25 Amazing Books by African-American Writers You Need to Read

Background: iStock. Book Covers for "Invisible Man" and "The Underground Railroad": Amazon. Book Cover for "The Hate U Give": HARPERCOLLINS.
Background: iStock. Book Covers for "Invisible Man" and "The Underground Railroad": Amazon. Book Cover for "The Hate U Give": HARPERCOLLINS.

Black History Month gives us 28 days to honor African Americans and the ever-expanding contributions they make to culture. Literature in particular has been a space for black authors to tell their stories authentically, and bookworms seeking good reads can choose from an array of fiction, poetry, historical texts, essays, and memoirs. From literary icons to fresh, buzzworthy talent, we're highlighting 25 books by African-American authors you should add to your reading list today.

1. Kindred // Octavia Butler

The cover of 'Kindred' by Octavia Butler
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Octavia Butler's Kindred (1979) is one of a string of novels she penned centering on black female protagonists, which was unprecedented in a white-male dominated science and speculative fiction space at the time. This story centers Dana, a young writer in 1970s Los Angeles who is unexpectedly whisked away to the 19th century antebellum South, where she saves the life of Rufus Weylin, the son of a plantation owner. When Dana’s white husband—initially suspicious of her claims—is transported back in time with her, complicated circumstances follow, since interracial marriage was considered illegal in America until 1967. To paint an accurate picture of the slavery era, Butler told In Motion Magazine in 2004, she studied slave narratives and books by the wives of plantation owners.

Buy it on Amazon.

2. Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body // Roxane Gay

The cover of 'Hunger' by Roxane Gay
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In the second entry of her 2017 memoir Hunger, Roxane Gay writes, "… this is a book about disappearing and being lost and wanting so very much, wanting to be seen and understood."  The New York Times bestselling author pinpoints deep-seated emotions from a string of experiences, such as an anxious visit to a doctor's office concerning gastric bypass surgery and turning to food to cope with a boy raping her when she was a girl. In six powerful parts, the daughter of Haitian immigrants and National Book Award finalist reclaims the space necessary to document her truth—and uses it to come out of the shadows she had once intentionally tried to hide in.

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3. The Fire Next Time // James Baldwin

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
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James Baldwin is considered a key figure among the great thinkers of the 20th century for his long range of criticism about literature, film, and culture and his revelations on race in America. One of his most widely known literary contributions was his 1963 book The Fire Next Time, a text featuring two essays. One is a letter to his 14-year-old nephew in which he encourages him not to give in to racist ideas that blackness makes him lesser. The second essay, "Down At The Cross," takes the reader back to Baldwin's childhood in Harlem as he details conditions of poverty, his struggle with religious authorities, and his relationship with his father.

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4. Between the World and Me // Ta-Nehisi Coates

The cover of 'Between the World and Me' by Ta-Nahisi Coates
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After re-reading James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, Ta-Nehisi Coates was inspired to write a book-long essay to his teenage son about being black in America, forewarning him of the plight that comes with facing white supremacy. The result was the 2015 National Book Award-winning Between the World and Me. New York magazine reported that after reading it, Toni Morrison wrote, "I've been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates." Throughout the book, Coates recounts witnessing violence and police brutality growing up in Baltimore, reflects on his time studying at historically black Howard University, and asks the hard questions about the past and future of race in America.

Buy it on Amazon.

5. Invisible Man // Ralph Ellison

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
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Ralph Ellison's 1952 classic Invisible Man follows one African-American man's quest for identity during the 1920s and 1930s. Because of the racism he faces, the unnamed protagonist, known as "Invisible Man," does not feel seen by society and narrates the reader through a series of unfortunate and fortunate events he undertakes to fit in while living in the South and later in Harlem, New York City. In 1953, Invisible Man was awarded the National Book Award, making Ellison the first African-American author to receive the prestigious honor for fiction [PDF].

Buy it on Amazon.

6. Beloved // Toni Morrison

The cover of 'Beloved' by Toni Morrison
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Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1987 novel Beloved puts Sethe, a former slave in 1873 Cincinnati, Ohio, in contact with the supernatural. Before becoming a free woman, Sethe attempted to kill her children to save them from a life of enslavement. While her sons and one daughter survived, her infant daughter, known only as Beloved, died. Sethe's family becomes haunted by a spirit believed to be Beloved, and Morrison provides a layered portrayal of the plight of post-slavery black life with a magical surrealism edge as Sethe learns she must confront her repressed memories of trauma and her past life in bondage.

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7. All About Love: New Visions // bell hooks

The cover of 'All About Love: New Visions' by bell hooks
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In the 2000 book All About Love, feminist scholar bell hooks grapples with how people are commonly socialized to perceive love in modern society. She uses a range of examples to delve into the topic, from her personal childhood and dating reflections to popular culture references. This is a powerful, essential text that calls on humans to revise a new, healthier blueprint for love, free of patriarchal gender limitations and dominating behaviors that don't serve humankind's emotional needs.

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8. The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley // Malcom X, Alex Haley

The cover of 'The Autobiography of Malcom X'
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Throughout 1963, Malcolm X would drive from his home in Harlem to author Alex Haley's apartment down in New York's Greenwich Village to collaborate on his autobiography. Unfortunately, the minister and activist didn't live to see it in print—The Autobiography of Malcolm X was published in 1965, not long after his assassination in February of that year. The books chronicles the many lessons the young Malcolm (born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska) learned from witnessing his parents' struggles with racism during his childhood, as well as covering his troubled young adulthood with drugs and incarceration and his later evolution into one of the most iconic voices in the movement for black liberation.

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9. Their Eyes Were Watching God // Zora Neale Hurston

The cover of 'Their Eyes Were Watching God' by Zora Neale Hurston
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During Zora Neale Hurston's career, she was more concerned with writing about the lives of African Americans in an authentic way that uplifted their existence, rather than focusing on their traumas. Her most celebrated work, 1937's Their Eyes Were Watching God, is an example of this philosophy. It follows Janie Mae Crawford, a middle-aged woman in Florida, who details lessons she learned about love and finding herself after three marriages. Hurston used black Southern dialect in the characters' dialogue to proudly represent their voices and manner.

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10. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness // Michelle Alexander

The cover of 'The New Jim Crow' by Michelle Alexander
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The Jim Crow laws of the 19th and 20th centuries were intended to marginalize black Americans who, during the Reconstruction period, were establishing their own businesses, entering the labor system, and running for office. Although a series of anti-discrimination rulings such as Brown vs. Board of Education and the Voting Rights Act were passed during the Civil Rights Movement, Michelle Alexander's 2010 book argues that mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow impacting black American lives, especially black men. In the text, Alexander explores how the war on drugs, piloted by the Ronald Reagan administration, created a system in which black Americans were stripped of their rights after serving time for nonviolent drug crimes.

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11. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches // Audre Lorde

The cover of 'Sister Outsider' by Audre Lorde
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Originally published in 1984, Sister Outsider is an anthology of 15 essays and speeches written by lesbian feminist writer and poet Audre Lorde. The titles of her works are as intriguing as the content is eye-opening. "Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power" examines the way people, especially women, lose when they block the erotic—or deep passion—from their work and while exploring their spiritual and political desires. In "The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House," Lorde explains how feminism fails by leaving out the voices of black women, queer women, and poor women. Lorde's ideas are still shaping conversations about feminism today, and her writing is well worth revisiting.

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12. The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream // Barack Obama

The cover of 'The Audacity' of Hope by Barack Obama
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Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope was his second book and the No. 1 New York Times bestseller when it was released in the fall of 2006. The title was derived from a sermon he heard by Pastor Jeremiah Wright called "The Audacity to Hope." It was also the title of the keynote speech the then-Illinois state senator gave at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Before becoming the 44th president of the United States, Obama's Audacity of Hope outlined his optimistic vision to bridge political parties so that the government could better serve the American people's needs.

