“Listen to the mustn’ts, child. Listen to the don’ts. Listen to the shouldn’ts, the impossibles, the won’ts. Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me… Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.”
–Shel SilversteinSheldon Allan Silverstein was born on this day in Chicago, Illinois in 1930. Today is the 82nd anniversary of his birth.
Shel grew up in the Logan Square area of Chicago. He was notoriously private and seldom gave interviews so there is not much know about his early life. In one of the rare interviews he gave he said:
“When I was a kid—12 to 14, around there—I would much 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. Not much I could do about that. So I started to draw and to write. I was also lucky that I didn’t have anybody to copy, be impressed by. I had developed my own style…” [Publishers Weekly, February 24, 1975.]
At 12 he became interested in cartooning and would practice his drawing by tracing comics, including Al Capp, from the “funny papers.” He attended the University of Illinois (for “One useless semester”), and the Art Institute of Chicago (for a summer session) before landing at Roosevelt University. It was a Roosevelt that he was first published, his cartoons appeared in the Roosevelt Torch.
In 1953 he was drafted into the US Army. He served from 1953-1955 and worked as a cartoonist for Stars and Stripes Newspaper. He said in a later Stars and Stripes interview that the Army helped his art work because he didn’t have to worry about selling the cartoons anywhere. He was guaranteed 3 square meals a day. The Army also gave him the structure of a daily deadline. [To read the entire Stars and Stripes interview go to Off On a Tangent: Shel Silverstein Stars & Stripes Interview] His book Take Ten is a compilation of the cartoons he drew for Stars and Stripes.
When he got out of the Army he found it difficult to sell his work on a regular basis. He freelanced for Sports Illustrated and Playboy and in 1956 he became a staff cartoonist for Playboy. He contributed poems and published several collections of his cartoons through the magazine.
Then in 1963 things took a turn.
No on had wanted to publish the book. They thought it was too sad for a children’s book. They thought it was too short. They couldn’t pigeonhole it as either for adults or children. But they all agreed it was wonderful. Then Harper and Row gave it a chance and it became a classic in children’s literature.
“…at the suggestion of fellow illustrator Tomi Ungerer, he was introduced to Ursula Nordstrom who convinced him to begin writing for children. One of Silverstein’s most popular books, The Giving Tree, was published in 1964.” [Shel Silverstein, Introduction by Meghan Ung. Humanities on the Internet]
Here’s the 1973 animated movie of The Giving Tree narrated by Silverstein:
1974’s Where the Sidewalk Ends, a collection of poetry for children, won the New York Times Outstanding Book Award. The collection has been republished several times with Silverstein added poems at the 25th and 30th anniversary. Here’s one of my favorite poems from the book, Hug o’ War:
Hug o’ War
I will not play at tug o’ war.
I’d rather play at hug o’war.
Where everyone hugs
instead of tugs,
Where everyone giggles
and rolls on the rug,
Where everyone kisses,
And everyone grins,
And everyone cuddles,
And everyone wins.
Next up was The Missing Piece is a beautifully written story about a circle who is looking for its soul mate. The nontraditional ending is both truthful and bittersweet.
A Light In the Attic brought more wonderful poems and illustrations. [Backward Bill always cracked us up at our house…]
…Backward Bill’s got a backward pup.
They eat their supper when the sun comes up…
Silverstein wrote a sequel to The Missing Piece called The Missing Piece Meets the Big O (see below) which won the 1982 International Reading Association’s Children’s Choice Award.
Silverstein also had a musical side. He played guitar and wrote songs, including the Johnny Cash hit “A Boy Named Sue“, the Irish Rovers “Unicorn Song” and the Dr. Hook song “The Cover of the Rolling Stone.” He performed on several albums (both his own and others.)
He was also a playwright. He had a hit with The Lady or the Tiger Show a play where contestants in a game show have to choose between two doors. Behind one door is a beautiful woman, behind the other door is a man-eating tiger. He co-wrote Oh, Hell! with David Mamet for Lincoln Center. The two worked together again on the film Things Change.
Silverstein died of a heart attack on May 10th, 1999 in Key West.
Here’s the YouTube video for The Missing Piece Meets the Big O, I’d never read this book, or seen this video, but I just loved the message and had to share it…