Shel Silverstein's Unlikely Rise to Kid Lit Superstardom

by Mark Peters

Shel Silverstein—the late cartoonist, singer, songwriter, playwright, and mega-selling author of such classics as The Giving Tree and Where the Sidewalk Ends—didn't like children's literature. Spoon-feeding kids sugar-sweet stories just wasn't his style. Fortunately for generations of young readers, someone convinced him to do something about it—namely, break the mold himself. Using edgy humor, clever rhymes, and tripped-out drawings, Silverstein achieved the impossible. He bridged the worlds of adult and children's art, while becoming wildly popular in the process.

Where the Sidewalk Began

Sheldon Allan Silverstein was born on September 25, 1930, into a Jewish middle-class family in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood. And though the intensely private Silverstein never divulged many details of his youth, we do know his childhood was largely consumed with a rabid devotion to the Chicago White Sox. In fact, if the cartoonist-in-training could've belted homers instead of scrawling pictures, he definitely would have. Instead, the unathletic young Silverstein had to settle for filling up sketch pads instead of stat sheets.

Silverstein's skills in the classroom didn't fare much better than they did on the field. After brief stints at the University of Illinois at Urbana (where he was thrown out) and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (where he dropped out), Silverstein managed to last three years at Chicago's Roosevelt University, where he studied English. More significantly, however, that's where he began writing and cartooning for the student paper, The Torch, whereby he launched his lifelong career in skewering authority figures.

His first published cartoon, for instance, was that of a naked student holding a cigarette while confronting a peeved professor. The caption read, "What do you mean 'No Smoking'? I thought this was a liberal school."

Aside from receiving a little artistic encouragement at Roosevelt, Silverstein didn't exactly get a lot out of college. Summing up the experience, he once said, "I didn't get laid much. I didn't learn much. Those are the two worst things that can happen to a guy." Silverstein was drafted in 1953, before he had the chance to finish school (though he's not convinced he would have) and was shipped off to serve in the Korean War. His tour of duty likely influenced his often-dark worldview, but it definitely shaped his emerging career path. Oddly enough, Silverstein earned his first art-related paychecks as a journalist and cartoonist for the Pacific edition of the U.S. military's newspaper, Stars and Stripes. Despite the rigid environment, he couldn't resist the urge to rib the powers-that-be in his work. In fact, Silverstein narrowly avoided the world's first cartoon-related court martial over a comic strip that seemed to imply officers were dressing their families in stolen uniforms. This led to stern instructions that only civilians and animals were proper topics for criticism.

Although not exactly a "yay, military!" kind of fellow, Silverstein nevertheless appreciated the opportunities the Army gave him to travel and hone his craft. After being discharged in 1955, he returned to Chicago and started cartooning on a freelance basis. His hard work soon paid off, and Silverstein started landing gigs at magazines such as Look, Sports Illustrated, and This Week. But then he hit the jackpot; he met Hugh Hefner and got in on the almost-ground floor of Playboy, which had premiered just two years prior. From 1956 on, Silverstein was known to live intermittently with his new pal at the Playboy mansion while contributing articles, as well as plenty of not-quite-kid-friendly comic strips.

Kids' Authors Say the Darnedest Things

Given the whole Playboy thing, Shel Silverstein was hardly a prime candidate to become the world's next great children's author. After all, the guy wasn't shy about his distaste for the genre—a fact evident in his 1961 book, Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book: A Primer for Tender Young Minds. Excerpted in Playboy, the adult book spoofed the Dick-and-Jane genre with lines such as "See the baby play. / Play, baby, play. / Pretty, pretty baby. / Mommy loves the baby / More than she loves you." The ABZ Book made it clear that Silverstein hated the condescending brand of writing often used in children's literature—and what better way to change the state of affairs than to write them better yourself? Convincing Silverstein of that took a fair amount of wheedling and cajoling, but his friend (and children's author/illustrator) Tomi Ungerer, along with famed Harper & Row children's editor Ursula Nordstrom, was up to the task. Eventually, they persuaded Uncle Shelby to take a crack at the real thing.

6a00d4143162ec6a4700d09e6ee12fbe2b-320pi.jpg

In 1963, at age 32, Silverstein published his first children's book, Uncle Shelby's Story of Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back. The tale—in appropriately Silverstein-twisted fashion—is about a marshmallow-loving lion who faces an identity crisis after becoming a celebrated marksman. It was a huge hit. By 1974, Lafcadio had plenty of company, including Uncle Shelby's A Giraffe and a Half, Who Wants a Cheap Rhinoceros? and two books that would eventually rank among the 20 bestselling children's books of all time: The Giving Tree and Where the Sidewalk Ends (hereafter shortened to Sidewalk).

