Silverstein, Shel 1932–1999
Silverstein, Shel 1932–1999
(Sheldon Allan Silverstein, Uncle Shelby)
PERSONAL: Born September 25, 1932, in Chicago, IL; died of a heart attack, May 8, 1999, in Key West, FL; son of Nathan and Helen Silverstein; divorced; children: Matthew.
CAREER: Cartoonist, composer, lyricist, folksinger, writer, and director. Playboy, Chicago, IL, writer and cartoonist, 1956–99. Appeared in film, Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things about Me?, 1971. Military service: Served with U.S. forces in Japan and Korea during 1950s; cartoonist for Pacific Stars and Stripes.
AWARDS, HONORS: New York Times Outstanding Book Award, 1974, Michigan Young Readers' Award, 1981, and George G. Stone Award, 1984, all for Where the Sidewalk Ends: The Poems & Drawings of Shel Silverstein; School Library Journal Best Books Award, 1981, Buckeye Award, 1983 and 1985, George G. Stone Award, 1984, and William Allen White Award, 1984, all for A Light In the Attic; International Reading Association's Children's Choice Award, 1982, for The Missing Piece Meets the Big O.
Now Here's My Plan: A Book of Futilities, foreword by Jean Shepherd, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1960.
Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book: A Primer for Tender Young Minds (humor), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1961.
Playboy's Teevee Jeebies (drawings), Playboy Press (Chicago, IL), 1963.
Uncle Shelby's Story of Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back (juvenile), Harper (New York, NY), 1963.
The Giving Tree (juvenile), Harper (New York, NY), 1964, thirty-fifth anniversary edition, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1999.
Uncle Shelby's Giraffe and a Half (verse; juvenile), Harper (New York, NY), 1964, published in England as A Giraffe and a Half, J. Cape (London, England), 1988.
Uncle Shelby's Zoo: Don't Bump the Glump! (verse; juvenile), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1964.
(Under pseudonym Uncle Shelby) Who Wants a Cheap Rhinoceros! Macmillan (New York, NY), 1964, revised and expanded edition, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2002.
More Playboy's Teevee Jeebies: Do-It-Yourself Dialog for the Late Late Show (drawings), Playboy Press (Chicago, IL), 1965.
Where the Sidewalk Ends: The Poems & Drawings of Shel Silverstein (poems), Harper (New York, NY), 1974, thirtieth anniversary edition, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2004.
The Missing Piece (juvenile), Harper (New York, NY), 1976.
Different Dances (drawings), Harper (New York, NY), 1979, twenty-fifth anniversary edition, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2004.
A Light in the Attic (poems), Harper (New York, NY), 1981.
The Missing Piece Meets the Big O (juvenile), Harper (New York, NY), 1981.
(With Cherry Potts) Poetry Galore and More, Upstart Library (New York, NY), 1993.
Falling Up: Poems and Drawings, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1996.
Runny Babbit: A Billy Sook, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2005.
The Lady or the Tiger Show (one-act; from the short story by Frank Stockton), first produced in New York, NY at Ensemble Studio Theatre, May, 1981.
(And director) Gorilla, first produced in Chicago, IL, 1983.
Wild Life (contains I'm Good to My Doggies, Nonstop, Chicken Suit Optional, and The Lady or the Tiger Show), first produced in New York, NY, 1983.
Remember Crazy Zelda? first produced in New York, NY, 1984.
The Crate, first produced in New York, NY, 1985.
The Happy Hour, first produced in New York, NY, 1985.
One Tennis Shoe, first produced in New York, NY, 1985.
Little Feet, first produced in New York, NY, 1986.
Wash and Dry, first produced in New York, NY, 1986.
The Devil and Billy Markham (drama; produced in New York, NY, at Lincoln Center, December, 1989, with David Mamet's Bobby Gould in Hell under the collective title Oh, Hell) published in Oh, Hell!: Two One-Act Plays, Samuel French (New York, NY), 1991.
(Contributor) Billy Aronson, editor, The Best American Short Plays 1992–1993: The Theatre Annual since 1937, Applause (Diamond Bar, CA), 1993.
(Contributor) Myra Cohn Livingston, editor, I Like You, If You Like Me: Poems of Friendship, Margaret McElderry Books (New York, NY), 1987.
(With David Mamet) Things Change (screenplay), Grove Press (New York, NY), 1988.
Also composer and lyricist of songs, including "A Boy Named Sue," "One's on the Way," "The Unicorn," "Boa Constrictor," "So Good to So Bad," "The Great Conch Train Robbery," and "Yes, Mr. Rogers." Albums of Silverstein's songs recorded by others include Freakin' at the Freakers Ball, Columbia, 1972; Sloppy Seconds, Columbia, 1972; Dr. Hook, Columbia, 1972; and Bobby Bare Sings Lullabys, Legends, and Lies: The Songs of Shel Silverstein, RCA Victor, 1973. Albums of original motion picture scores include Ned Kelly, United Artists, 1970, and Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things about Me? Columbia, 1971. Other recordings include Drain My Brain, Cadet; Dirty Feet, Hollis Music, 1968; Shel Silverstein: Songs and Stories, Casablanca, 1978; The Great Conch Train Robbery, 1980; and Where the Sidewalk Ends, Columbia, 1984. The Giving Tree has been translated into French and Latin.
SIDELIGHTS: Shel Silverstein was best known for his collections of children's poetry Where the Sidewalk Ends: The Poems & Drawings of Shel Silverstein and A Light in the Attic, both of which enjoyed extended stays on the New York Times Bestseller List. Silverstein was also the author of the children's classic The Giving Tree. In addition to his writings for children, Silverstein served as a longtime Playboy cartoonist, wrote several plays for adults, and penned and recorded such country and novelty songs as Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue."
Silverstein's talents were well-developed when he joined the U.S. armed forces in the 1950s. Stationed in Japan and Korea, he worked as a cartoonist for the Pacific edition of the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. After leaving the military, Silverstein became a cartoonist for Playboy in 1956, and his work for that magazine resulted in such collections as Playboy's Teevee Jeebies and More Playboy's Teevee Jeebies: Do-It-Yourself Dialog for the Late Late Show.
Silverstein's career as a children's author began with the 1963 publication of Uncle Shelby's Story of Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back. In a Publishers Weekly interview, he confided to Jean F. Mercier: "I never planned to write or draw for kids. It was Tomi Ungerer, a friend of mine, who insisted … practically dragged me, kicking and screaming, into (editor) Ursula Nordstrom's office. And she convinced me that Tomi was right, I could do children's books." Lafcadio concerns a lion who obtains a hunter's gun and practices until he becomes a good enough marksman to join a circus. A Publishers Weekly reviewer called the book "a wild, free-wheeling, slangy tale that most children and many parents will enjoy immensely."
Although Lafcadio and Uncle Shelby's Giraffe and a Half met with moderate success, it was not until The Giving Tree that Silverstein first achieved widespread fame as a children's writer. The story of a tree that sacrifices its shade, fruit, branches, and finally its trunk to a little boy in order to make him happy, The Giving Tree had slow sales initially, but its audience steadily grew. As Richard R. Lingeman reported in the New York Times Book Review, "Many readers saw a religious symbolism in the altruistic tree; ministers preached ser-mons on The Giving Tree; it was discussed in Sunday schools." Despite its popularity as a moral or fable, the book was on occasion attacked by feminist critics for what they perceived as its inherent sexism; Barbara A. Schram noted in Interracial Books for Children: "By choosing the female pronoun for the all-giving tree and the male pronoun for the all-taking boy, it is clear that the author did indeed have a prototypical master/slave relationship in mind … How frightening that little boys and girls who read The Giving Tree will encounter this glorification of female selflessness and male selfishness."
In 1974 Silverstein published the collection of poems titled Where the Sidewalk Ends. Earning Silverstein favorable comparisons to Dr. Seuss and Edward Lear, Where the Sidewalk Ends contained such humorous pieces as "Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout / Would Not Take the Garbage Out," "Dreadful," and "Band-Aids." The collection and its 1981 successor, A Light in the Attic, continue to be popular with both children and adults; Publishers Weekly called the latter book "a big, fat treasure for Silverstein devotees, with trenchant verses expressing high-flown, exhilarating nonsense as well as thoughts unexpectedly sober and even sad."
Silverstein's 1976 The Missing Piece, like The Giving Tree, has been subject to varying interpretations. The volume chronicles the adventures of a circle who, lacking a piece of itself, goes along singing and searching for its missing part. But after the circle finds the wedge, he decides he was happier on the search—without the missing wedge—than he is with it. As Anne Roiphe explained in the New York Times Book Review, The Missing Piece can be read in the same way as "the fellow at the singles bar explaining why life is better if you don't commit yourself to anyone for too long—the line goes that too much togetherness turns people into bores—that creativity is preserved by freedom to explore from one relationship to another…. This fable can also be interpreted to mean that no one should try to find all the answers, no one should hope to fill all the holes in themselves, achieve total transcendental harmony or psychic order because a person without a search, loose ends, internal conflicts and external goals becomes too smooth to enjoy or know what's going on. Too much satisfaction blocks exchange with the outside." Silver-stein published a sequel, The Missing Piece Meets the Big O, in 1981. This work is told from the missing piece's perspective, and as in the original, the book's protagonist discovers the value of self-sufficiency.
Beginning in 1981, Silverstein concentrated on writing plays for adults. One of his best known, The Lady or the Tiger Show, has been performed on its own and with other one-act works collectively entitled Wild Life. Updating a short story by American novelist and fiction writer Frank Stockton, The Lady or the Tiger Show concerns a game show producer willing to go to extreme lengths to achieve high ratings. Placed in a life-or-death situation, the contestant of the show is forced to choose between two doors; behind one door lies a ferocious tiger, while the girl of his dreams is concealed behind the other. The play was characterized in Variety as "a hilarious harpooning of media hype and show biz amorality."
With Falling Up, Silverstein returned to poetry for children (and adults) after a fifteen-year absence. This collection of 140 poems with drawings ranges in subject matter "from tattoos to sun hats to God to—no kidding—a garden of noses," wrote Susan Stark in the Detroit News. Publishers Weekly called the poems "vintage Silverstein," a work "cheeky and clever and often darkly subversive," focusing on the unexpected. Judy Zuckerman reported in the New York Times Book Review, "Mr. Silverstein's expressive line drawings are perfectly suited to his texts, extending the humor, and sometimes the strangeness of his ideas."
Silverstein also collaborated with American playwright, scriptwriter, director, and novelist David Mamet on several projects. The two cowrote the screenplay for Mamet's 1988 film Things Change, which starred Joe Mantegna and Don Ameche. Silverstein's play The Devil and Billy Markham and Mamet's Bobby Gould in Hell have also been published and produced together under the collective title Oh, Hell. Performed as a monologue, The Devil and Billy Markham relates a series of bets made between Satan and a Nashville songwriter and singer. Although the work received mixed reviews, William A. Henry III noted in Time that "Silverstein's script, told in verse with occasional bursts of music, is rowdy and rousing and raunchily uproarious, especially in a song about a gala party where saints and sinners mingle."
Silverstein died of a heart attack in May, 1999. According to an obituary in Publishers Weekly, Robert Warren, the editorial director of HarperCollins Children's Books and Silverstein's editor, commented that "He had a genius that transcended age and gender, and his work probably touched the lives of more people than any writer in the second half of the 20th century."
Roughly six years after his death, a previously unpublished work by Silverstein was released. Runny Babbit: A Billy Sook, which the author had been working on for more than twenty years, was met with generally positive reviews. Lee Bock, writing for School Library Journal, lauded the work for containing the "signature comical bold line drawings" common to Silverstein's work and referred to the book as "a treasure." The story introduces Runny Babbit and several of his companions, who make their way through a world of poems in which most words have been rearranged. In her review of Runny Babbit for Horn Book Magazine, Susan Dove Lempke wrote, "this new book is a surprising treat." Lempke concluded, "readers will find Runny both lovable and memorable." An obituary in the Media Industry Newsletter related that Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, the man credited with giving Silverstein his break, called him "a Renaissance man. He was a giant as a talent, a giant as a human being."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Children's Literature Review, Volume 5, Thomson Gale (Detroit), 1983, pp. 208-13.
Something about the Author, Thomson Gale, Volume 27, 1982, Volume 33, 1983, Volume 92, 1997.
Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, 3rd edition, St. James Press (Detroit), 1989, pp. 886-87.
Back Stage, May 21, 1999, p. 58.
Billboard, May 22, 1999, p. 93.
Book Week, March 21, 1965.
Detroit News, November 4, 1979; May 1, 1996.
Entertainment Weekly, May 21, 1999, p. 14.
Hollywood Reporter, May 12, 1999, p. 13.
Horn Book Magazine, May-June, 2005, Susan Dove Lempke, review of Runny Babbit: A Billy Sook, p. 343.
Independent, May 25, 1999, p. S7.
Interracial Books for Children, Volume 5, number 5, 1974.
Maclean's, May 24, 1999, p. 9.
Media Industry Newsletter, May 17, 1999.
Nation, January 29, 1990, pp. 141-44.
New Republic, January 29, 1990, pp. 27-28.
Newsweek, December 7, 1981.
New York, May 30, 1983, p. 75; December 18, 1989, pp. 105-7.
New Yorker, November 14, 1988, p. 89; December 25, 1989, p. 77.
New York Times, May 29, 1981; October 11, 1981.
New York Times Book Review, September 24, 1961; September 9, 1973; November 3, 1974; May 2, 1976; April 30, 1978; November 25, 1979; November 8, 1981; March 9, 1986, pp. 36-37; May 19, 1996, p. 29.
People Weekly, August 18, 1980; May 24, 1999, p. 64.
Publishers Weekly, October 28, 1963; February 24, 1975; September 18, 1981; April 29, 1996; May 17, 1999, p. 32.
Rolling Stone, June 24, 1999, p. 26.
Saturday Review, November 30, 1974; May 15, 1976.
School Library Journal, April, 2005, Lee Bock, review of Runny Babbit, p. 127.
Time, December 18, 1989, p. 78; May 24, 1999, p. 35.
United Press International, May 11, 1999.
Variety, May 11, 1983, p. 112; December 13, 1989, p. 89.
Washington Post Book World, April 12, 1981.
Wilson Library Bulletin, November, 1987, p. 65.