Fare Thee Well, Shel

by
Kate Marley

He died May 10 of a massive heart attack, all alone. Yet we shouldn't grieve too much; that's probably how he would have wanted to meet death - quickly and by himself. But this is just an educated guess, because we don't really know much about Shel Silverstein - he was an extremely private person, so information about his personal life is sketchy and conflicting.

Shel Silverstein was born in 1932, in Chicago. There is debate about the exact day, as well as his full first name. As a boy, he only says that baseball and girls were his first choice, writing and drawing his second. He developed his own style, and didn't discover writers like Thurber or Benchley till an adult. He was a Korean war veteran. There is never any mention or names of parents, siblings or wife. One source claims he has a daughter, another, a son. Some young readers think he's black, particularly from the picture from A Light in the Attic. Others looked at his name and claim he's Jewish. Shel's publishers will confirm, deny or clear up nothing.

What we do know is his work, particularly his work for children. Shel did so much! He was a writer, an illustrator, a playwright, actor, performer, composer of song lyrics and movie soundtracks. Plenty of his stuff is available on the web, but parents should be aware that a good bit of his adult writings are, to put it gently, for mature audiences only. Some may find it puzzling that he was writing and illustrating for Playboy while writing children's poetry (cynics would say that except for the sexual content, there probably wasn't much difference), but Shel just went his own way. "I think that if you're a creative person, you should just go about your business, do your work and not care about how it's received." he once said in a rare interview.

"I never planned to write or draw for kids. It was Tomi Ungerer, a friend of mine, who insisted - practically dragged me, kicking and screaming..." but it is for his children's books that he is most loved. Over 14 million of his books for kids have been sold in hardback alone; they've been translated into 20 different languages. His poems get passed around in elementary schools, collected in middle, analyzed in high schools - with or without teachers as intermediaries. When my eldest went off to college, she took her Shel Silverstein books with her. Sure, adults appreciate him - but children love his books with a special passion. Nearly all the stories and poems work for all ages, from picture book age on up through the teenage years, for as they grow in maturity, kids can find and debate the deeper issues within.

Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back (HarperCollins, 1963)
A young lion eats a hunter in self-defense, and decides to teach himself how to use the discarded rifle. It takes a while, but he becomes a sharpshooter, and eventually goes off to the city with a circus man. The story is set up like a transitional book, with short chapters, large type and plenty of Shel’s humorous black and white drawings.
After years of fame and fortune, Lafcadio is put to the test - is he lion or man? Or neither? While some may say the ending leaves one hanging, it leaves plenty of opportunities for discussion and pondering by readers. "Silverstein says he doesn't believe in happy endings or magical solutions in children's books." one critical source said, and this book bears that out.

Giving Tree (HarperCollins, 1964)
Shel considered this a simple story "about two people; one gives and the other takes." While it's in picture book format, it was originally rejected by one editor because it really transcends quick categorization (adult? or children's book?) and he thought it wouldn't sell.
Oh well, we all make mistakes...on the surface, the story is about a tree that gives to the little boy anything she can throughout his life, and is happy for it. She gives him a playground, shade and snacks when he's little, apples and lumber when he's older, her trunk for a boat when wanderlust hits in (supposedly) late middle age, and a stump to rest upon when he's old and feeble. It's been praised as "an inspirational fable" and denounced as sexist brainwashing. Reams have been written about this story and its underlying meanings.
Personally, I feel that one could make of this story what one wishes; it's flexible enough to accommodate a feminist as well as conservative view. Even kids have noted the selfishness of the boy who never says thank you, so it says as much by what's left out as well as what's there.

Giraffe and a Half (HarperCollins, 1964)
This is a fun picture book of Shel’s set to the old nursery rhyme The House That Jack Built. The giraffe aquires all sorts of silly attachments, and then sheds or loses them. Like nearly everything else Shel wrote, this is a great read-a-loud, pure fun with words, and would make a great felt board story for teachers or librarians.

Where the Sidewalk Ends (HarperCollins, 1974)
This was his first collection of poems and drawings, and introduced kids to his unique poetic style - sometimes poems rhymed, sometimes not - but they touched a chord within childlike souls with their quirkiness, thoughtfulness and irreverence while he talked about topics both profound and profane. Many bounce and seem like they should be set to music, and some were. Even after all these years, it's still a favorite holiday gift.

Missing Piece (HarperCollins, 1976)
A circle has a wedge missing from its body and sets off on a quest to find its missing piece. It sees and does a lot along the way, and after many mismatches, finds a perfect fit - only to discover that it was happier without it after all. Naturally, this is a parable, but since each piece is neuter, charges of sexism are not as valid here as they were with The Giving Tree, although the circle acts out (mostly) male behavior, as the missing piece displays (mostly) female actions in the companion book published later.
Still, it's another example of Silverstein's belief that "books, even for really little kids, can deal with more than one idea. A story could deal with more, even 50 - and so can the reader, if the ideas are all laid out." It's also a tribute to the Western ‘religion’ of independent living, and of course this can generate lots of discussion in or out of the classroom.

A Light in the Attic (HarperCollins, 1981)
Shel’s second collection of children's poems ended up on the New York Times bestseller list for 182 weeks - an incredible record for any book, particularly a children's book. Not only that, but it sometimes goes back on the bestseller list during the holidays, since kids frequently put it on their gift list. Poems again run the gamut from silly fun to weird, morbid humor, to thought provoking or serious, and most are accompanied, naturally, by Shel’s funny drawings.

Missing Piece Meets the Big O (HarperCollins, 1981)
This is the search for completeness from the other angle - the missing piece longs to find one to roll with, so it too can be whole. Just sitting doesn't work, making itself attractive or flashy doesn't work, and one has to watch out and hide from the hungry ones. Then it finally finds a match, but when the missing piece begins to grow, that's over too. It's the Big O who gives the advice to go on its own, no matter how difficult. And it is hard, flopping around clumsily, but as its edges wear down, the missing piece finds the going easier and faster as it changes into - you guessed it! a smaller version of the Big O!
Despite the neutral gender of IT throughout, this story seems an obvious parable about feminine emancipation, to match the masculine independence of The Missing Piece. It also fits with Shel’s warning in an interview, "Don't be dependent on anyone else - man, woman, child or dog." Again, one can argue the pros and cons of such a position, but isn't that what makes literature so much fun and enlightening?

Who wants a cheap Rhinoceros? (Simon & Schuster, 1983, rev. & exp. edition)
A whimsical picture book about all the hitherto unknown and incredible advantages of having a rhino of your very own. For example, it can fetch midnight snacks, or eat bad report cards - one gets the picture. It's just for fun, pure and silly.

Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book (Simon & Schuster, 1985)
Originally published in 1961 with the subtitle "A Primer for Tender Young Minds", this has been given the new subtitle of..."A Primer for Adults Only". Yes, parents might definitely want to read this first all the way through, because some of the ‘lessons’ - such as pouring sugar in the gas tank, giving Dad a haircut while he sleeps, throwing eggs at the ceiling - may not find favor with some adults. And those examples mentioned were some of the milder ones! Of all his children's books, this one reveals the most depth (and some would say degradation) of Uncle Shelby’s sharp and slightly wicked humor. In fact, some libraries have switched it from the children's section to the adult after complaints, so...reader be aware.

Falling Up (HarperCollins, 1996)
This was Shel’s last children's book, and the third collection of poems and drawings. Like the others, it has that same delicious blend of humor, weirdness and pathos that have made all the others so beloved to nearly everyone. In fact, the drawing at the top of this tribute is from "Stork Story", where the stork carries away all the old people to be reincarnated (although he doesn't use that word) back into the world as babies after a refit; I thought it appropriate to use for Shel at this point in time when he may be where...

Tired hearts are all repaired
And made to work like new.

Thank you, Shel Silverstein, for your enduring wit and insight, and for giving so much joy to our children. And to us. Rest in peace.

Sources

1. Children's Books and Their Creators. Anita Silvey, ed. Houghton Mifflin, 1995.
2. HarperCollins Publishers. Author Pages, Shel Silverstein. 5/19/99. http://www.harpercollins.com/authors/pages/silverstein_shel.htm
3. Something About the Author, v. 93
4. Shel Silverstein: An Interview by Publisher's Weekly. Feb 24, 1975, by Jean F. Mercier.
5. Shel Silverstein. by Inez Ramsey. 5/15/99 http://falcon.jmu.edu/~ramseyil/silverstein.htm
6. Shel Silverstein. by Ruth K. MacDonald. Twayne Publishers, 1997.(Twayne's United States Authors Series, no. 688)

Shel Silverstein's drawings and photo used with permission of HarperCollins.


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