Sheldon Allan Silverstein shares a September 25 birthday with another
well known author, William Faulkner. Born in Chicago in 1932, Silverstein made his name as a
cartoonist, poet, songwriter, and playwright. He's best known as the
author of several children's books, including Where the Sidewalk Ends
(1974) and A Light in the Attic (1981). But he originally
broke into fame while drawing cartoons for adults in Playboy
magazine, beginning in 1956.
Silverstein wasn't much of an athlete, so he spent his free time writing
and "doodling." In the 1950s, he joined the army and fought in Korea
and Japan. During that time, he drew cartoons for Stars and Stripes
magazine and learned to play the guitar, which served him well as a budding
He began writing children's books as a
diversion, not knowing anything about the genre, and it showed. His
books were much more bizarre and mischievous than other books of the era.
His Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book: A Primer for Tender Young Minds (1961)
suggested that children feed the ponies living in the gas tanks of their
parents' cars sugar cubes--the more the better.
His early books also lacked the sappy happy endings and cookie-cutter
moral messages of others. He once said, "Happy endings...in children's
books create an alienation in the child who reads them. The child asks
why don't I have this happiness thing you're telling me about, and comes to
think when his joy stops that he has failed, that it won't come back."
There's a Polar Bear
In our Frigidaire--
He likes it 'cause it's cold in there.
With his seat in the meat
And his face in the fish
And his big hairy paws
In the buttery dish,
He's nibbling the noodles,
And munching the rice,
He's slurping the soda,
He's licking the ice.
And he lets out a roar
If you open the door.
And it gives me a scare
To know he's in there--
That Polary Bear
In our Fridgitydaire. - Bear in There
Silverstein's first successful children's book was
The Giving Tree (1964), the story of a tree that sacrifices its
shade, fruit, branches, and finally its trunk to a little boy in its effort
to make him happy
His publishers warned him that it wouldn't sell well because it wasn't
really a children's book, and it wasn't an adult book, either. And his
publishers turned out to be right--at first. But as the book became the subject of church sermons and Sunday School
readings, its sales increased every year for more than a decade. Today,
it's a popular gift for Mother's Day, showers, and weddings. It sells more than
250,000 copies a year, forty years after it was first published.
Silverstein is also known for writing the lyrics to the song,
Named Sue (1969). He sent the lyrics to Johnny Cash who liked them enough
to have Carl Perkins set them to music. Cash performed the song at a
Folsom Prison concert, and it became a hit, selling more than a million
copies. Silverstein also wrote The Unicorn (performed by the
Irish Rovers) and Cover of the Rolling Stone (performed by Dr. Hook).
Silverstein, always the recluse, rarely gave out
biographical information, and, for most of his life, he refused
to give interviews or go on book tours. He lived in a houseboat filled
with musical instruments in Key West, Florida. He never learned to
drive, never owned a car, and
walked everywhere he went.
Draw a crazy picture,
Write a nutty poem,
Sing a mumble-gumble song,
Whistle through your comb.
Do a loony-goony dance
'Cross the kitchen floor,
Put something silly in the world
That ain't been there before.
Shel Silverstein, Renaissance man, creative genius, and
all-around talent, died in 1999.
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