights, “Warmhearted” (59), about a woman who wears a fox stole that is still alive. The live fox around the matron's neck looks put upon but does not appear to be truly suffering. Nowhere in this book is there the persisting, moving poetry, like that found in the earlier volumes, about the political and philosophical issues that now preoccupy Silverstein. The old causes seem to have been resolved, and the new ones are treated less seriously and less extensively.

Instead, there is a pattern of poems about issues that seem typical of an older, gentler poet, one who is considering his advancing age. Even some of the obvious jokes seem more typical of an older person than in tune exclusively with children. For instance, the book's sixth poem, “Scale” (8), is about someone who is overweight, especially around the middle. He is sure that the scale he is standing on would speak reassuringly to him if only he could see it over his spare tire. The person on the scale is not an oddball character or even a pudgy child; this distribution of weight around the middle is typical of the middle aged and older. Although children will laugh at this poem, its target audience is more likely the middle aged and lumpy.

Some of the poems start by celebrating children's natural tendencies but at the end make concessions to adults rather than indulging nature inordinately or punishing adults. The most obvious of these is “Noise Day” (26-27), about a national celebration set aside for children to make their loudest, most irritating and disruptive sounds with as much abandon as they can muster. The poem is a particularly joyful and successful one, with its catalog of all the sounds that children can make, such as dribbling a bowling ball or slamming a door. But the poem ends unexpectedly with an adult's negotiated settlement. These noises can go on all day, but “[t]he rest of the days—be quiet please.” A younger Silverstein would have encouraged the children to keep it up until the adults were driven crazy. This is the voice of limited indulgence and adult need for peace and quiet, in spite of the fact that, with the exception of the last line, the poem celebrates childhood's exuberance.

Similarly, Falling Up contains two poems on old age that are the closest to the successful serious poems of the earlier volumes. “Stork Story” (166-70) suggests the process of reincarnation. As the stork delivers babies, so it takes old people away “[w]hen it's their time to go.” At their destination, an unspecified location, all their ailments are removed from them; their bodies are reconditioned, their brains are restored to the blankness of childhood, and then the stork takes them back to life as babies. This is a comforting image of death, one that does not press a particular theological point about dying but simply reassures a child reader, or a reader of any age, that dying is not something to be feared. The imagery is more reminiscent of a garage or a recycling center than of a hospital or of heaven, and the reconditioning happens painlessly and without sorrow. That the end is the beginning is also a typical Silverstein reversal. And yet this poem breaks new ground for Silverstein in that in treats the serious subject of death with a light touch but with dignity and without uproar.

Another poem about the aging process, “The Folks Inside” (144), explains to children that they, too, will age and that their potential to become old people is latent in them; it's just a matter of time until “[t]hose old folks / Down inside you / Wake up … and come out to play.” One wonders if Silverstein senses his own aging and mortality. Certainly the dust-jacket photo shows a more pensive, more accessible poet than do the earlier photos; his hands are folded in front of him in a restful, perhaps even prayerful attitude, his eyes making clear contact with the viewer. This is not the kicking, sneering musician or the reluctant, casual poet of the earlier dust jackets. The poet in this portrait is accessible, seemingly more gentle and quiet both inside and outside this book.

The illustrations have become both more adventurous and more problematic. In his attempt to unify each page's layout by placing the illustrations across a two-page spread, Silverstein occasionally puts the illustration's focal point in the gutter, something that beginning illustration students learn not to do in their first week of class. Overall, the drawing style has not evolved, and Silverstein still has some lessons to learn. On the other hand, there is an illustration on the end page, glued to the cover on the right-hand side, truncated at the gutter: two legs with shoes, the rest of the body lost in the gutter. These legs do, in fact, look as though they are falling, perhaps up, continuing the title even at the end of the book as a design element that demonstrates Silverstein's continuing unconventionality about illustration and what constitutes the illustrator's space. The artist's potential to joke seems much broader than earlier. Some illustrations reappear, with modification. The little bare man who traipses across the last page of Sidewalk and then trails his beard behind him through the index of the same book reappears here across the bottoms of the index pages with a placard in hand, which reads “One more time.” The two masks, happy and sad, from Attic reappear at the top of the index page, this time on children's heads. The children, a boy and a girl, round faced and startled in expression, wear the masks like hats with the visors up. Here we have both the old and the new brought together. One poem, on page 98, “Allison Beals and her Twenty-Five Eels,” even makes an illustrational reference to a poem on page 59. The eels and their uses are disposed of effectively, except for the one in the last line: “And one got a new job on page fifty-nine.” A quick turn back to page 59 shows that this eel functions as a power cord to a computer, its mouth open as if it were going to bite the outlet. Is this an electric eel? On the whole, Silverstein works harder here to tie the illustrations in with earlier works and with other poems.

