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.

10 Things You Might Not Know About Dorothy Parker

Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images
Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images

As a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table—a circle of writers that also included Harpo Marx and Robert Benchley—Dorothy Parker was renowned for her scathing wit. Here are 10 fascinating facts about the legendary wordsmith.

1. Dorothy Parker was born in New Jersey.

Dorothy Parker was born at her parents' beach cottage in Long Branch, New Jersey on August 22, 1893. She liked to say they rushed back to Manhattan after Labor Day so she could be a "true" New Yorker.

2. Dorothy Parker's mother died when she was just a child.

Parker's mother died when Dorothy was just four years old. Her father remarried two years later, but Dorothy was not a fan of her stepmother and refused to call her anything but "the housekeeper." Ouch.

3. Dorothy Parker married the same man twice.

Parker and Alan Campbell were great writing partners, but were perhaps no more than that; she often (affectionately) described him as "queer as a billy goat."

4. Dorothy Parker could be sentimental when a job called for it.

You know Parker came up with plenty of sarcastic quips and biting observations, but she also wrote some rather treacly stuff: She was an uncredited screenwriter for It's a Wonderful Life and wrote lyrics for the Bing Crosby song "I Wished on the Moon."

5. Dorothy Parker's uncle was on the Titanic.

Parker's uncle, Martin Rothschild, died in the great Titanic disaster of 1912.

6. Dorothy Parker reviewed books for The New Yorker.

Parker wrote book reviews for The New Yorker under the pseudonym "Constant Reader." She hated Winnie the Pooh and wrote of The House on Pooh Corner, "Tonstant Weader Fwowed up."

7. Dorothy Parker was tiny.

Parker might have been an enormous presence, but she was only 4'11".

8. Dorothy Parker was a staunch civil rights activist.

When Parker died in 1967, she left her entire estate to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Foundation, and then to the NAACP when King was assassinated.

9. Dorothy Parker's ashes went unclaimed for years.

While she left her money to the causes she cared about, Parker left her ashes to playwright Lillian Hellman, who never bothered to collect them. They went unclaimed for years and were passed around rather unceremoniously, spending about 17 years in her lawyer's filing cabinet. The NAACP finally claimed what was left of Ms. Parker and erected a memorial garden in her honor. You can visit her there and read what she suggested for her own epitaph: "Excuse my dust."

10. There is no shortage of great Dorothy Parker quotes.

But as a writer, I think this one might be my favorite: "I'd like to have money. And I'd like to be a good writer. These two can come together, and I hope they will, but if that's too adorable, I'd rather have money."

9 Facts About The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On its surface, Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a straightforward story about a boy and a runaway slave floating down the Mississippi River. But underneath, the book—which was published in the U.S. on February 18, 1885—is a subversive confrontation of slavery and racism. It remains one of the most loved, and most banned, books in American history.

1. Huckleberry Finn first appears in Tom Sawyer.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a sequel to Tom Sawyer, Twain’s novel about his childhood in Hannibal, Missouri. Huck is the “juvenile pariah of the village” and “son of the town drunkard,” Pap Finn. He wears cast-off adult clothes and sleeps in doorways and empty barrels. Despite this, the other children “wished they dared to be like him.” Huck also appears in Tom Sawyer, Detective, and Tom Sawyer Abroad.

2. Huckleberry Finn may be based on Mark Twain's childhood friend.

Twain once said that Huck is based on Tom Blankenship, a childhood friend whose father, Woodson Blankenship, was a poor drunkard and the likely model for Pap Finn. “In Huckleberry Finn I have drawn Tom Blankenship exactly as he was,” Twain wrote in Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1: The Complete and Authoritative Edition. “He was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had." However, Twain may be exaggerating here. In 1885, when the Minneapolis Tribune asked who Huck was based on, Twain said it was no single person: “I could not point you out the youngster all in a lump; but still his story is what I call a true story.”

3. It took Mark Twain seven years to write the book.

Huckleberry Finn was written in two short bursts. The first was in 1876, when Twain wrote 400 pages that he told his friend he liked “only tolerably well, as far as I have got, and may possibly pigeonhole or burn” the manuscript. He stopped working on it for several years to write The Prince and the Pauper and Life on the Mississippi. In 1882, Twain took a steamboat ride on the Mississippi from New Orleans to Minnesota, with a stop in Hannibal, Missouri. It must have inspired him, because he dove into finishing Huckleberry Finn.

“I have written eight or nine hundred manuscript pages in such a brief space of time that I mustn’t name the number of days,” Twain wrote in August 1883. “I shouldn’t believe it myself, and of course couldn’t expect you to.” The book was published in 1884.

4. Like Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain’s view on slavery changed.

Huck, who grows up in the South before the Civil War, not only accepts slavery, but believes that helping Jim run away is a sin. The moral climax of the novel is when Huck debates whether to send Jim’s owner a letter detailing Jim’s whereabouts. Finally, Huck says, "All right, then, I'll go to hell,” and tears the letter up.

As a child, Twain didn’t question the institution of slavery. Not only was Missouri a slave state, but his uncle owned 20 slaves. In Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1, Twain wrote, “I vividly remember seeing a dozen black men and women chained to one another, once, and lying in a group on the pavement, awaiting shipment to the Southern slave market. Those were the saddest faces I have ever seen.” At some point, Twain’s attitudes changed and he married into an abolitionist family. His father-in-law, Jervis Langdon, was a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad and helped Frederick Douglass escape from slavery.

5. Emmeline Grangerford is a parody of a Victorian poetaster.

Huckleberry Finn parodies adventure novels, politics, religion, the Hatfields and the McCoys, and even Hamlet’s soliloquy. But most memorable may be the character of Emmeline Grangerford, the 15-year-old poet. Emmeline is a parody of Julia A. Moore, the “Sweet Singer of Michigan,” who wrote bad poetry about death. So does Emmeline, according to Huck: “Every time a man died, or a woman died, or a child died, she would be on hand with her ‘tribute’ before he was cold. She called them tributes.” Along with bad poetry, Emmeline paints “crayons” of dramatic subjects, such as a girl “crying into a handkerchief” over a dead bird with the caption, "I Shall Never Hear Thy Sweet Chirrup More Alas."

6. Many consider Huckleberry Finn the first American novel.

“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn ,” Ernest Hemingway wrote in Green Hills Of Africa. “There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since." While this statement ignores great works like Moby-Dick and The Scarlet Letter, Huckleberry Finn was notable because it was the first novel to be written in the American vernacular. Huck speaks in dialect, using phrases like “it ain’t no matter” or "it warn’t no time to be sentimentering.” Since most writers of the time were still imitating European literature, writing the way Americans actually talked seemed revolutionary. It was language that was clear, crisp, and vivid, and it changed how Americans wrote.

7. Many people consider the end of the book to be a bit of a cop-out.

A major criticism of Huckleberry Finn is that the book begins to fail when Tom Sawyer enters the novel. Up until that point, Huck and Jim have developed a friendship bound by their mutual plight as runaways. We believe Huck cares about Jim and has learned to see his humanity. But when Tom Sawyer comes into the novel, Huck changes. He becomes passive and doesn’t even seem to care when Jim is captured. To make matters worse, it turns out that Jim’s owner has already set him free, and that Huck’s abusive dad is dead. Essentially, Huck and Jim have been running away from nothing. Many critics, including American novelist Jane Smiley, believe that by slapping on a happy ending, Twain was ignoring the complex questions his book raises.

8. The book is frequently banned.

Huckleberry Finn was first banned in Concord, Massachusetts in 1885 (“trash and suitable only for the slums”) and continues to be one of the most-challenged books. The objections are usually over the n-word, which occurs over 200 times in the book. Others say that the portrayal of African Americans is stereotypical, racially insensitive, or racist. In 2011, Stephen Railton, a professor at the University of Virginia, published a version of the book that replaced that offending word with slave. Soon after appeared The Hipster Huckleberry Finn, where the word was replaced with hipster. The book's description says, “the adventures of Huckleberry Finn are now neither offensive nor uncool.”

9. Twain had some thoughts about the book's censorship.

In 1905, the Brooklyn Public Library removed Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer from the shelves because, as a librarian wrote to Twain, Huck is “a deceitful boy who said 'sweat' when he should have said 'perspiration.'" Here’s Twain’s reply :

DEAR SIR: I am greatly troubled by what you say. I wrote Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn for adults exclusively, and it always distresses me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean; I know this by my own experience, and to this day I cherish an unappeasable bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean sweet breath again this side of the grave. Ask that young lady—she will tell you so. Most honestly do I wish I could say a softening word or two in defense of Huck's character, since you wish it, but really in my opinion it is no better than those of Solomon, David, Satan, and the rest of the sacred brotherhood. If there is an unexpurgated Bible in the Children's Department, won't you please help that young woman remove Huck and Tom from that questionable companionship?

Sincerely yours, S. L. Clemens

Mental Floss is partnering with the Paper & Packaging – How Life Unfolds® “15 Pages A Day” reading initiative to make sure that everyone has the opportunity (and time) to take part in The Mental Floss Book Club. It’s easy! Take the pledge at howlifeunfolds.com/15pages.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER