If there is such a thing as a "bad boy of children's literature," it would have to be Shel Silverstein. Though often compared to Dr. Seuss for his ability to blend humor and nonsense into irresistible rhymes, Silverstein also ventured into macabre territory that the good Doctor wouldn't have touched with a ten-foot Sneetch. Silverstein broached such unsavory topics as nose-picking, the consumption of children, and winds so strong they could decapitate a man right out from under his hat.
It's a testament to Silverstein's abilities as a cartoonist and storyteller that he was able to endow such subjects with just the right silliness and humor, endearing him to both children and adults. In collections such as the classic Where the Sidewalk Ends, A Light in the Attic, and Falling Up, Silverstein makes poems into page-turners -- aided in no small part by his grungy, whimsical black-and-white drawings. He also displays a tenderhearted understanding for kids' fears and peccadilloes; one poem in A Light in the Attic, for example, all but endorses nailbiting: "It's a nasty habit, but ... I have never ever scratched a single soul."
A lifelong writer and illustrator, Silverstein had been a cartoonist for an army newspaper in Korea in the 1950s, and then a contributor to magazines. Like many succesful writers for children, Silverstein never planned to author children’s books. Ironically, his first attempt at the genre -- the book that established the one-time Playboy cartoonist as a school library fixture -- is something of an anomaly in his ouevre: The Giving Tree. This bittersweet story of a tree that ultimately sacrifices itself -- down to the stump -- to the boy she loves over the course of his life was initially rejected by Silverstein’s editor. Of course, it has gone on to be a great, if sentimental, success. But it was Where the Sidewalk Ends, Silverstein’s straightforward collection of crooked poems, that cemented his place as a must-read for the young and young at heart. Silverstein bristled at comparisons to fellow "nonsense poet" Edward Lear, preferring instead to cite his former teacher, Robert Cosbey, as an influence.
It's worth looking at some of Silverstein's less well-known picture books, such as Who Wants a Cheap Rhinoceros? and Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back, as examples of how funny (and how subversive) Silverstein could be. In Lafcadio, the ultimate anti-hunting story, a lion learns to become such a good marksman that he provides "hunter rugs" for his fellow lions and ends up touring as a celebrity. Lafcadio soon gets bored with his opulent life, and what used to be thrilling no longer is: "This morning I went up and down in the elevator 1,423 times," he cries at one point. "IT'S OLD STUFF!"
In later years, Silverstein turned more attention to dramatic writing. Titles such as The Lady and the Tiger, Wild Life and The Devil and Billy Markham were produced with varying degrees of success, and some are still being staged by small theater groups. Silverstein also wrote a well-received screenplay, Things Change, with pal David Mamet in 1988.
Still, Silverstein's poetry is what remains his most popular contribution. His verse gave kids permission to be a little grown-up for a while, and (just as importantly) let adults experience the not-always-simple perspective of children.
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Silverstein was a soldier in the U.S. Army in Japan and Korea in the '50s and drew cartoons for Stars and Stripes, the American military publication. His next cartooning gig was for Playboy.
Silverstein wrote several songs. His country-western song "A Boy Named Sue" was a hit for Johnny Cash in 1969. His song for Postcards From the Edge, "I'm Checkin' Out," was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe.
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