by Sharron L. McElmeel
Updated: November 2014
Some people say that poetry doesn't interest many of today children. Try telling that to those librarians who can't keep Shel Silverstein's books on the shelf. And it isn't just children who enjoy reading Silverstein's poems. A Light in the Attic was marketed as a children's book but shortly after its release in 1981 it captured the number-one spot on The New York Times best-seller list and stayed on the list for the next 182 weeks. In 1980 alone Where the Sidewalk Ends sold more than 250,000 copies. Publishers Weekly places that title as number 11 on its all-time best-selling list. And now after a 15-year hiatus, Silverstein has published Falling Up, another sure-to-be popular book of poetry for all ages.
Falling Up brings readers another selection of unforgettable characters, from screaming Millie to the boy who was told to stand in a corner till the teacher said "turn around," and there he stood for 40 years. The "Spoiled Brat" was so bad that when she fell into a vat and got cooked for dinner, no one would touch a bite of her because she was so spoiled. Professor Bacar keeps flies in a jar. And when the "Short Kid" grew another foot he did not actually grow taller. But perhaps readers' favorite characters will be "Allison Beals and Her 25 Eels" or "Long-Leg Lou and Short-Leg Sue."
Children often wonder where authors get their ideas--and they must certainly wonder where Silverstein comes up with his zany characters. Are they people he knows or wishes he knew? Does he write about things he has done or things he wishes he had done? Is it all from his imagination or are there real-life connections? We may never know the answers.
For years Shel Silverstein's publisher, HarperCollins, has not had any substantial biographical information about him. One might be tempted to suspect that Silverstein was somebody's pseudonym. However, there are verified Silverstein sightings. According to a biographer of Danielle Steel, Nicole Hoyt, the popular adult romance writer once met Silverstein at a gathering at Hugh Hefner's Playboy mansion. William Cole has been quoted on his meeting with the poet at the Simon & Schuster offices in the 1960s when he (Cole) rejected a manuscript by Silverstein (New York Times Book Review, November 8, 1981). The Giving Tree was subsequently published by Harper & Row and sold over 14 million copies. Apparently, Pacific Stars and Stripes senior writer Hal Drake interviewed Silverstein in 1969. And Jean F. Mercier interviewed him for a profile in the February 24, 1975, Publishers Weekly. At that time Silverstein was quoted as saying, "I won't give any more interviews." And he has not. Those who saw the 1971 film starring Dustin Hoffman, Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? might have spotted Silverstein who is said to have appeared in the movie. He did write some musical scores for the movie, notably "One More Ride" performed by Silverstein and Dr. Hook.
Despite those sightings, little is known about the private Shel Silverstein. Most of us must be content to hear his music, attend his plays or movies, or read his poems.
He is a folk singer and composer, as well as a poet. One of his most popular albums was titled The Great Conch Train Robbery. But the song many will regard as his most popular is "A Boy Named Sue," which was popularized by Johnny Cash. He has authored several plays, including The Lady or the Tiger and The Crate. With David Mamet he wrote the movie screenplay for Things Change, a 1988 release.
Silverstein was born in 1932 in Chicago, Illinois, and presumably grew up in that area. He has been writing and drawing since he was a 12 year old. As he told Jean Mercier in the Publishers Weekly profile, "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 write." From 1953 to 1955, he was a member of the U. S. Armed Forces serving in both Japan and Korea. He drew cartoons for the Pacific Stars and Stripes. After being released from the Army he had numerous occupations including cartoonist, composer and lyricist, folk singer, movie actor, and writer. Many of his cartoons have appeared in Playboy, and Brenda Lee, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash are among those who have recorded his songs. He is, however, most renowned for his writing of children's books.
Writing children's books was not something Silverstein planned to do. His friend Tomi Ungerer insisted that he meet with well-known children's book editor Ursula Nordstrom. Readers all over the world (his books have been translated into 14 languages) will agree Tomi Ungerer was right, Ursula Nordstrom was right -- and readers are reaping the benefits.
UPDATE: Since Shel Silverstein's death in May 1999, two new titles have been published with never before seen or published poems and drawings.The first was Runny Babbit a Billy Sook published in 2005; the second a collection of many poems was published in September 2011, Every Thing On It was published by HarperCollins Children's books. In addition to his children's books he created cartoons, wrote for Playboy and other venues and wrote music. Silverstein began writing songs in the country-western style. In 1969 one of these, "A Boy Named Sue," was made a hit for the singer Johnny Cash. In 1980 Silverstein recorded a country music album called "The Great Conch Train Robbery."
Interestingly when we were researching biographical information Silverstein's birthday was not available in any source. He was very private and for years would not even allow his publisher to put his picture on the book jacket. There was no place to find the date -- so we went to press with just he birth year 1932. Silverstein died in May 1999, and finally his birthdate was finally available. Silverstein was born Sheldon Allan Silverstein on September 25, 1930, in Chicago, Illinois and died in Key West, Florida on May 10, 1999.
Silverstein was preceded in death by his daughter Shoshanna Jordan Hastings (at age 11 on April 24, 1982); and Shoshanna's mother Susan, seven years before their daughter). When he died he left behind a son, Mathew(and Mathew's mother Sarah Spencer who drove the Conch Train that inspired "The Great Conch Train Robbery." Much more can be found out about Silverstein by visiting his official website at http://www.shelsilverstein.com/.
Sharron L. McElmeel is director of McBookwords www.mcbookwords.com (a literacy organization) and an instructor of children's literature and young adult literature at the University of Wisconsin Stout's online education programs. She often writes and speaks about authors/illustrators and their books. www.mcelmeel.com.
Shel Silverstein was featured in The Poet Tree by Sharron L. McElmeel (Teacher Ideas Press, 1993) which is the source for many of the "Sharing Poetry" ideas in this profile. McElmeel's most recent books are Educator's Companion to Children's Literature, Volume 2: Folklore, Realistic Fiction, Fantasy, Biographies, and Tales from Here and There (Libraries Unlimited, 1996) and Research Strategies for Moving Beyond Reporting (Linworth, 1996).
This article was first published in Library Talk, Jan/Feb97, Vol. 10, Issue 1, pages 16-17.
No reproduction or republication is permitted. For personal reference only.