One of the other 24 eels that accompany Allison through life demonstrates one of the most significant changes in the book's overall tone and conduct, though this significance is almost more important because of its diminution: one of the eels is a spare brassiere strap. Although the bra on the camel in Sidewalk is a significant image, here the bra becomes simply another item in a long list and not the most interesting or noteworthy. Its function is barely worth a titter. In the time between Attic and Falling Up, sex, sexuality, lingerie, and nudity have declined as subjects of humor, their potential for gaining laughs much diminished. So nudity in this book becomes almost accepted, even full, frontal, Playboy-like self-display.

For instance, two women, albeit cartoons, appear naked in this book, one, visible from the rear, prancing in wild abandon, “Dancin' in the Rain” (108) and clearly enjoying it. The other woman, in “Tell Me” (154), is visible from the front but places her hands, in both dejection and embarrassment, over her lower parts; her upper parts are not much detailed. Neither of these illustrations is particularly humorous or titillating, and the women's nudity is not mentioned in their poems at all. In the illustration for “Tattooing Ruth” (45) a naked man is covered with the markings of a suit, but he, too, covers his lower self with his hands, quite naturally and yet quite discreetly. The overall effect of the tattoos is to cover him fully and decently in a double-breasted suit. Never one to detail genitalia, Silverstein judiciously avoids doing so here as well. Although nakedness and sexuality are treated much more casually than in Silverstein's earlier works, the jokes about urination are much broader; in “Gardener” (68), a boy is sent out to water the flowers and is caught as he bends over, back to the reader, to urinate on them. One of the book's bolder jokes is about a person shaped like a helium balloon (“Human Balloon,” 125), full of gas from drinking Pepsis and Cokes, a commercial mention rare in this book and elsewhere in Silverstein. As the boy floats about, the narrator of the poem hopes, in an intended pun, that he “doesn't run out of gas.” Not mentioned is which end the gas might run out of. Because Silverstein is no longer breaking conventions of decorum and etiquette, which are much more casually observed in poetry and in the popular culture now than earlier, the poems seem much tamer.

Tameness and some human decency are what is remarkable here, especially considering the broad and sometimes bawdy poetry in Silverstein's earlier works. Even parents get their just deserts, with due deference and recognition of the complications and difficulties of their lives. Even in a poem as obviously titled as “No Grown-ups” (113), adults' usefulness becomes clear when the children in the poem find themselves having to pay the bill for pizza at the end. The tacit admission is that grown-ups are really quite handy, and children cannot long get on without them.

The most sympathetic of the poems about adults is “A Cat, a Kid, and a Mom” (104), in which each party complains that it is unfairly persecuted and urged to change, to become something against its nature. This is the first time in all of Silverstein's poems that a parent is a sympathetic figure. The mom explains, “Why try to make me wise? / … Why try to make me be patient and calm? / I'm a mom.” The mom, whose voice here is authentic and exasperated, simply explains that her behavior is a natural part of parenting, something that can't be changed. The child in the poem gets his own authentic voice—“why try to make me like you?”—and so does the cat. But the mother gets the last word, and her firm foot in the picture, the only part of her shown, suggests the firmness and finality of her voice and her point of view. The mom's insight and the equal standing of her complaint with the child's gives the mom her due, though this poem also admits the child's point of view. Moms are as immutable as cats.

However, adults are not always so sympathetic. The father in “Quality Time” (143) uses his son's nose as a golf tee; although the naive narrator sounds half ironic in his pleasure at spending such rewarding time with the father, the more knowing reader can see through the ruse and realize what most children and adults know: that there is no such thing as quality time without real interaction and that quality time is no panacea for the lack of time a parent spends with a child. Teachers are still not redeemed in this collection, and school is a special focus and target. “Crazy Dream” (168-69) is a potent revenge fantasy during a child's dream in which teachers are forced to answer impossible questions and are swamped with meaningless homework, then hung by their ears from a clothesline for bad behavior.