Poem-cum-cartoon collections such as Sidewalk (and, later, A Light in the Attic and Falling Up) became instant classics for obvious reasons. They featured Silverstein's trademark giddy style and his unmistakable talent for crafting verses as pliable as putty. Who else can write lines like, "Washable Mendable / Highly dependable / Buyable Bakeable / Always available / Bounceable Shakable / Almost unbreakable / Twistable Turnable Man"? Silverstein also endeared himself to readers with unpretentious language, loony black-and-white drawings, and memorable characters (Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout from Sidewalk's "Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not take the Garbage Out" comes to mind).

For all of these reasons, Silverstein's work was tremendously well received by the masses.

However, anytime you push an envelope, you're bound to take some heat. Indeed, both Sidewalk and A Light in the Attic were banned from various libraries and targeted by prudish groups who thought the poems and pictures were too weird, too gross, too antiauthoritarian, or otherwise too much for children's fragile minds.

In fact, opponents called Silverstein's poems everything from Satanic and sexual to anti-Christian and cannibalistic. Yes, cannibalistic.

Apparently, some folks took serious issue with Sidewalk's poem "Dreadful," which contained such verses as "Someone ate the baby. / What a frightful thing to eat! / Someone ate the baby / Though she wasn't very sweet. / It was a heartless thing to do. / The policemen haven't got a clue. / I simply can't imagine who / Would go and (burp) eat the baby." The eating-human-babies fad never really caught on in America, but perhaps protesters stopped the madness just in time.

Grim Reaping

180px-The_Giving_Tree.jpg

Those who branded Silverstein's work as unfit for children were certainly extremists, but that's not to say Uncle Shelby didn't have a dark side that could be a bit unnerving at times. There are hints of this even in The Giving Tree, which tells the story of a generous tree that repeatedly donates parts of itself to a needy boy until it's nothing more than a stump. Although the book is considered a classic today, after Silverstein finished it in 1960, it took him four years before he found anyone willing to publish it. Apparently, editors found it too depressing for kids and too simple for adults. It wasn't until his other titles started raking in the dough that Harper & Row was confident enough to give it a shot.

Other times, however, it's much more obvious that Silverstein had no qualms writing children's literature that was less than shiny and happy. Probably the best example is 1964's Who Wants a Cheap Rhinoceros? In it, a boy lists numerous reasons why a priced-to-sell rhino would make a sound investment, including "He can open soda cans for your uncle" and "He is great at imitating a shark." Gradually, however, the lines get a lot less goofy. On one page, the boy describes the rhino as "good for yelling at," which is accompanied by a picture of the abject, tearful pet. Another page suggests the rhino is "great for not letting your mother hit you when you really haven't done anything bad."

Lines such as those are particularly shocking, but they ultimately reflect one of the most innovative aspects of Silverstein's work—a sense of mutual respect and honesty often lacking in children's literature. Silverstein firmly rejected the notion that characters should always ride off into a sunset or that kids should be taught to aspire to an all-rosy-all-the-time life. In fact, one of his greatest impacts on the genre was proving that creating great children's literature doesn't always mean treating your readers like kids. But Silverstein perhaps summed up his philosophy best in "The Land of Happy" from Sidewalk: "There's no one unhappy in Happy / There's laughter and smiles galore. / I have been to the Land of Happy— / What a bore!"

The Silver Lining, Shel-Style

Silverstein's desire to reverse dopey endings and shiny-happy storylines may have been simply a result of his distaste for predictability. In his art as well as his life, Silverstein strenuously avoided well-trod paths. "Successful cartoonist becomes immortal children's author" is a pretty straightforward tale, so leave it to Shel to throw in the occasional Playboy monkey wrench. Similarly, Silverstein made it pretty impossible to get pigeon-holed into a poetry-and-cartooning rut by simply tossing in a few other careers on top—songwriter, musician, novelist, you name it.

The-Best-Of-Shel-Silverstein-His-Words-His-Songs-His-Friends

In 1959, just a few years before he started to write children's books, Silverstein began a respectable career in music. How respectable? Well, he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriter's Hall of Fame, won two Grammy awards, recorded more than a dozen albums, and wrote hundreds of songs that were recorded by artists including Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, and Jerry Lee Lewis. The poetry skills Silverstein brought to children's books were easily parlayed into a knack for clever songwriting. And while Silverstein didn't have the voice to make it as a performer, he quickly attracted attention from other musicians eager to record his tunes (many of which can be found on the recently released The Best of Shel Silverstein: His Words His Songs His Friends). Of course, it helped that Silverstein was considered an exceedingly generous collaborator. He was popularly known for his policy of giving equal credit to anyone who co-wrote a song with him, even if they contributed only a single line or small idea.