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13. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration // Isabel Wilkerson

The cover of 'The Warmth of Other Suns' by Isabel Wilkerson
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During the Great Migration, millions of African Americans departed the Southern states to Northern and Western cities to escape Jim Crow laws, lynchings, and the failing sharecropping system. Isabel Wilkerson, the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism, documented these movements in her 2010 book, which involved 15 years of research and interviews with 1200 people. The book highlights the stories of three individuals and their journeys, from Florida to New York City, Mississippi to Chicago, and Louisiana to Los Angeles. Wilkerson's excellent and in-depth documentation won her a National Book Critics Circle Award for the nonfiction work.

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14. Brown Girl Dreaming // Jacqueline Woodson

The cover of 'Brown Girl Dreaming' by Jacqueline Woodson
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Jacqueline Woodson's children's books and YA novels are inspired by her desire to highlight the lives of communities of color—narratives she felt were missing from the literary landscape. In her 2014 National Book Award-winning autobiography, Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson uses her own childhood story in verse form to fill those voids in representation. The author came of age during the Civil Rights Movement and, subsequently, the Black Power Movement, and lived between the laid-back lifestyle of South Carolina and the fast-paced New York City. Through her work, we are reminded of how family and community play a role in helping individuals persevere through life's trials.

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15. Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More // Janet Mock

The cover of 'Redefining Realness' by Janet Mock
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Janet Mock, an African-American and native Hawaiian transgender activist and writer, began her career in media as a staff editor at People. In 2011, Mock decided to share her story with the world and came out as a transgender woman in a Marie Claire article. She released this New York Times bestselling memoir in 2014. Mock has used her platform to speak in full about her upbringing as a person of color in poverty and her transgender identity.

Buy it on Amazon.

16. Fire Shut Up in My Bones // Charles M. Blow

The cover of 'Fire Shut Up in My Bones' by Charles M. Blow
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In his 2014 memoir Fire Shut Up in My Bones, New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow opens up about growing up in a segregated Louisiana town during the 1970s as the youngest of five brothers. In 12 chapters, Blow offers an extensive look at his path to overcoming poverty, the trauma of being a victim of childhood rape, and his gradual understanding of his bisexuality. Although these are hard truths to tell, as Blow told NPR in 2014, he wrote this book especially for those who are going through similar experiences and need to know their lives are still worth living despite painful circumstances.

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17. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings // Maya Angelou

The cover of 'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings' by Maya Angelou
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If you're going to read anything by the late, great, prophetic poet Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings should be at the top of your list. It provides an in-depth look at the obstacles that shaped her early life. Angelou's childhood and teenage years were nomadic, as her separated parents moved her and her brother from rural Arkansas to St. Louis, Missouri, and eventually to California, where at different times she lived in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland. Besides the blatant racism she saw unfold around her in the South, a young Maya also faced childhood rape, and as a teen, homelessness and pregnancy. After its release in 1969, Angelou, who was initially reluctant to write the book, became the first African-American woman to have a nonfiction bestseller.

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18. Babel-17 // Samuel R. Delany

The cover of 'Babel-17' by Samuel R. Delany
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In 2015, Samuel R. Delany told The Nation that when he first began attending science fiction conferences in the 1960s, he was one of only a few black writers and enthusiasts present. Over the years, with his contributions and the work of others like Octavia Butler—whom he mentored—he opened doors for black writers in the genre. If you're looking for a sci-fi thriller taking place in space and centering a woman leader protagonist, Delany's 1967 Nebula Award-winning Babel-17 is the one. Rydra Wong, a spaceship captain, is intrigued by a mysterious language called Babel-17 that has the power to alter a person's perception of themselves and others, and possibly brainwash her to betray her government.