Silverstein also makes advances in his use of language and of nearly impossible rhymes. “Shanna in the Sauna” (103) practically picks the English language clean of words that rhyme with sauna. “Bituminous?” (134) catalogs the complex, Latinate vocabulary that confuses children. The title suggests one issue—what is the distinction between bituminous and anthracite? between inflammable and incendiary? The fact that this poem rhymes at all shows the poet's growing control over vocabulary and poetry techniques. Some of the poems celebrate peculiarities in the English language. “The Gnome, the Gnat, and the Gnu” (71) celebrates the silent g by using it in improbable places. The gnome, in gnomish English, concludes “[t]hat gnocking a gnat / In the gnoodle like that / Was gnot a gnice thing to do.” One of the more hilarious and extended poems describes the trial of “The Nap Taker” (140-41); the child is accused of taking someone else's nap, as if nap taking were somehow related to stealing or kidnapping. Few children take naps willingly, and taking someone else's nap is only a linguistic possibility. The humor is underscored by the accusing judge, who wears a nightcap. The peculiarities of diction are both explored and illustrated in “They Say I Have …” (75), about various facial features inherited from other family members: father's nose, for instance. Although the child's behind, his only unique feature, is not shown, ancestors without their inherited features are like a child's puzzle in which the child is asked to draw in hair, eyes, nose, mouth, and so on. Overall, Falling Up does not contain the terrible failures found so glaringly, albeit occasionally, in Silverstein's other books; the language is more clearly written for recitation rather than for singing, and the poetry is more technically controlled.

There are fewer poems that preach than in earlier volumes and less celebration of the breaking of rules. But there is still that unalterable faith in the certain knowledge of the individual and in self-direction. Falling Up is a book less about changing the world and more about observing its oddities and humor. “The Voice” (38) inside of each person dictates “[w]hat's right for you” without intrusion. This absolute faith in each person's conscience is as iconoclastic as Silverstein gets. This theme, though potently stated here, is not sounded again in the book. There are two poems that comment on the problems of moral paralysis. The diver poised on the diving board who appears at the end of Attic reappears here, in “Diving Board” (24), still poised. This kind of procrastination caused by fear is actively discouraged in the poem. Silverstein also counsels courage in “Woulda-Coulda-Shoulda” (65), about three characters who all run away “[f]rom one little did.” Yet these poems are quieter and more reassuring than those that encourage wild abandon and creativity in the earlier books.

Falling Up ends with a celebration of time, of the problems of living in and for the moment. “The Castle …” (171) lies in the land of Now, which is where we all live; the problem is that Now passes so quickly and the castle is only a cardboard facade, so that once someone enters he's automatically deposited out the back of the kingdom and Now has passed. Now is only a moment that passes more quickly than a short poem. This is the poem of someone who knows that many nows have passed and that they are hard to hang on to. This is not the restless spirit at the end of Sidewalk, who finds joy in movement and in searching for elusive happiness, nor is it the poet who celebrates human potential in creating the marvelous, as in Attic. This is an older, more contented voice that puzzles over the passage of the now without lamenting and is content to contemplate rather than driven to pursue life. The poem facing this one on the left page, “In the Land of …” (170), is a celebration of reversals about some other kingdoms. The ideal kingdom is one in which ugly people are held up for public admiration. Some of the reversals are merely overturnings; for instance, in the Kingdom of Listentoemholler, steak is cheap but the tax on it is not. Although this book explores the contradictions and homophones in language particularly effectively, sometimes the logical pursuit of a point gives way to simple if unlikely invention.

Above all, this book succeeds not so much as a tour de force but as a big red bow, tying up some of the issues in Silverstein's productions over the years, showing his increased technical abilities as a poet and his greater concern for the design of a book as a whole. This book is not a bang, not a whimper, but a gentler, kinder book in which some of Silverstein's issues make a playful reappearance and others are resolved. The brashness is gone, which permits the kindness and decency to emerge. If a poet disappears from the publishing scene for 20 years, this is an honorable and excellent way to reappear.


