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Shel Silverstein's Unlikely Rise to Kid Lit Superstardom

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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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5 Things You Should Know About Chinua Achebe
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Often referred to as the “father of African literature,” author Chinua Achebe was born in Ogidi, Nigeria on this day in 1930. Though he passed away in 2013, Google is celebrating what would be his 87th birthday with a Google Doodle. Here are five things you should know about the award-winning writer.

1. HE HAD PLANNED TO BE A DOCTOR.

Though he was always an avid reader and began learning English at the age of eight, Chinua Achebe hadn’t always planned to become a beacon of the literary world. After studying at Nigeria’s prestigious Government College (poet Christopher Okigbo was one of his classmates), Achebe earned a scholarship to study medicine at University College in lbadan. One year into the program he realized that writing was his true calling and switched majors, which meant giving up his scholarship. With financial help from his brother, Achebe was able to complete his studies.

2. JOYCE CARY’S MISTER JOHNSON INSPIRED HIM TO WRITE, BUT NOT IN THE WAY YOU MIGHT THINK.

While storytelling had long been a part of Achebe’s Igbo upbringing in Nigeria, that was only part of what inspired him to write. While in college, he read Mister Johnson, Irish writer Joyce Cary’s tragicomic novel about a young Nigerian clerk whose happy-go-lucky demeanor infects everyone around him. While TIME Magazine declared it the “best book ever written about Africa,” Achebe disagreed.

“My problem with Joyce Cary’s book was not simply his infuriating principal character, Johnson,” Achebe wrote in Home and Exile. “More importantly, there is a certain undertow of uncharitableness just below the surface on which his narrative moves and from where, at the slightest chance, a contagion of distaste, hatred, and mockery breaks through to poison his tale.” The book led Achebe to realize that “there is such a thing as absolute power over narrative,” and he was inspired to take control of it to tell a more realistic tale of his home.

3. HE DIDN’T THINK THAT WRITING COULD BE TAUGHT.

Though he studied writing, Achebe wasn’t all too sure that he learned much about the art in college. In an interview with The Paris Review, he recalled how the best piece of advice he had ever gotten was from one of his professors, James Welch, who told him, “We may not be able to teach you what you need or what you want. We can only teach you what we know.”

I thought that was wonderful. That was really the best education I had. I didn’t learn anything there that I really needed, except this kind of attitude. I have had to go out on my own. The English department was a very good example of what I mean. The people there would have laughed at the idea that any of us would become a writer. That didn’t really cross their minds. I remember on one occasion a departmental prize was offered. They put up a notice—write a short story over the long vacation for the departmental prize. I’d never written a short story before, but when I got home, I thought, Well, why not. So I wrote one and submitted it. Months passed; then finally one day there was a notice on the board announcing the result. It said that no prize was awarded because no entry was up to the standard. They named me, said that my story deserved mention. Ibadan in those days was not a dance you danced with snuff in one palm. It was a dance you danced with all your body. So when Ibadan said you deserved mention, that was very high praise.

I went to the lecturer who had organized the prize and said, You said my story wasn’t really good enough but it was interesting. Now what was wrong with it? She said, Well, it’s the form. It’s the wrong form. So I said, Ah, can you tell me about this? She said, Yes, but not now. I’m going to play tennis; we’ll talk about it. Remind me later, and I’ll tell you. This went on for a whole term. Every day when I saw her, I’d say, Can we talk about form? She’d say, No, not now. We’ll talk about it later. Then at the very end she saw me and said, You know, I looked at your story again and actually there’s nothing wrong with it. So that was it! That was all I learned from the English department about writing short stories. You really have to go out on your own and do it.

4. HE WAS WARY OF MACHINES.

Though typewriters, followed by computers, were ubiquitous, Achebe preferred a “very primitive” approach. “I write with a pen,” he told The Paris Review. “A pen on paper is the ideal way for me. I am not really very comfortable with machines; I never learned to type very well. Whenever I try to do anything on a typewriter, it’s like having this machine between me and the words; what comes out is not quite what would come out if I were scribbling. For one thing, I don’t like to see mistakes on the typewriter. I like a perfect script. On the typewriter I will sometimes leave a phrase that is not right, not what I want, simply because to change it would be a bit messy. So when I look at all this … I am a preindustrial man.”

5. HIS DEBUT NOVEL REMAINS ONE OF THE MOST TAUGHT PIECES OF AFRICAN LITERATURE.

Achebe’s status as the “father of African literature” is no joke, and it’s largely due to his debut novel, Things Fall Apart. Published in 1958, the book—which follows the life of Okonkwo, an Igbo leader and wrestling champion—has gone on to sell more than 10 million copies and has been translated into 50 different languages. Even today, nearly 60 years after its original publication, it remains one of the most taught and dissected novels about Africa.

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13 Fascinating Facts About Kurt Vonnegut
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Best known as the eccentric author of Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut filled his novels, plays, and short stories with irreverence, satire, and wry wit. He wrote about dystopian societies, disillusionment with war, and skepticism, particularly connecting with millions of readers in the 1960s counterculture. To celebrate what would have been Vonnegut’s 95th birthday, we compiled a list of facts about the beloved science fiction writer.

1. HE MET HIS FIRST WIFE IN KINDERGARTEN.

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1922, Vonnegut met his future wife, Jane, in kindergarten. Although they dated as teenagers in high school, their relationship paused when Vonnegut went to Cornell University, dropped out to serve in World War II, and became a prisoner of war in Germany. After returning to the U.S., he married Jane in 1945. The couple had six children—three biological and three adopted—but divorced in 1971.

2. HIS MOTHER COMMITTED SUICIDE ON MOTHER'S DAY.

When Vonnegut was born, his parents were well-off. Kurt Sr., his father, was an architect and Edith, his mother, was independently wealthy from the brewery that her family owned. But due to Prohibition and the Great Depression, the family struggled to make ends meet, sold their home, and switched their son to a public school. Edith, who suffered from mental illness, became addicted to alcohol and prescription pills. In 1944, when Vonnegut came home from military training to celebrate Mother’s Day, he found Edith dead. She had committed suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills, and the 21-year-old Vonnegut soon went to Germany to fight in World War II. In an interview with The Paris Review, Vonnegut remembered his mother as being highly intelligent, cultivated, and a good writer. "I only wish she’d lived to see [my writing career]. I only wish she’d lived to see all her grandchildren," he said.

3. HE TURNED HIS PRISONER OF WAR EXPERIENCE INTO A BESTSELLING BOOK.


By United States Army [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Because Vonnegut was flunking his classes at Cornell, he decided to drop out and join the army to fight in World War II. During the Battle of the Bulge, in 1944, German forces captured him, along with other American prisoners of war, in Dresden. Forced to work long hours in a malt-syrup factory, he slept in a subterranean slaughterhouse. In a letter he later wrote to his family, Vonnegut described the unsanitary conditions, sadistic guards, and measly food rations. After surviving the February 1945 Allied bombing of Dresden, in which tens of thousands of people were killed, Vonnegut was forced by his captors to remove jewelry from the corpses before cremating them. "One hundred thirty thousand corpses were hidden underground. It was a terribly elaborate Easter-egg hunt," he said in his Paris Review interview.

Later in 1945, Vonnegut got frostbite and was discharged from the army (he earned a Purple Heart). Over two decades later, in 1969, Vonnegut published the bestselling novel Slaughterhouse-Five, which gave readers a fictionalized account of his wartime imprisonment. He later said that only one person benefited from the raid in Dresden: him. "I got three dollars for each person killed. Imagine that," he said.

4. CONTRARY TO RUMORS, HE WASN’T FRAT BUDDIES WITH DR. SEUSS.

An urban legend suggests that Vonnegut and Theodor Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) were college friends who spent time together in the same fraternity. But according to Snopes, the tale of Geisel and Vonnegut’s friendship is greatly exaggerated … that is, it’s false. The two authors probably never met, and they didn’t attend any of the same schools (plus, Geisel was 18 years older than Vonnegut). Geisel did, however, once visit a friend who belonged to Cornell’s Delta Upsilon fraternity. Geisel drew a mural on the wall of the fraternity’s basement, and Vonnegut saw his drawings at Cornell a decade later as a student.

5. HE HELD A SERIES OF ODD JOBS TO SUPPORT HIS FAMILY.

In 1947, Vonnegut began working in public relations for General Electric, an experience that he drew upon to write Cat’s Cradle. He wrote articles and short stories for magazines such as Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post, and his first novel, Player Piano, was published in 1952. Vonnegut then briefly wrote for Sports Illustrated, managed a Saab car dealership in Massachusetts (the first in the U.S.), and worked as an English teacher.

