On this day in 1999, Shel Silverstein died. If you were ever a child, or the caregiver of one, odds are good you know Silverstein’s many poems and drawings from books such as The Giving Tree, Where the Sidewalk Ends, A Light in the Attic, and others.
To this day Uncle Shelby, as Shel referred to himself in some of his earlier work, challenges easy categorization. Undoubtably he’s best known for his children’s poems, but he also made a long career writing for Playboy magazine, where in fact many of his “children’s poems” and drawings were first published.
(Interestingly enough, over the years Playboy has supported, and to this day continues to support, many successful and important writers: Vonnegut, Bradbury, Atwood, Kerouac, Mailer, Murakami, Garcia-Marquez, Roald Dahl… the list is long and gives rise to the truism that smut pays very well.)
Shel also wrote songs. Lots and lots of songs, the best known probably being “A Boy Named Sue,” made popular by Johnny Cash, as well as “Cover of a Rolling Stone,” by Dr. Hook (a song that eventually succeeded in its choral plea and landed the band on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in 1973). He did more than write lyrics, often composing arrangements and performing on various instruments. True to his poems, many of Shel’s songs are silly and absurd; others, like “Queen of the Silver Dollar” and “Sylvia’s Mother,” are heartbreaking (the latter version by Dr. Hook remains faithfully in this writer’s permanent top-10).
Shel even released several albums of his own. Though fun, they do not make for the most melodic listening, and if you can imagine a very Midwestern, Jewish, Police-Academy-era Bobcat Goldthwait being strangled by a 60-grit sandpaper monster you’ll have a pretty accurate conception of Shel’s vocal skills. For listeners in search of a more accessible approach, a tribute album titled “Twistable, Turnable Man” was released in 2010; it features My Morning Jacket, Andrew Bird, Bobby Bare, Kris Kristofferson, John Prine, Lucinda Williams and others; it’s a good album and well worth the time.
One of Shel’s oft-extolled abilities was to write like children think. Without taking anything away from him I think this statement misses the point, and if we flip the notion around we can more accurately say that Shel did not write like adults often think.
To me, this is one of the key themes of Shel’s poems and songs, and it points to the one consistent trait that makes for a good children’s writer: he treated children like people whose large worlds were held in their small bodies, not beings whose intelligences required protecting or whose universes demanded dumbing-down. He elevated the lives of children to a level equal with our own adult ones, and went further by consistently emphasizing that we adults return to understanding our lives in some of the ways children do: with wonder, excitement, an exploratory openness and vivid imaginations.
Shel also didn’t censor himself for children. I find this essentially important as there’s little that bothers me more than parents who try and talk around reality when their child is present, or expect the same from me. I understand that as a result of this openness some parents may find his poems too racy for their little ones. Without being snarky—and also acknowledging that I don’t have to live with the day-to-day ramifications of a child—I shrug and say, Oh well.
Each of us, child or adult, could use an Uncle Shelby: a wild-eyed cowboy of the road, with dirty stories and cigarette-stained fingernails, smelling all too clearly of booze and sweat and diesel fuel and everything else that makes life worth livable. In short, someone who can provide us with a dangerousness that helps safely extend the boundaries and make larger our worlds.
I want to end this little remembrance with the first poem from Where the Sidewalk Ends. I think this nicely sums up much of Shel’s work and also resonates with one of the major themes of this space, which is that making time for storytelling is an essential, fun and wondrous part of what makes us human.
If you are a dreamer, come in,
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer…
If you’re a pretender, come sit by my fire
For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.