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19. Splay Anthem // Nathaniel Mackey

The cover of 'Splay Anthem' by Nathaniel Mackey
Background: iStock. Book Cover: New Directions Publishing.

Readers of Nathaniel Mackey's poetry are often intrigued by his ability to merge the worlds of music (particularly jazz) and poetry to create soul-grabbing rhythmic prose. Splay Anthem is a masterful work exhibiting his style. The 2006 collection includes two poems Mackey had been writing for more than 20 years: "Song of the Andoumboulou," about a ritual funeral song from the Dogon people of modern-day Mali; and "Mu." Splay Anthem is woven into three sections, "Braid," "Fray," and "Nub," in which two characters travel through space and time and whose final destinations are unclear. Mackey's nonlinear form is deliberate: "There's a lot of emphasis on movement in the poems, and there's a lot of questions about ultimate arrival, about whether there is such a state or place," he said in A Community Writing Itself: Conversations with Vanguard Writers of the Bay Area.

Buy it on Amazon.

20. The Hate U Give // Angie Thomas

The cover of 'The Hate U Give' by Angie Thomas
Background: iStock. Book Cover: HarperCollins.

Angie Thomas is part of a new crop of African-American authors bringing fresh new storytelling to bookshelves near you. Her 2017 debut young adult novel, The Hate U Give, was inspired by the protests of the Black Lives Matter movement. It follows Starr Carter, a 16-year-old who has witnessed the police-involved shooting of her best friend Khalil. The book, which topped the New York Times bestseller chart, is a timely fictional tale that humanizes the voices behind one of the largest movements of present times.

Buy it on Amazon.

21. Not Without Laughter // Langston Hughes

The cover of 'Not Without Laughter' by Langston Hughes
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Take it back to where Harlem Renaissance legend Langston Hughes began his novelistic bibliography. In 1930's Not Without Laughter, Sandy Rogers is an African-American boy growing up in Kansas during the early 1900s—a story loosely based on Hughes's own experiences living in Lawrence and Topeka, Kansas. Hughes vividly paints his characters based on the "typical Negro family in the Middle West" he grew up around, he explained in his autobiography The Big Sea. In this way, Hughes paved the way for more storytelling about black life outside of urban, big city settings.

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22. Salvage the Bones // Jesmyn Ward

The cover of 'Salvage the Bones' by Jesmyn Ward
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Jesmyn Ward's 2011 novel Salvage the Bones merges fiction with her real life experience surviving Hurricane Katrina as a native of rural Mississippi. Ward tells a new story through the eyes of Esch, a pregnant teenage girl who lives in poverty with her three brothers and a father who is battling alcoholism in a fictional town called Bois Sauvage. Through this National Book Award-winning tale, Ward writes an emotionally intense and deep account about a family who must find a way to overcome differences and stick together to survive the passing storm.

Buy it on Amazon.

23. Don't Call Us Dead // Danez Smith

The cover of 'Don't Call Us Dead' by Danez Smith
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Don’t Call Us Dead is a cathartic series of poems that imagine an afterlife where black men can fully be themselves. Danez Smith's poignant words take heartbreaking imagery of violence against the bodies of black men and juxtapose it with scenes of a new plane, one that is much better than the existence those men lived before. Upon arrival, it's a celebration, as men and boys are embraced by their fellow brothers and are able to truly experience being "alive." Smith's prose sticks, and you will think more deeply about the delicacy of life and death long after you've put the book back on the shelf.

Buy it on Amazon.

24. The Underground Railroad // Colson Whitehead

The cover of 'The Underground Railroad' by Colson Whitehead
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Colson Whitehead brings a bit of fantasy to historical fiction in his 2016 novel The Underground Railroad. Historically, the underground railroad was a network of safe houses for runaways on their journey to reaching the freed states. But Whitehead invents a literal secret underground railroad with real tracks and trains in his novel. This system takes his main character, Cora, a woman who escaped a Georgia plantation, to different states and stops. Along her journey, she faces a new set of horrific hurdles that could hold her back from obtaining her freedom.

Buy it on Amazon.

25. Devil in a Blue Dress // Walter Mosley

The cover of 'Devil in a Blue Dress' by Walter Mosley
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If you're into mystery but don't know Walter Mosley, it's time to catch up. The crime-fiction author has published more than 40 books, with his Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins series being his most popular. Mosley's 1990 debut (and Easy's debut as well) Devil in a Blue Dress takes the reader to 1940s Watts, a Los Angeles neighborhood where Easy has recently relocated after losing his job in Houston. He finds a new line of work as a detective when a man at a bar wants him to track down a woman named Daphne Monet, kicking off a career that will span 14 novels (and counting).

Buy it on Amazon.

Where Did the Phrase 'Red Herring' Come From?

iStock.com/Mathias Darmell
iStock.com/Mathias Darmell

You may have seen a red herring in a recent book or movie, but you probably only realized it after the fact. These misleading clues are designed to trick you into drawing an incorrect conclusion, and they're a popular ploy among storytellers of all stripes.

If you've seen or read the Harry Potter series—and really, who hasn’t?—then you may recall some of the many instances where J.K. Rowling employed this literary device. That endearing plot twist about the nature of Snape's character, for example, is likely one of the longest-running red herrings ever written.

Sometimes they aren't even subtle. Agatha Christie's murder mystery And Then There Were None directly mentions red herring in reference to a character's death, and a statue of a red herring appears in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Perhaps most blatantly, a character in the cartoon A Pup Named Scooby-Doo who was constantly being blamed for myriad crimes was named—you guessed it—Red Herring.

But where does this literary device come from, and why is it named after a fish? For a bit of background: herring are naturally a silvery hue, but they turn reddish-brown when they're smoked. Long before refrigerators were invented, this was done to preserve the fish for months at a time. They can also be pretty smelly. As Gizmodo's io9 blog points out, it was believed that red herring were dragged against the ground to help train hounds to sniff out prey in the 17th century. Another theory was that escaped prisoners used the fish to cover their tracks and confuse the dogs that tailed them.

However, io9 notes that red herring were actually used to train horses rather than dogs, and only if the preferred choice—a dead cat—wasn't available. The idea was that the horses would get used to following the scent trail, which in turn would make them less likely to get spooked while "following the hounds amid the noise and bustle of a fox hunt," notes British etymologist and writer Michael Quinion, who researched the origin of the phrase red herring.

The actual origin of the figurative sense of the phrase can be traced back to the early 1800s. Around this time, English journalist William Cobbett wrote a presumably fictional story about how he had used red herring as a boy to throw hounds off the scent of a hare. He elaborated on this anecdote and used it to criticize some of his fellow journalists. "He used the story as a metaphor to decry the press, which had allowed itself to be misled by false information about a supposed defeat of Napoleon," Quinion writes in a blog. "This caused them to take their attention off important domestic matters."

According to Quinion, an extended version of this story was printed in 1833, and the idiom spread from there. Although many people are more familiar with red herrings in pop culture, they also crop up in political spheres and debates of all kinds. Robert J. Gula, the author of Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language, defines a red herring as "a detail or remark inserted into a discussion, either intentionally or unintentionally, that sidetracks the discussion."

The goal is to distract the listener or opponent from the original topic, and it's considered a type of flawed reasoning—or, more fancifully, a logical fallacy. This application of red herring seems to be more in line with its original usage, but as Quinion notes: "This does nothing to change the sense of red herring, of course: it's been for too long a fixed part of our vocabulary for it to change. But at least we now know its origin. Another obscure etymology has been nailed down."

8 Facts About Shel Silverstein

Shel Silverstein was a multi-talented children’s author, comic artist, poet, playwright, and songwriter, and above all else, a rule-breaker. From The Giving Tree to Where the Sidewalk Ends, his titles are beloved by children and adults alike. At the time they were written, though, they defied common notions about what a "children’s" story could and should be. This isn’t all that surprising, considering that the Chicago-born author, who passed away in 1999, led a pretty unconventional life. Here are eight things you might not know about him.