6. HE ADOPTED HIS SISTER’S THREE KIDS.

In the late 1950s, Vonnegut’s sister, Alice, died of cancer and Alice’s husband died in a train accident within the span of a few days. Although Vonnegut already had three children with his wife, he adopted his sister’s three sons. Since he now had six children to support, Vonnegut spent even more time writing to earn money.

7. HE ATTEMPTED SUICIDE.

Although Slaughterhouse-Five made him a famous, bestselling author, Vonnegut struggled with depression in the midst of his literary success. After getting divorced in 1971, he lived alone in New York City and had trouble writing. His son became psychotic, and although he married his second wife in 1979 (and they adopted a daughter together), his depression got worse. In 1984, he tried to kill himself by overdosing on sleeping pills and alcohol, an experience he wrote about in 1991 in Fates Worse Than Death, a collection of essays.

8. HE GRADED ALL HIS BOOKS.

In an interview with Charlie Rose, Vonnegut discussed his grading system for his books (he also wrote about this system in Palm Sunday, a collection of his works published in 1981). He gave himself an A+ for his writing in Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five but wasn’t as generous with Happy Birthday, Wanda June or Slapstick, which both received Ds.

9. HE LOVED WATCHING CHEERS.

In 1991, while speaking to the press to promote his Showtime television show Vonnegut’s Monkey House, he extolled the virtues of the NBC show Cheers. "I’d rather have written Cheers than anything I’ve written," he said. Although he viewed television in general with skepticism, he made an exception for the long-running sitcom, calling it television’s one comic masterpiece: "Every time anybody opens his or her mouth on that show, it’s significant. It’s funny," he said.

10. HE TRIED TO STOP SMOKING BUT GAINED TOO MUCH WEIGHT.

A lifelong smoker, Vonnegut began smoking cigarettes as a young teenager. Interviews with the author described his chain-smoking, his preferred brand (Pall Mall), and his frequent coughing and wheezing. Vonnegut admitted that he quit smoking twice, but neither attempt succeeded long-term. "Once I did it cold turkey, and turned into Santa Claus. I became roly-poly. I was approaching 250 pounds," he told the Paris Review. The second time, his lack of smoking made him "unbearably opinionated" and curtailed his writing time. "I didn’t even write letters anymore. I had made a bad trade, evidently. So I started smoking again," he said.

11. THANKS TO CAT’S CRADLE, HE FINALLY GOT HIS MASTER'S DEGREE.

While studying anthropology as a young man at the University of Chicago, Vonnegut wrote his graduate thesis comparing 19th century Cubist painters to Native American artists. Vonnegut later explained that the faculty rejected his dissertation, and he dropped out of his master’s program there: "I left Chicago without writing a dissertation—and without a degree. All my ideas for dissertations had been rejected, and I was broke, so I took a job as a P.R. man for General Electric in Schenectady." But the quality of his novel Cat’s Cradle, published in 1963, persuaded University of Chicago faculty to accept the novel as his dissertation. So 20 years after he dropped out, Vonnegut finally earned his master’s degree in anthropology.

12. HE HAS OVER 210,000 TWITTER FOLLOWERS.

Although Vonnegut died in 2007 at 84 years old, his ideas live on in 140 characters or less. A Twitter account dedicated to the writer tweets his quotes several times a day to more than 215,000 followers. Examples of his tweets? "How embarrassing to be human," and "We could have saved the Earth but we were too damned cheap." Fittingly, the account follows just one person, @TheMarkTwain, for Vonnegut greatly admired the Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn author.

13. THE VONNEGUT MEMORIAL LIBRARY CONTINUES HIS LEGACY.

Located in his birthplace of Indianapolis, The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library honors the writer’s achievements and keeps his legacy alive. Opened in 2010, the library displays signed copies of Vonnegut’s books as well as early rejection letters. Visitors can also see his drawings, examine family photos, and view his typewriter, cigarettes, and Purple Heart. The library works to fight censorship, a cause that Vonnegut strongly believed in, by giving free copies of Slaughterhouse-Five to students whose schools have banned the book. So it goes.

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