What's interesting is that this was the polar opposite of Silverstein's reputation in the world of literature. One reason his books are so easy to spot on a bookshelf is that he made unyielding demands about their formats. Most have never been printed in paperback (per his instruction), and he scrupulously selected every typeface and paper grade. Such micromanagement might have benefited him as an author, but in the music industry, his generosity paid off, freeing him from petty monetary squabbles and making him an even more appealing collaborator. And plenty lined up to work with Shel. Silverstein-penned hits include The Irish Rovers' "The Unicorn," Loretta Lynn's "One's On the Way," Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show's "Sylvia's Mother" and "Cover of the Rolling Stone," and, of course, Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue."

On top of all that, Silverstein was more than a dabbler in the dramatic. He wrote dozens of plays that were well-received by critics, including The Devil and Billy Markham, The Crate, The Lady or the Tiger Show, Gorilla, and Little Feet, plus the screenplay for Things Change with playwright pal David Mamet. His musical talents also carried over to several movie soundtracks, including an Oscar-nominated song from Postcards on the Edge. On the side, he did a little acting, most notably a small role in Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? alongside Dustin Hoffman. Not bad for something that probably would've appeared on the ninth page of his resume. Of course, that wasn't everything. In his abundant spare time, Silverstein penned a few mystery stories. We also heard he sculpted a few statues, choreographed a ballet, and built an Egyptian-style pyramid, but there's no truth to those stories. As far as we know.

Crying Uncle

Silverstein once said, "Don't be dependent on anyone else—man, woman, child, or dog. I want to go everywhere, look at and listen to everything. You can go crazy with some of the wonderful stuff there is in life." Restless words from a restless man. Throughout his life, Silverstein didn't stay with a single art form, or live at a single residence, for too long. The same philosophy also seemed to apply to his love life. He had two kids, but never married. Freedom of all sorts—especially the freedom to create what, when, and however he wanted—was vital to him. Such an idiosyncratic path doesn't often lead to big bucks, but Shel was once again the exception to the rule. When he died of heart failure on May 10, 1999, at the age of 68, he was worth millions.

Silverstein gave only a few interviews during his lifetime, and not many were lengthy. He seems to have had a real aversion to blabbing about his work. In fact, he didn't even like for his stuff to be advertised, asking that excerpts of poems and cartoons be the sole contents of any necessary, evil, and publisher-mandated publicity. He once suggested, "If you want to find out what a writer or a cartoonist really feels, look at his work." We can only recommend you simply trust him on that one.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine.

11 Amazing Hotels for Book Lovers

Planning a vacation? Escape reality—both literally and figuratively—by visiting one of these literary-inspired getaways. You'll have your nose buried in a book the entire time, but sightseeing is overrated anyway, right?

1. GLADSTONE'S LIBRARY // HAWARDEN, WALES

In the tiny village of Hawarden, in Flintshire, Wales, travelers can spend the night in an historic residential library, surrounded by tomes collected by one of the UK’s most famous prime ministers. William Gladstone, who served a record four terms as head of Her Majesty’s government, lived in nearby Hawarden Castle after retiring from government service. The bibliophile amassed more than 30,000 books, and housed them in a building he envisioned as becoming a place where people could someday sleep, eat, and study.

After Gladstone's death in 1898, the town’s residents raised money to build a permanent home for the collection. In 1902, Gladstone’s Library opened as a national memorial to its namesake; today, visitors can sleep in one of its 26 guest rooms, dine in an onsite cafe, and—most importantly—browse the library’s 250,000 titles until 10 p.m. (The library closes to the public at 5 p.m.)

2. HEATHMAN HOTEL // PORTLAND, OREGON


Heathman Hotel

Thanks to a partnership with bookseller Powell Books and nonprofit Literary Arts, Portland’s historic Heathman Hotel is home to a cataloged lending library of more than 2700 signed titles. It’s billed as the country’s largest independent hotel library, and it's also one of the world’s largest autographed libraries; titles include signatures from Nobel Prize and Pulitzer winners, U.S. Poet Laureates, former U.S. presidents, and more. Four days a week, an in-house librarian hosts a wine social in the Heathman's mezzanine library, home to more than 2000 of the collection's books. Guests sip local vintages, browse through titles, and select works to check out and read in their rooms.

3. THE JEFFERSON // WASHINGTON, D.C.

The Jefferson, Washington D.C.
The Jefferson, Washington D.C.

The Jefferson in Washington, D.C. draws inspiration from the life of Thomas Jefferson, and adds a luxurious twist. Its toile draperies pay homage to the president’s Virginia plantation, Monticello; a Michelin-starred restaurant, Plume, serves food inspired by Monticello’s gardens; and Quill, a lounge and cocktail bar, is adorned with 18th-century maps that trace Jefferson’s trips through Europe's wine country. The hotel’s crowning glory is its Book Room, modeled after Jefferson’s personal library. Guests can peruse titles reflective of Jefferson’s era or his favorite pastimes, or select works signed by famous authors, like Dave Barry and Ron Chernow, who’ve stayed as guests.

4. WONDERLAND HOUSE // BRIGHTON, ENGLAND

Wonderland House
Wonderland House

Vacationers can pretend they’ve fallen down the rabbit hole at Wonderland House, a six-bedroom hotel in Brighton, England that celebrates Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. (Carroll himself used to spend his summers in the seaside resort town, and is said to have drawn inspiration from his surroundings.) Each guest room contains whimsical furnishings and decorations that reference Alice—there are kettles, clocks, mirrors, and teacups galore—and the Mad Hatter-themed kitchen comes complete with a black-and-white checkerboard floor and all the fixings for a raucous tea party.

5. THE COMMONS HOTEL // MINNEAPOLIS

Guests at The Commons Hotel in Minneapolis can snuggle up with a good book, delivered right to their rooms by a resident book butler. Choose from a selection of titles, or ask the butler for a recommendation. If you feel like mingling with other bibliophiles, The Commons is located just steps away from the University of Minnesota, and is close to one of the nation's largest independent arts organizations, the Loft Literary Center.

6. THE STUDY AT YALE // NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT

The Study at Yale
The Study at Yale

Located on Yale University’s Art Campus, The Study at Yale is a boutique hotel that captures the Ivy League’s collegiate spirit. Photos of Yale’s campus by Michael Marsland, Yale’s photographer, line the walls; the living room/lobby has a floor-to-ceiling bookcase filled with titles curated by New York City’s Strand Book Store; rooms are furnished with cozy leather reading chairs; and eight “Study” suites contain designated study areas, complete with stocked bookcases.

7. THE LIBRARY HOTEL // NEW YORK CITY


The Library Hotel

New York City’s Library Hotel celebrates its proximity to the New York Public Library’s majestic flagship location, the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, by loosely modeling itself after the renowned center of knowledge. The hotel houses more than 6000 books, distributed throughout private rooms and public areas, and each of its 10 guest floors is inspired by one of the Dewey Decimal System’s 10 major categories—philosophy, religion, math and science, technology, etc.

Individual hotel rooms are decorated to reflect genres or topics within these groups, meaning that guests can sleep in zoology, mythology, astronomy, and even erotic literature-themed suites. When they're not reading, guests can relax at the rooftop watering hole, the Writer’s Den & Poetry Garden, which by night turns into Bookmarks Lounge and serves literary-themed drinks.

8. THE LIBRARY // KOH SAMUI, THAILAND


Courtesy of The Library

Come to The Library—a boutique hotel in Koh Samui, Thailand's second-largest island—for its minimalist aesthetic, beachfront views, and blood-red swimming pool; stay for its amazing library, which includes a huge selection of books, DVDs, and CDs, and an iMac computer corner.

9. BOOK AND BED // TOKYO

Sleep with books instead of stuffed animals at Book and Bed, a Tokyo hotel with 30 tiny beds hidden inside a giant bookshelf. The hotel lacks basic creature comforts, like private bathrooms, and the bookshelf's 1700 Japanese and English titles aren't technically for sale, but the entire setup has novelty to spare. “The perfect setting for a good night's sleep is something you will not find here," Book and Bed's website acknowledges. "There are no comfortable mattresses, fluffy pillows nor lightweight and warm down duvets. What we do offer is an experience while reading a book (or comic book)."

10. THE BETSY // MIAMI BEACH

The Betsy, South Beach
The Betsy, South Beach

At The Betsy, a glamorous Georgian- and Art Deco-style hotel located on South Beach's Ocean Drive, visitors can hit the beach and the books. Owner Jonathan Plutzik's late father was Hyam Plutzik, a three-time Pulitzer finalist for poetry, and The Betsy reflects his literary legacy. Guest rooms have small libraries, and the hotel places bookmarks on guests’ pillows, inscribed with Plutzik's poetry. The Betsy also hosts regular arts and cultural events, and has a special Writer's Room reserved for artist residencies.

11. SYLVIA BEACH HOTEL // NEWPORT, OREGON

Oregon's Sylvia Beach Hotel is named after Sylvia Beach, the renowned American publisher/expat who, in 1919, founded Paris's Shakespeare and Company bookstore, publisher of James Joyce's 1922 novel Ulysses and hangout for F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. The hotel is perched high on a bluff overlooking central Oregon's Nye Beach, and each of its 21 rooms is named after a famous author—Oscar Wilde, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Virginia Woolf, to name a few. To encourage guests to unplug—and take advantage of the third-floor oceanfront library—there are no TVs, phones, or Wi-Fi.

10 Classic Books That Have Been Banned

iStock
iStock

From the Bible to Harry Potter, some of the world's most popular books have been challenged for reasons ranging from violence to occult overtones. In honor of National Book Lovers Day, here's a look at 10 classic books that have stirred up controversy.

1. THE CALL OF THE WILD

Jack London's 1903 Klondike Gold Rush-set adventure was banned in Yugoslavia and Italy for being "too radical" and was burned by the Nazis because of the author's well-known socialist leanings.

2. THE GRAPES OF WRATH

Though John Steinbeck's 1939 novel, about a family of tenant farmers who are forced to leave their Oklahoma home for California because of economic hardships, earned the author both the National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize, it also drew ire across America because some believed it promoted Communist values. Kern County, California—where much of the book took place—was particular incensed by Steinbeck's portrayal of the area and its working conditions, which they considered slanderous.

3. THE LORAX

The cover of Dr. Seuss' The Lorax
Google Play

Whereas some readers look at Dr. Seuss's Lorax and see a fuzzy little character who "speaks for the trees," others saw the 1971 children's book as a dangerous piece of political commentary, with even the author reportedly referring to it as "propaganda."

4. ULYSSES

James Joyce's 1922 novel Ulysses may be one of the most important and influential works of the early 20th century, but it was also deemed obscene for both its language and sexual content—and not just in a few provincial places. In 1921, a group known as The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice successfully managed to keep the book out of the United States, and the United States Post Office regularly burned copies of it. But in 1933, the book's publisher, Random House, took the case—United States v. One Book Called Ulysses—to court, and ended up getting the ban overturned.

5. ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT

In 1929, Erich Maria Remarque—a German World War I veteran—wrote the novel All Quiet on the Western Front, which gives an accounting of the extreme mental and physical stress the German soldiers faced during their time in the war. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the book's realism didn't sit well with Nazi leaders, who feared the book would deter their propaganda efforts.

6. ANIMAL FARM

The cover of George Orwell's Animal Farm
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The original publication of George Orwell's 1945 allegorical novella was delayed in the UK because of its anti-Stalin themes. It was confiscated in Germany by Allied troops, banned in Yugoslavia in 1946, banned in Kenya in 1991, and banned in the United Arab Emirates in 2002.

7. AS I LAY DYING

Though many people consider William Faulkner's 1930 novel As I Lay Dying a classic piece of American literature, the Graves County School District in Mayfield, Kentucky disagreed. In 1986, the school district banned the book because it questioned the existence of God.

8. LOLITA

Sure, it's well known that Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita is about a middle-aged literature professor who is obsessed with a 12-year-old girl who eventually becomes his stepdaughter. It's the kind of storyline that would raise eyebrows today, so imagine what the response was when the book was released in 1955. A number of countries—including France, England, Argentina, New Zealand, and South Africa—banned the book for being obscene. Canada did the same in 1958, though it later lifted the ban on what is now considered a classic piece of literature—unreliable narrator and all.

9. THE CATCHER IN THE RYE

Cover of The Catcher in the Rye

Reading J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye has practically become a rite of passage for teenagers, but back when it was published in 1951, it wasn't always easy for a kid to get his or her hands on it. According to TIME, "Within two weeks of its 1951 release, J.D. Salinger’s novel rocketed to No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list. Ever since, the book—which explores three days in the life of a troubled 16-year-old boy—has been a 'favorite of censors since its publication,' according to the American Library Association."

10. THE GIVER

The newest book on this list, Lois Lowry's 1993 novel The Giverabout a dystopia masquerading as a utopiawas banned in several U.S. states, including California and Kentucky, for addressing issues such as euthanasia.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios