Sheldon Alan “Shel” Silverstein was a poet, cartoonist, and author of children’s books that won the hearts of America with his endlessly playful imagination. From the poignant life lessons of The Giving Tree to the amusing, yet philosophical poems of Where the Sidewalk Ends, Shel Silverstein’s books create a fun world in which children can laugh at and learn about themselves. And yet, outside of his writing, Shel Silverstein lived a very interesting, often difficult life.
Born and raised in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago, Silverstein graduated from Roosevelt High School and enrolled in University of Illinois, but was soon expelled. He then was accepted into the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, but did not attend for very long before he was drafted into the United States Army, where he served in Japan and Korea. Silverstein’s first published work was in the student newspaper at Roosevelt University, where he studied after leaving the Art Institute. In the army in 1955, his cartoons were published in Pacific Stars and Stripes. In his biography, Silverstein said that his time at university was wasted and that it could have been better spent traveling the world and meeting others.
After returning from service, Shel Silverstein began selling hot dogs at ballparks in Chicago while submitting his cartoons to magazines and other publications. His work at that time appeared in Look, Sports Illustrated, and This Week. By 1957, Silverstein was appointed the leading cartoonist in Playboy, during a time when the magazine was also publishing fiction by Bernard Malamud and Kurt Vonnegut. Shel’s career with Playboy led him all around the world to meet with various fascinating individuals and create an illustrated journal about his encounters. Some of the locations he recorded include a nudist colony in New Jersey, the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco, Mexico, Spain, London, Paris, and parts of Africa.
Shel Silverstein eventually tried his hand at writing children’s books after being nudged by his editor at Harper & Row, Ursula Nordstrom. His biggest seller in the 1970s was The Giving Tree, a book about a tree and how a man uses it throughout his life, from enjoying it’s fruit and shade to using its stump as a resting spot when he grows old. Others enjoyed quirkier books such as A Giraffe and a Half, a hilarious, illustrated story about what happens to a boy’s giraffe when he stretches it another half. When asked about his books in an interview with Publishers Weekly in 1975, Silverstein says this:
I would hope that people, no matter what age, would find something to identify with in my books, pick up one and experience a personal sense of discovery. That’s great. I think that if you’re a creative person, you should just go about your business, do your work and not care about how it’s received. I never read reviews because if you believe the good ones you have to believe the bad ones too. Not that I don’t care about success, I do, but only because it lets me do what I want.
Many of Silverstein’s first poems for children actually appeared in Playboy. Later, however, Shel was writing whole poetry books, such as Where the Sidewalk Ends. Within the anthology, Silverstein touches on the every day realities of children in fun ways, such as feeling to sick for school until you discover that it’s actually Saturday or erasing a friend with a magic eraser because she didn’t believe the eraser was magic.
The poems, ranging from serious to silly, from philosophical to ridiculous, allow the reader or listener – the rhyme and rhythm of these nonsensical poems makes them perfect for reading aloud – to discover Silverstein’s greatest gift: his ability to understand the fears and wishes and silliness of children.
Beyond just understanding of the world of childhood, Shel Silverstein offered valuable life lessons to children that warmed the hearts of adults as well. In The Missing Piece, a circle with a missing piece from it travels on and on looking for its missing piece. But when the circle finally finds its missing part, it feels sad rather than fulfilled, and realizes that it enjoyed the search for its missing piece more than when that search was over. The book was an instant success for around the world, so much that Silverstein published a sequel, The Missing Piece Meets the Big O. Available signed in its first edition, The Missing Piece Meets the Big O tells the story of the missing piece waiting for someone to come along and take it somewhere, and instead finds solace in its relationship with the Big O.
Shel Silverstein lost his first wife and only daughter separately to illness. Yet despite his own misfortunes, he was able to spread love, silliness, and adventure through his writing. You can honor the rare gift that was Shel Silverstein’s legacy by purchasing any of the signed first editions of Where the Sidewalk Ends, A Giraffe and a Half, and The Missing Piece Meets the Big O.