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Shel Silverstein

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 songwriter.

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 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, A Boy 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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