In all Silverstein books, however, both early and late, it is the humor that sells, convinces, and persuades even the most reluctant readers of poetry. The range of humor in the books makes them appealing to a wide range of school-aged children. It is safe to say that the books are designed for literate children, not for the preliterate. The poems' humor depends on one's ability to read them and interpret the accompanying pictures. An acquaintance with, though not necessarily a love of, the written word and a rudimentary ability to take the cues rendered in the pictures make the poems inaccessible to young children unable to read and interpret the illustrations. The poems also contain a range of humor designed to appeal to children from first to sixth grade and to older children, including adults, who will nostalgically but accurately recall the kinds of humor that most attracted them to Silverstein earlier in their lives.

Though the scholarly investigation of humor is fairly recent and fraught with the difficulty of gaining serious respectability, given the propensity of the subject to take over the tone of the investigation, several scholars have nonetheless developed theories of children's humor and children's acquisition of various senses of humor. Wolfenstein and McGhee are the foremost theorists in the field, the first a Freudian, the second also psychological but more developmental than sexually analytical in approach. In spite of their divergence of perspective, both report, though for differing reasons, basically the same stages in the development of humor in the child.

The first stage, starting at one year old, has less to do with the child producing humorous situations and more to do with the child recognizing contextual clues that indicate that the situation is “just for laughs.” Between the ages of two and three, the child sees as humorous the reversals of sex by change of name or ascription of gender.9 Slightly older children find humor in play with names, especially nicknames, which Wolfenstein finds is particularly offensive to adults, who carry residuals of some ancient, primal instinct about the sacredness of naming.10 Less mythic analysts may find the same results in similar research, since Americans equate names with personal identity and dignity.

Children at ages four and five think that humor consists of making funny motions and faces. Their linguistic humor is reserved for the contemplation of impossibilities, sometimes linguistically induced possibilities: “Have you ever seen a horse fly?” (as opposed to a horsefly). Such questions do not demand an answer, as a riddle might. In fact, when Wolfenstein sought to teach children of this age riddles, they did not understand the punch lines and saw no humor (pp. 139, 147). Their own versions of funny stories were improbable and shapeless, tending toward no particular end other than an entertaining set of circumstances. For children at this stage and before, Silverstein has little to offer. His target audience has more linguistic sophistication and maturity, as does his humor.

Silverstein begins to appeal to children when they reach age six. At this age, children appear to like joking riddles, both listening to them and telling them. Both Wolfenstein and McGhee report the emergence, like clockwork, among six-year-olds of the “little moron” jokes. Neither reports particularly precocious children learning these rotely memorized jokes early, nor have they found that slow children learn them later. Neither specifies the particular developmental point at which such jokes begin to appear funny to the child or begin to appear as part of the child's repertoire of humor. Wolfenstein, who does point to the consistent themes in the moron jokes of fear of exposure and stupidity (pp. 98, ff.), also reports the jokes' concise verbal quality, which children feel the need to reproduce precisely (pp. 141-44). This is also the stage at which the child is able to control the body long enough to keep it still during the telling of the joke (Wolfenstein, 143); silly gestures are not part of such stories. Wolfenstein also reports the phenomenon that children of this age do not admit to having learned the joke from someone else or to having memorized it; they claim that they have always known it, or that it just exists (pp. 99, 123, 132). For them, jokes are part of the cultural unconscious and simply emerge when the time for telling them is right—this latter is my interpretation of children's sense of the timelessness of such stories.

Concurrent with the appearance of the first moron jokes in children's development, other kinds of joke riddles appear. It is important to note that the child in early grade school is dependent on rote performance of these jokes; the skill of the storyteller, the mood of the audience, the sustaining of the audience's interest are not yet matters of concern (Wolfenstein, 21, 143; Bariaud, 34). But the repertoire of humorous appeal expands, and it is here that Silverstein finds his youngest audience. For the child this age, Silverstein provides joke riddles, such as “What Did?” (Attic, 16-17)—“What did the carrot say to the wheat? / ‘Lettuce’ rest, I'm feeling ‘beet.’”

Memorizing a Silverstein poem can be a relatively simple experience, since some of the poems are only four lines long. The rhyme and rhythm, as well as the situation's short attenuation until the punch line, help the young reader/reciter remember the poem. Memorizing the poem makes it no longer Silverstein's but the child teller's, a part of that vast lore of childhood that simply is, without authorship. Bathroom humor, the kind that concerns not only feces and urination but also the exposure of the posterior, are prominent features both in children's humor at this stage and in Silverstein's books.