1. One of Shel Silverstein's first jobs was selling hot dogs in Chicago.

Shel Silverstein didn’t always want to be a writer, or even a cartoonist or songwriter. His first love was baseball. "When I was a kid—12, 14, around there—I would much rather have been a good baseball player or a hit with the girls," he once said in an interview. "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.” The closest he came to his MLB dream was when he landed a stint at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, selling hot dogs to White Sox fans.

2. Silverstein never finished college.

Silverstein was expelled from one school (the University of Illinois) and dropped out of another (the School of the Art Institute of Chicago). Finally, he managed to get through three years of the English program at Chicago's Roosevelt University, but his studies came to an abrupt end when he was drafted in 1953.

3. Silverstein was a Korean War veteran.

In the 1950s, Silverstein was drafted into the U.S. armed service. While he was stationed in Korea and Japan, he also worked as a cartoonist for the military publication Stars and Stripes. It was his first big cartooning gig. "For a guy of my age and with my limited experience to suddenly have to turn out cartoons on a day-to-day deadline deadline, the job was enormous,'' Silverstein told Stars and Stripes in a 1969 interview.

4. Silverstein worked for Playboy magazine and was Part of Hugh Hefner's inner circle.

That’s right: the lovable children’s author was on Playboy’s payroll for many years. He started drawing comics for the men’s magazine in the 1950s and ended up becoming close friends with Hugh Hefner. In fact, he often spent weeks or even months at the Playboy Mansion, where he wrote some of his books. His cartoons for the magazine proved so popular that Playboy sent him around the world to find the humor in places like London, Paris, North Africa, and Moscow during the Cold War. Perhaps his most off-color assignment, though, was visiting a nudist camp in New Jersey. These drawings were compiled in the 2007 book Playboy's Silverstein Around the World, which includes a foreword from Hefner.

5. Silverstein wrote Johnny Cash's hit song "A Boy Named Sue."

Few people know that Silverstein was a songwriter, too. One of his biggest hits was the comical tale of a boy who learned how to defend himself after being relentlessly bullied for his feminine-sounding name, Sue. The song was popularized by Johnny Cash and ended up being his top-selling single, while Silverstein was awarded a Grammy for Best Country Song. You can watch Silverstein strumming the guitar and shouting the lyrics alongside Cash on The Johnny Cash Show in the video above. Silverstein also wrote a follow-up song from the dad’s point of view, The Father of a Boy Named Sue, but it didn't take off the way the original did.

6. Silverstein is in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Three years after his death, Silverstein was inducted posthumously into this exclusive society of songwriters. He wrote more than 800 songs throughout his career, some of which were quite raunchy. But his best-known songs were performed by country legends like Loretta Lynn and Waylon Jennings. “His compositions were instantly identifiable, filled with elevated wordplay and captivating, humor-filled narratives,” the Nashville Songwriters Foundation said of Silverstein's music.

7. Silverstein wrote the first children’s book to appear on The New York Times best sellerS list.

A Light in the Attic (1981) was the first children’s book to ever make it onto the prestigious New York Times Best Sellers list. It remained there for a whopping 182 weeks, breaking all of the previous records for hardcover books at that time.

8. Silverstein wasn't a fan of happy endings.

If you couldn’t already tell by The Giving Tree’s sad conclusion, Silverstein didn’t believe in giving his stories happy endings. He felt that doing so would alienate his young readers. "The child asks why I don't have this happiness thing you're telling me about, and comes to think when his joy stops that he has failed, that it won't come back,” the author said in a 1978 interview. This turned out to be a risky move, and The Giving Tree was rejected several times for being too sad or too unconventional. Fortunately, after four years of searching for a publisher, it found a home at HarperCollins (then Harper & Row) and has gone on to become one of the best-selling—and most beloved—children's books of all time.

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