But what I most want to know is, how is it that the same person who wrote The Giving Tree and all sorts of happy, goofy poetry for children also wrote a song that involves a father cutting off a chunk of his son's ear?
So it's time, boys and girls, to learn about Shel Silverstein.
- Born in Chicago in 1932 and grew up there
- Wanted to be a ball player when he was a kid, but he wasn't very good at baseball, so he drew and wrote instead.
- Served as a GI in Japan and Korea in the 1950s and while there, drew cartoons for the Pacific Stars and Stripes.
- After leaving the military, he made cartoons for Playboy in 1956. Mainly, he took TV-show stills and wrote his own captions that were mostly punny. You can find those cartoons in collections titled Playboy's Teevee Jeebies and More Playboy's Teevee Jeebies.
(I used to have an image of one of Shel's Teevee Jeebies, but the website that hosted the images has since disappeared.)
- He never intended to write anything for children. But a friend of his, Tomi Ungerer, who himself wrote children's books, encouraged him that he submit a children's story to an editor at Harper's.
- The first thing he wrote for children was Uncle Shelby's Story of Lafcadio, The Lion Who Shot Back, which was published in 1963.
- It was the publication of The Giving Tree, which appeared in stores in 1964, that made him famous. He had trouble getting a publisher to accept it. Some said it was too short; others said it was too sad. It was four years before a publisher agreed to print it, sad ending and all. And then it became phenomenally successful and loved by thousands.
"Once there was a tree ... and she loved a little boy."
The Giving Tree
(Image from HarperCollins)
- Also during this decade, he started writing folk music and sometimes performing themself on guitar. "A Boy Named Sue" was recorded by Johnny Cash in 1969, and "The Cover of the Rollin' Stone" was recorded by Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show in 1972 (they sing this song in Almost Famous).
We take all kinds of pills that give us all kind of thrills
But the thrill we've never known
Is the thrill that'll gitcha when you get your picture
On the cover of the Rollin Stone
(Rollin Stone.....) Wanna see my picture on the cover
(Stone.....) Wanna buy five copies for my mother
(Yah! Stone.....) Wanna see my smilin face
On the cover of the Rollin Stone....
(that's a very very good idea)
I got a freaky ole lady name a cocaine Katy
Who embroideries on my jeans
I got my poor ole grey-haired daddy
Drivin my limosine
Now it's all decided to blow our minds
But our minds won't really be blown
Like the blow that'll gitcha when you get your picture
On the cover of the Rollin Stone
- In 1974, Silverstein published Where the Sidewalk Ends: Poems and Drawings, which, as far as I'm concerned, is one of the best books for children EVER.
- One of my favorites when I was a wee applet only eight years old was the Peanut-Butter Sandwich poem. It's about a king who's a boy and who loves peanut butter sandwiches. Won't eat anything else. Then his mouth gets stuck shut. Though all his family and the wizard and the dentist try everything, including grappling hooks, to pry his mouth open, but nothing works, for twenty years. When his mouth opens with a squeak, the first thing he says is, "How about a peanut-butter sandwich?" I just loved the idea of all that peanut butter.
- In the 1980s, he wrote several plays, including "The Lady or the Tiger Show," "The Trio," and a play performed as part of the Lincoln Center's production "Oh Hell!"
- He also co-wrote the film "Things Change" with David Mamet in 1988. The movie is a black comedy with a light touch, about a shoe repairman (Don Ameche) who is asked by a Chicago gangster to confess falsely to committing a murder that was actually done by one of the gangster's flunkies.
Box cover of "Things Change"
(Photo from Rotten Tomatoes)
- Once Silverstein got famous, he had three homes: one in Greenwich Village, one in Key West, and one in Sausalito, California.
- In 1999, Mr. Silverstein had a heart attack and died in his home in Florida.
Shel Silverstein official website
Shel Silverstein biography on Geocities
KidsReads.com, Shel Silverstein 1932-1999
Sely Friday's biography of Shel Silverstein
Lyrics Download, Dr. Hook - The Cover of Rolling Stone lyrics
Hal Hinson, Review of "Things Change," The Washington Post, October 21, 1988