Bathroom humor appears shortly after the child learns control of his bodily functions; their silliness about it often results from the baby-talk words that adults use to describe feces and urine. Older children of reading age still find this subject matter humorous, though they demand more complicated joke forms to relate their amusement in and fascination with this otherwise forbidden topic (Bariaud, 27). Silverstein amply fills this need for jokes and riddles about bathroom behavior and exposure. Although children demand his books and read them, if these volumes ever find their way into the hands of conservative and censorious pedagogues, there will be book-banning attempts. As it stands now, the illicit experience of reading these scatological poems provides fun for children at an age at which the delights of reading and of poetry may still be shrouded in schoolteacher obscurantism. These are not poems for teaching; they are simply to be enjoyed.

Silverstein's poems provide the length, breadth, and variety of jokes to fill most children's need at this age for longer, more complex funny stories. This need stems partly from tensions that children frequently feel during their first years at school; they feel the pressure to achieve, not only from teachers but from parents. The “uproarious” relief that Silverstein's poems provide, if one may borrow a term from the reviewers, and the sheer volume of poems in his collections make the books good resources for stress reduction.

As McGhee points out, as children mature and approach their teens, they are able to tolerate humor in which they are the butt of the joke (Bariaud, 34). They become storytellers themselves, able to use intonation and timing and to create a mood and develop a story sufficiently to result in a humorous punch line. Silverstein's longer poems lend themselves to such storytelling, especially the tall tales—about being late for school, as in “Kidnapped!” (Attic, 159), or about not taking out the garbage, as in “Sara Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out” (Sidewalk, 70-71); Sara Cynthia is presumably buried by the accumulation she avoids. Older children's willingness to see their own behavior as the source of humor indicates a level of maturity that also signals the end of Silverstein's appeal. Although teenagers report resurrecting old jokes that they might have outgrown (Bariaud, 38), and although adults can similarly regress to the jokes of their childhoods (Wolfenstein, 156), a steady barrage of humor at the level Silverstein presents it does not hold these older readers' attention the same way it does for younger readers. Although adults can be convinced to buy Silverstein's books for children based on their own transitory pleasure in his jokes, children of elementary school age find themselves compelled to read the book repeatedly for yet more entertaining, sustained humor.

Silverstein wisely keeps Falling Up from degenerating into a collection of simple school-age jokes by interspersing it with poems that have not only a variety of lengths but also a variety of tones. Unrelenting humor is hard to sustain; Silverstein as a professional cartoonist knew when to change gears. His most consistent, serious concern is promoting the child's powers of creativity and ability to write poetry himself, to amuse himself and others, to think both seriously and humorously. Silverstein's direct, vivid expressions and obvious enjoyment of the same kinds of topics that children find humorous make these encouragements palatable. No teacher here is assigning a poem to be written, no adult is commanding children to enjoy themselves in spite of their own inclinations. The poet is simply a large child himself, capable of perhaps more complex linguistic productions than a child might be but on the other hand a large person still in touch with the smaller person within.

McGhee points to several positive attributes he found consistently among children who were able to produce humor for themselves and others: their language and social skills were more developed than others' their age; they were more energetic; they showed more assertive tendencies in groups; and they showed more concern for, as well as the ability to get for themselves, the positive regard of others (McGhee, 259). A teller of humorous stories of any age knows the pleasure of being the center of attention and of hearing the laughter of listeners. Silverstein knows it too and manages to provide children with the opportunity to get some of this pleasure for themselves.

In terms of the larger scope of American literature for a general readership, Silverstein, who places himself in the tradition of American humor as identified by Jesse Bier in The Rise and Fall of American Humor, debunks both by reversal and antiproverbialism.11 Hamlin Hill claims that there is unlikely to be a single humorist who will speak for the late-twentieth-century United States because of the multiplicity of experiences and voices among its diverse population.12 Silverstein's works have yet to attain a longevity to merit such a claim for his fame, and two successful volumes rarely constitute a claim to having articulated humor for an entire nation. But it may one day be clear that Silverstein, as the poet of American childhood and as the humorist of American child life, achieved something of that stature for the generations that read his books when they were first published. He stands as a literary predecessor of Jack Prelutsky. By the time today's children become adults and hand Silverstein's books on to their own children and pupils, even Silverstein's toilet jokes may be hallowed.


  1. Nodelman, The Pleasures of Children's Literature (New York: Longman, 1992), 128.

  2. Dana Gioia, Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and American Culture (St. Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press, 1992), 92-93; hereafter cited in the text.

  3. Lurie, Don't Tell the Grown-ups, 4.

  4. Lingeman, “The Third Mr. Silverstein,” 57.

  5. Nodelman, The Pleasures, 11.

  6. Kennedy and Kennedy, “Tradition and Revolt” 75.

  7. Ann Terry, Children's Poetry Preferences: A National Survey of Upper Elementary Grades, NCTE Research Report 16 (Urbana, Ill.: NCTE, 1974), 10-11; Carol J. Fisher and C. Ann Terry, Children's Language and the Language Arts, 2nd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982), 223.

  8. Silverstein, Falling Up, poems and drawings by Shel Silverstein (New York, HarperCollins, 1996).

  9. Francoise Bariaud, “Age Differences in Children's Humor,” in Paul E. McGhee, ed., Human and Children's Development: A Guide to Practical Applications (New York: Haworth Press, 1989), 19, 24. Hereafter Bariaud's chapter is cited in the text as Bariaud, McGhee's as McGhee.

  10. Martha Wolfenstein, Children's Humor: A Psychological Approach (Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1954), 75; hereafter cited in the text as Wolfenstein.

  11. Jesse Bier, “The Rise and Fall of American Humor” (1968), in William Bedford Clark and W. Craig Turner, Critical Essays on American Humor (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984), 105.

  12. Hamlin Hill, “The Future of American Humor: Through a Glass Eye, Darkly,” in Clark and Turner, Critical Essays, 225.

Bart Barnes (essay date 11 May 1999)

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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.

To millions of children and adults, Mr. Silverstein was a master of whimsy and light satire, which he delivered in verse—sometimes downright goofy—that tapped a universal sense of the absurd. His writing was accompanied by line drawings of confused and befuddled people and other creatures with human attributes, and he had an uncanny knack for making nonsense funny.

A Light in the Attic, a collection of poems and drawings, soared to the No. 1 position on the bestseller lists shortly after its publication in 1981, and it remained a bestseller for more than three years. Where the Sidewalk Ends, a 1974 volume of drawings and poems, sold a million copies in hardback editions. Mr. Silverstein's work has been translated into 20 languages, and he is said by critics to have been one of the world's best-loved and widely read children's authors. The Internet abounds with Web sites that feature his poetry and children's reactions to it.

As a composer and lyricist, he wrote the words for the Johnny Cash hit song “A Boy Named Sue” and “The Unicorn,” which was recorded by the Irish Rovers. Parents of the post-World War II baby boom remember him for “Hello Mudda, Hello Fadda,” the summer camp satire song, which was sung by Alan Sherman.

As a folk singer and composer, he recorded a 1980 album, The Great Conch Train Robbery. People magazine wrote that it “entertainingly captures and parodies the tone of pop-country music.” He wrote a play, The Lady or the Tiger, which was produced in 1981 at New York's Ensemble Studio Theatre's annual festival of one-act plays starring Richard Dreyfuss. He appeared in and composed the music for the 1971 film Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Such Terrible Things About Me?

“Shel Silverstein is that rare adult who can still think like a child,” wrote Judy Zuckerman, a children's specialist at the New York Public Library, in a 1996 New York Times review of Falling Up, Mr. Silverstein's most recent collection of drawings and poems.

The title poem of this work was vintage Silverstein:

I tripped on my shoelace
And I fell up
Up to the roof tops
Up over town
When I looked around
I got sick to my stomach
And I threw down.

Mr. Silverstein, a native of Chicago, began writing and drawing in his preteen years. “I would rather have been a good baseball player or a hit with the girls. But I couldn't play ball. I couldn't dance. Luckily, the girls didn't want me. So I started to draw and to write. I had developed my own style before I knew there was a Thurber, a Benchley.”

During the Korean War, he served in the Army in Japan and Korea as a cartoonist for the Pacific Stars and Stripes. He began his career as a writer and cartoonist for Playboy magazine.

His ability to appeal to all ages became apparent with the 1964 publication of The Giving Tree, a story about a tree that gave all—its shade, its fruit, its branches and finally even its trunk—to make someone else happy. Sales were modest initially, but then churches and teachers began using it as a parable, and sales started to climb.

Where the Sidewalk Ends, which was said to invite children into a new world of adventure beyond the end of the sidewalk, was his next major success. “Here lay an opportunity for the young to defy danger signs and discover a world where rhyme and picture engendered delight, where children might find their foibles, wishes and hates mirrored by Mr. Silverstein in a manner that tradition and propriety … suggested be kept private and unspoken,” wrote Myra Cohn Livingston, a poet and anthologist, in the New York Times book review.

In its rhyming patterns, the poetry of Mr. Silverstein was similar to that of Dr. Seuss, but there was sometimes an edge or dark side that Dr. Seuss lacked.

One of Mr. Silverstein's more widely quoted poems from A Light in the Attic parodies a well-known children's prayer.

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
And if I die before I wake
I pray the Lord my toys to break
So none of the other kids can use 'em

Mr. Silverstein continued as a roving reporter and cartoonist for Playboy magazine while he did his writing and drawing, but in recent years he refused to participate in publicity tours, turned down interview requests and avoided the media.

He was married, divorced and the father of a daughter.

Megan Rosenfeld (essay date 11 May 1999)

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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 delightfully lively and goofy poetry, verses illustrated with his own funny drawings. Silverstein was the poet laureate of kids. He wrote poems they understand:


                                                            We gave you a chance
                                                            To water the plants
                                                            We didn't mean that way—
                                                            Now zip up your pants

Grown-ups are generally way too sophisticated to enjoy Silverstein. What they enjoy is watching their child read one of his books, discovering the pleasure of reading out loud, seduced by meter and rhyme and jolly subjects like “Jumping Rope,” “Dancing Pants” and “My Nose Garden.” Kids understand the logic of washing a shadow (“Shadow Wash”) or being “Afraid of the Dark.” Soon they move from the four-line poems to the longer ones, like “Clean Gene,” about the bath fanatic with 12 tubs in his attic. Or “The Generals,” in which General Clay and General Gore blow each other up.

Some of Silverstein's poems read like the musings of a child sitting at his school desk, daydreaming while the teacher lectures in a distant voice. Like “The Stupid Pencil Maker”:

Some dummy built this pencil wrong—
The eraser's down here where the point belongs.
And the point's at the top—so it's no good to me.
It's amazing how stupid some people can be.

Other poets write verse they can understand but other people don't always get, said Matthew Kresh, a fifth-grader at Capitol Hill Day School. His father, David, is a reference specialist in poetry at the Library of Congress and, as poet in residence at our school, runs Poetry Night. He has seen his share of Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg, but Silverstein always appears when the kids are asked to choose a poem they like. The way he writes, people laugh, explained Matthew.

His father remembers an earlier Silverstein, who wrote bawdy ditties set to Dixieland music. He wrote other stuff, too—including the lyrics to Johnny Cash's “A Boy Named Sue” and a play, The Lady or the Tiger—but attained true immortality with his books of poems: A Light in the Attic,Where the Sidewalk Ends and Falling Up.

That last title, published in 1996, gives a sense of one of Silverstein's stock devices: turning things upside down. He is never sappy or sentimental. In his poems, boys break windows with baseballs, and girls scream so loud their jawbones break and their tongues catch fire. Sometimes there are useful morals embedded in the mayhem, as in “Headphone Harold,” who didn't hear the train coming.

A wonderful babysitter of ours, Michelle Stanton, introduced my daughter to Silverstein a few years ago. Marina picked up Sidewalk and could not put it down—a new experience for her at the age of 9. She read the poems to us, and we read them to her. She laughed and we smiled.

I never met Silverstein, but his book jacket picture shows a man with a shaved head and graying beard, with thick eyebrows and a serious gaze. He dedicated Falling Up to Matt and Sidewalk to Ursula. I hope he enjoyed being loved by legions of children, who discover through him the world of literary fun.


                              Have you been to The Land of Happy,
                              Where everyone's happy all day.
                              Where they joke and they sing
                              Of the happiest things,
                              And everything's jolly and gay?
                              There's no one unhappy in Happy,
                              There's laughter and smiles galore.
                              I have been to The Land of Happy—
                              What a bore!

Publishers Weekly (essay date 17 May 1999)

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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), Where the Sidewalk Ends (1974), A Light in the Attic (1981) and Falling Up (1996), all published by HarperCollins. Together they have sold over 18 million copies in hardcover and have been translated into 20 languages.

Although his first books were published for adults, at the suggestion of author/illustrator Tomi Ungerer, Silverstein wrote and illustrated his first book for young readers, Uncle Shelby's Story of Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back, which Harper-Collins published in 1963.

Silverstein's longtime editor, Robert Warren, editorial director of HarperCollins's Children's Books, said, “He had a genius that transcended age and gender, and his work probably touched the lives of more people than any writer in the second half of the 20th century.” According to Warren, Silverstein was working on a number of manuscripts at the time of his death.

Among his most famous songs was “A Boy Named Sue,” which became a hit record for Johnny Cash. His own recordings include Dirty Feet (1968), Shel Silverstein: Songs and Stories (1978) and the 1984 Grammy Award-winning poetry collection Where the Sidewalk Ends. He also composed music and soundtracks for motion pictures and wrote screenplays.

Silverstein's numerous awards include a New York Times Notable Book designation in 1974 for Where the Sidewalk Ends; an IRA/Children's Choice award in 1982 for The Missing Piece Meets the Big O; and the George C. Stone and William Allen White awards in 1984 for A Light in the Attic.

Ellen Handler Spitz (essay date May/June 1999)

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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 paperback. People assume it glorifies love and generosity, but just think for a moment about the messages it gives children. A tree called “she” is its title character. Under “her” branches a little boy is playing. His only communication with the tree throughout the book is to ask her to give up something for him. He asks her to sacrifice, in turn, her apples, her branches, and her trunk, until finally she has become a lifeless stump. As the tree acquiesces uncomplainingly to each of the child's demands, she is described as “happy.” Moreover, while she is being depleted, with each turn of the page, the boy grows older. Always referred to as “boy,” he turns eventually into a wizened old man. Despite their parallel outward changes, the relationship between the two remains perfectly static. Totally self-effacing, the “mother” treats her “son” as if he were a perpetual infant, while he behaves toward her as if he were frozen in time as an importunate baby. This overrated picture book thus presents as a paradigm for young children a callously exploitative human relationship—both across genders and across generations. 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.

Charles Isherwood (essay date 29 October 2001)

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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 children's books such as The Giving Tree and Where the Sidewalk Ends.

The sketches in this tiresome evening are fitfully amusing, but they are more frequently dated, tasteless or just plain feeble, and they are not given much of a lift by the performers in Karen Kohlhaas' production. Aside from some snatches of Silverstein's goofy rock songs, the most appealing element in the show is the snazzy swoop of white plastic that constitutes Walt Spangler's set. Lit in candy colors by Robert Perry, it could double as a dance floor in some stylish retro boite.

The first item, “One Tennis Shoe,” is among the few containing any sustained wit, but Maryann Urbano's performance as a woman whose husband (Jordan Lage) accuses her of having bag-lady tendencies is so heavy and charmless that it soon begins to grate.

In the juvenile “Bus Stop,” a man with a sign saying “Bust Stop” (heh heh) accosts a young woman and then begins harassing her with crude nicknames for breasts. She retorts by harassing him back with nicknames for the penis. End of skit.

In the tasteless department falls “The Best Daddy,” featuring a father who gives his 13-year-old daughter (Alicia Goranson) a pony for her birthday; only problem is he's just killed it. When she responds hysterically, he calms her down by saying the lumpen form under the blanket is not a dead pony but her dead sister.

There's more family fun in “Lifeboat,” as a wife browbeats her husband into playing a fantasy game in which he must throw either his wife, mother or daughter overboard to keep the boat they're adrift in afloat.

Kelly Maurer and Josh Stamberg, whose perfs display the most versatility in the course of the evening, perform with frenzied abandon, but here as elsewhere, the kind of naive charm that might rub the nasty edge off the skit is missing.

It's not really the sour nature of the humor in these skits that's offensive; it's the general lack of it. (Did 1 mention the one about the auctioneer commissioned by a young woman to sell her to the highest bidder?)

The mildly funny but dated would include “Smile,” in which a trio of bullying agents torment a man accused of inventing that smiley-face logo and similarly vapid linguistic expressions such as “Have a nice day” and “Right on.” In the early '70s, when these terms had some cultural currency (and when the skit was written, presumably), the humor might have had a sharp kick; it no longer does.

That takes care of the dated and the tasteless. In the merely feeble department would fall the last item, “Blind Willie and the Talking Dog,” which mines its small nuggets of humor from a talking dog who threatens to leave his bum partner for greener pastures. Need I say more? Perhaps only that grownups with fond affection for Silverstein's kids books should steer clear.