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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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10 Dramatic Facts About King Lear
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William Shakespeare wrote King Lear, frequently cited as his best tragedy, between 1605 and 1606. The play tells the story of the titular king, who attempts to divide his kingdom among his three daughters: Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. Scheming sisters Regan and Goneril rob him of his power and sanity after Lear is flattered into giving them his kingdom, while kind Cordelia suffers tragic consequences. The fallen monarch has captivated our literary imagination for centuries, but there's still plenty to learn about the Bard's classic play that you might have missed in high school English class.

1. KING LEAR WAS INSPIRED BY A LEGENDARY BRITISH KING.

King Lear wasn't inspired by a ruler of Shakespeare's era, but by the legend of an ancient king, Leir of Britain, who was said to have lived around the 8th century BCE, according to the 12th-century Historia Regum Britanniae. Written by Geoffrey of Monmouth, this tome has been described as “a brilliantly conceived pastiche of myth, song, and outright invention masquerading as straightforward history.”

Before the Bard's play hit the scene, multiple works had already explored Leir's sad tale, including an anonymous 16th-century play called The True Chronicle History of King Leir, and his three Daughters. Others included The Mirror for Magistrates—a collection of English poems from the Tudor period—and Raphael Holinshed's 1587 work The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, which included the legend. He, too, picked up the tale from Geoffrey of Monmouth's pseudohistory.

Meanwhile, in 1590, two different works emerged that would influence the play: Edmund Spenser's poem The Faerie Queene and Sir Philip Sidney's prose work Arcadia, in which a fallen king is blinded by his illegitimate son.

Shakespeare added original conceits to his retelling of the King Leir legend, including both his madness and the role of the Fool. The main difference between Shakespeare's final product and the works that inspired it, however, was that the others all have happy endings.

2. THE FIRST KNOWN PRODUCTION OF KING LEAR WAS STAGED FOR KING JAMES I.

King Lear was written during the reign of England's King James I, and the play's first recorded performance took place at Whitehall on St. Stephen's Day (December 26) in 1606. At the time, the real-life English ruler, who was also King James VI of Scotland, was attempting to unite the kingdoms of Scotland and England as one. He’d ultimately fail—getting only approval for a Union of Crowns rather than full political union—but the production's plot may have hit home for the king, experts say, as it illustrated the potential tragedies of dividing a kingdom.

3. THERE ARE MULTIPLE VERSIONS OF KING LEAR.

If you've ever seen a live performance of King Lear, it was probably quite different from what audiences saw in Stuart England. That's because there were multiple early versions of King Lear, and the one we know today was crafted from a combination of them.

The first version of King Lear was published in 1608 as a quarto, or small book, called True Chronicle Historie of the life and death of King Lear and his three Daughters. It was revised multiple times during its initial press run, before being republished in 1619.

This second printing of King Lear contained some different words and lines from its predecessor, but in 1623 a dramatically different edition was included in the First Folio, or the first collection of Shakespeare's plays. It had around 100 new lines that weren't included in the 1608 quarto, and it was also missing about 300 lines, including all of Act IV, Scene 3. Roughly 800 words were also changed between the two versions.

Thanks to 18th-century editors, today's King Lear is often a mix of all of the above, although there are also some modern versions of the play that stick entirely with the quarto version or the First Folio edition.

4. KING LEAR WAS REWRITTEN TO HAVE A HAPPY ENDING.

Nahum Tate, who was made England's Poet Laureate in 1692, decided to update some of Shakespeare’s plays for contemporary audiences. While his versions of Coriolanus and Richard II were never successful, in 1681 he wrote a version of King Lear in which Cordelia survives, is betrothed to Edgar, and is named queen. (It's also missing the Fool.) This alternative—which still contained five acts, although the text itself was shorter—was regularly staged, but over the years some of Tate’s changes began to be removed. In 1768 the Cordelia and Edgar romance was removed, and Edmund Kean's production brought back the sad ending in 1823. Although it kept Tate's structure and heavily edited the play, an 1838 performance staring actor William Charles Macready revived the Fool and is generally credited as the end of Tate’s version, with Samuel Phelps in 1845 returning more closely to the original play.

5. KING LEAR WAS BANNED FROM THE ENGLISH STAGE DURING THE REIGN OF KING GEORGE III.

While King Lear wasn't ever intended to portray a living king, its main character hit too close to home during the reign of King George III. The monarch was plagued with periods of insanity and he was both blind and deaf when he died on January 29, 1820. Out of sensitivity, all performances of any version of King Lear were banned during King George's reign between 1810 to 1820. The fictional monarch's mental illness paralleled the real life ruler's struggles just a little too much.

6. KING LEAR CONTAINS LOTS OF REFERENCES TO NATURE.

King Lear is filled with more references to animals and nature than any other Shakespeare play. For example, sisters Goneril and Regan are often compared to deadly creatures like wolves, snakes, and vultures, whereas the Fool likens Lear's helplessness to “the hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long/That it's had it head bit off by it young.” In a famous lament, Lear says that without the accoutrements of civilization, man is nothing but “a poor bare forked animal.” Scholars have even counted references to "nature," "natural," "disnatured," and "unnatural" as occurring more than 40 times in the play [PDF].

7. GEORGE BERNARD SHAW LOVED KING LEAR. LEO TOLSTOY HATED IT.

“No man will ever write a better tragedy than Lear,” George Bernard Shaw reflected in the preface of his 1901 theatrical collection Three Plays for Puritans. Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, however, disagreed with this sentiment. The War and Peace author didn't care for Shakespeare's writing, and he particularly disliked King Lear. He described an “exaggerated” plot and “pompous, characterless language” in “Tolstoy on Shakespeare,” a 100-page critical essay he published in 1906.

8. FREUD THOUGHT CORDELIA SYMBOLIZED DEATH IN KING LEAR.

In Sigmund Freud's critical essay “The Theme of the Three Caskets,” which analyzes the casket story in The Merchant of Venice, he also explored [PDF] the underlying symbolism of Lear's three daughters in King Lear. Freud thought they represented the mythical Three Fates, and that Cordelia was Atropos, the Greek goddess of death, since she refuses to speak when Lear asks her to profess her love. (At the time, psychoanalysts viewed speechlessness in dreams as a signifier of death.) By rejecting Cordelia, the aging king is essentially rejecting death itself, Freud claimed.

9. A VERSION OF KING LEAR HAS BEEN PERFORMED WITH SHEEP.

In 2014, English playwright Heather Williams (who goes by the pen name Missouri Williams) added levity to King Lear by staging an adaptation called King Lear With Sheep. It told the oh-so-meta tale of a director character who decides to perform the Shakespearean tragedy using wooly ungulates as cast members. When the sheep won't cooperate, the director suffers a breakdown and begins acting out the narrative himself. The London performance featured real-life sheep—nine, to be precise—and just one actor.

10. THE TV SHOW EMPIRE IS BASED ON KING LEAR.

King Lear continues to inspire modern writers, artists, and directors. For example, the Fox series Empire features Lucious Lyon (played by Terrence Howard), a fading hip-hop mogul and ex-drug dealer whose three sons vie to inherit his business. Lyon is loosely based on Lear, according to show co-creator Danny Strong.

"I was literally driving in my car and I thought, I wonder if you could do King Lear in a hip-hop empire,” Strong told The Atlantic. “ I literally was like: King Lear. Hip-hop Empire and then my next thought was, 'I should call [Empire co-creator] Lee Daniels'" to collaborate on a project.

“We call it hip hop Dynasty," Strong added. "It's like King Lear meets hip-hop meets Dynasty."

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Trash Collectors in Turkey Use Abandoned Books to Build a Free Library
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Adem Altan, AFP/Getty Images

A stack of books abandoned on the sidewalk can be a painful sight for bibliophiles. But in Ankara, Turkey, garbage collectors are using books left to be discarded to build a free library. As CNN reports, their library of salvaged literature is currently 6000 titles strong.

The collection grew gradually as sanitation workers began saving books they found on their routes, rather then hauling them away with the rest of the city’s trash. The books were set aside for employees and their families to borrow, but eventually news of their collection expanded beyond the sanitation department. Instead of leaving books on the curb, residents started donating their unwanted books directly to the cause. Soon the idea arose of opening a full library for the public to enjoy.

Man reading book at shelf.
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With support from the local government, the library opened in the Çankaya district of Ankara in September 2017. Located in an abandoned brick factory on the sanitation department’s property, it features literature for children, resources for scientists, and books for English and French speakers. The space also includes a lounge where visitors can read their books or play chess. The loan period for books lasts two weeks, but just like at a regular library, readers are given the option to renew their tomes.

People reading books in a library.
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The experiment has proven more successful than anyone anticipated: The library is so well-stocked that local schools, prisons, and educational programs can now borrow from its inventory. The Turkish sanitation workers deserve high praise, but discarded book-loving pioneers in other parts of the world should also get some recognition: For decades, José Alberto Gutiérrez has been using his job collecting garbage to build a similar library in Colombia.

[h/t CNN]

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