Silverstein, Shel 1932-1999
Shel Silverstein 1932-1999
(Full name Sheldon Allan Silverstein; also wrote under the pseudonym Uncle Shelby) American poet, illustrator, playwright, songwriter, and author of children's books.
For addition criticism on Silverstein's works, see CLR, Volume 5.
Silverstein combines humorous poetry and reflective prose with simple, skillful line drawings to interpret the moods of children and adults. Several of his books have been best-sellers, and publishers regard him as a phenomenon because of his appeal to all ages. His poetry exhibits the ability to be funny, tender, philosophical, and ridiculous; his subjects include a babysitter who literally sits on the baby, a camel who wears a bra, and a restaurant customer who orders broiled face for dinner. From the author's favorite piece, Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back (1963), to the poetry collections Where the Sidewalk Ends (1974) and A Light in the Attic (1981), Silverstein's work has elicited rave reviews and raised censorship issues.
Silverstein was born on September 25, 1932, in Chicago, Illinois. Details of his life are scant, and he is reported to have instructed his publishers not to release biographical information. What is known, however, through interviews and other sources, indicates that he began writing at a young age: "When I was a kid … I would much rather have been a good baseball player or a hit with the girls. But I couldn't play ball, I couldn't dance.… So, I started to draw and write." He developed his own style at an early age and refined it as his career progressed.
Silverstein began his career with Playboy magazine as a cartoonist in 1956. While serving in the armed forces in Japan and Korea in the 1950s, he contributed cartoons to the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. He has written many popular songs, including the country hit "A Boy Named Sue" (recorded by Johnny Cash) and the folk song "The Unicorn" (recorded by the Irish Rovers), as well as a number of plays.
Following Silverstein's death from a heart attack on May 10, 1999, his nephew, Mitch Myers, contributed to a memorial piece to Rolling Stone that sums up the man and the image of Shel Silverstein: "It would not be unusual to catch Shel, who was my uncle, scribbling some wild idea on a tablecloth in the middle of a fancy restaurant. Those ideas would later emerge in the form of books, records, plays and films. When I spoke to him in the week before his death, he was hard at work on a poem called 'Rock & Roll Heaven.' While we laughed and joked about artists like Jimi [Hendrix], Janis [Joplin], [Jim] Morrison, and [Kurt] Cobain, his own passing is a bittersweet reminder that Shel Silverstein was in a class all by himself." Silverstein did not like doing interviews, and what we know about him we take largely from his work. Silverstein's nephew closes his Rolling Stone tribute with the following: "Shel was a loyal and considerate friend who valued his relationships as much as he did his privacy. Although he never married, he loved his family dearly and took great pride in his son, Matthew. Above all, Shel was a person who knew exactly how he wanted to live his life, and he lived it that way until the day he died."
Silverstein's first children's book, Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back, was published in 1963. This was followed in 1964 by Uncle Shelby's Giraffe and a Half and The Giving Tree. The Giving Tree, a children's classic, concerns a tree that is used—or, rather, gives of itself—through the life of a little boy. The book was originally rejected by an editor who saw it as falling in a never-never land between adult and children's literature and therefore felt it would never sell. Although sales began slowly, The Giving Tree was well accepted and was used as an allegory in classrooms and churches. Silverstein published two additional allegories, The Missing Piece (1976) and The Missing Piece Meets the Big O (1981), in which a circle (missing a pie-shaped wedge) searches for an appropriate piece to complete itself. Falling Up (1996), which includes 140 poems and illustrations, marked Silverstein's return to children's poetry following his acclaimed collection Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic.
Silverstein's has received rave reviews but has also been criticized for sexism and banned in some quarters. He is often compared to Dr. Seuss and A. A. Milne, although he developed his style in a veritable literary vacuum. Although his poetry is considered by some critics to be witty but minor, Silverstein's insight into children's fears, peeves, and sense of silliness is viewed as a rare gift. He pokes fun at parental authority, and Myers (Rolling Stone) notes that his "verse was filled with irreverent humor, but it contained a wealth of insight into human nature and spoke strongly to adults as well as kids." His black-and-white illustrations are often described by critics as delightful and sometimes as macabre. Often they directly complete, a poem as in "The Loser," where a boy who loses his head and cannot see to find it decides to sit down on a rock to rest. The reader shares a joke with the author/illustrator, who depicts the boy actually sitting on his head. Silverstein also uses type and layout to increase the humorous effect of his illustrations.
One of Silverstein's first children's books, Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back, begins: "And now, children, your Uncle Shelby is going to tell you a story about a very strange lion—in fact, the strangest lion I have ever met." The lion is, in fact, a fair marksman, having taken a gun from a hunter and practiced shooting. He eventually moves on to the circus, and his life there has provided many happy and sad moments for readers. The Missing Piece and The Missing Piece Meets the Big O, although receiving mixed reviews, remain popular with children, teachers, and college students, who consider Silverstein a literary cult figure. These books are viewed as parables of growth that explore fulfillment in relationships and revolve around simply drawn geometric shapes. The first considers what happens when you find what you are seeking, but it fails to turn out as you imagined ("be careful what you wish for …"). The second examines the pitfalls of changing oneself to be more attractive to others. Both imply that being oneself is probably for the best.
Silverstein's two most famous poetry collections are Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic. The poems in these volumes, when viewed literally, have resulted in some parents asking that they be banned, but as John M. Kean observes, "The literalist sees doom in every poem. The child sees drama." In A Light in the Attic, Silverstein engages in the sort of hyperbole recognizable to both children and their parents: "Abigail wanted 'that pony … if I don't get that pony I'll die'. / And she DID die—/ All because of a pony / That her parents wouldn't buy. / (This is a good story / To read to your folks / When they won't buy / You something you want.)." This poem, viewed as dealing with suicide, was banned for second graders in Hoffman, Texas. Kean goes on to note that literalists "assume that children take everything literally, that they have no understanding of the ironic, satirical or other form of literary humor." As in many cases, the child may understand the irony of such works better than the adult.
Uncle Shelby's Story of Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back (picture book) 1963
The Giving Tree (picture book) 1964
Uncle Shelby's Giraffe and a Half (picture book) 1964
Where the Sidewalk Ends (children's poetry) 1974
The Missing Piece (picture book) 1976
The Lady or the Tiger Show (play) 1981
A Light in the Attic (children's poetry) 1981
The Missing Piece Meets the Big O (picture book) 1981
Gorilla (play) 1983
Falling Up: Poems and Drawings (children's poetry) 1996
Shel Silverstein and Jean F. Mercier (interview date 24 February 1975)
SOURCE: Silverstein, Shel, and Jean F. Mercier. "Shel Silverstein." Publishers Weekly 208, no. 8 (24 February 1975): 50-2.
[In the following interview, Silverstein discusses how he came to write for children.]
PW [Publisher's Weekly] got an idea of why it has taken the publicity people at Harper & Row nearly a year to set up an interview with Shel Silverstein when we overheard him telling Joan Robins of Junior Books: "I'll be around town for about a week, I think. Then I'll probably go to East Hampton or Key West. Maybe both, I'll see."
He is a strong, well-muscled, fit-looking man who wears blue jeans and a big cowboy hat. Though he has to be into his 40s (he's a Korean War veteran), he is also totally in touch with the contemporary scene. His songs, notably "A Boy Named Sue," have made Shel a hit with pop singers and their vast audiences. Those he prefers to sing his songs (they do) are Bobby Bare, Dr. Hook, Brenda Lee, Jerry Lee Lewis, and, of course, Johnny Cash. Besides composing the music and writing the lyrics of his own songs, Shel has made a name for himself as a cartoonist. Many of his brisk, spare drawings have appeared in Playboy.
How, then, PW wanted to know, had he decided to get into children's books? "I didn't," Shel said, "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 Ursula Nordstrom's office. And she convinced me that Tomi was right; I could do children's books."
The relationship between Ursula Nordstrom and Shel Silverstein is mutually rewarding. He considers her a superb editor who knows when to leave an author-illustrator alone. Asked if he would change something he had produced on an editor's say-so, he answered with a flat "No." But he added: "Oh, I will take a suggestion for revision. I do eliminate certain things when I'm writing for children if I think only an adult will get the idea. Then I drop it, or save it. But editors messing with content? No."
Had he been surprised by the astronomical record of The Giving Tree, his biggest seller to date, and one of the most successful children's books in years? Another emphatic no. "What I do is good," he said. "I wouldn't let it out if I didn't think it was."
But The Giving Tree, which has been selling steadily since it appeared 10 years ago and has been translated into French, is not his own favorite among his books. "I like Uncle Shelby's ABZ,A Giraffe and a Half, and Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back —I think I like that one the most."
The Giving Tree is one of those rare creations that seem to defy categorization, appealing equally to the reverent and the irreverent, the sophisticated and the simple. It tells of a tree and the use a man makes of it. When he is a boy, he plays in the tree's branches and enjoys its luscious fruit. Later, he courts his love under the tree and uses some of its wood to build a house for his family. Years pass; the man is now old and alone. The tree lets him take its trunk to carve a boat from, and the man rows away. Finally he returns for the last time to sit and rest on the stump of the tree—all that's left of it.
Shel cannot explain the book's phenomenal sales, but suggests: "Maybe it's that it presents just one idea." Whatever it is, praise from the pulpit and from ecologists and from people who like to feel they have discovered the book all on their own moved over 100,000 copies of the book out of the stores and into homes in 1974 alone—and the demand shows no signs of slowing.
He is naturally pleased by this, but he doesn't like to think about the reason for its success. "I still like the book but I think that books, even for really little kids, can deal with more than one idea. A story could deal with more, even 50—and so can the reader, if the ideas are all laid out." He feels that Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back does deal with several complicated ideas, for instance.
"I would hope that people, no matter what age, would find something to identify with in my books, pick one up and experience a personal sense of discovery. That's great. But for them, not for me. I think 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. I was always prepared for success but that means that I have to be prepared for failure too."
When he's not wandering around, he lives on a houseboat off Sausalito—"but I'm free to leave … go wherever I please, do whatever I want; I believe everyone should live like that. Don't be dependent on anyone else—man, woman, child or dog. I want to go everywhere, look at and listen to everything. You can go crazy with some of the wonderful stuff there is in life."
There wasn't much wonderful around when Shel was growing up in a small town in the Midwest. "When I was a kid—12, 14, around there—I would much rather have been a good baseball player or a hit with the girls. But 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 to write. I was also lucky that I didn't have anyone to copy, be impressed by. I had developed my own style, I was creating before I knew there was a Thurber, a Benchley, a Price and a Steinberg. I never saw their work til I was around 30. By the time I got to where I was attracting girls, I was already into work, and it was more important to me. Not that I wouldn't rather make love, but the work has become a habit."
In addition to working hard at his craft, he "noodles around with other things." On his houseboat he keeps a piano, a guitar, a saxophone, a trombone and a camera; he's trying them all "just to see if I can come up with anything."
He goes on: "I have an ego, I have ideas, I want to be articulate, to communicate but in my own way. People who say they create only for themselves and don't care if they're published … I hate to hear talk like that. If it's good, it's too good not to share. That's the way I feel about my work."
"So I'll keep on communicating, but only my way. Lots of things I won't do. I won't go on television because who am I talking to? Johnny Carson? The camera? Twenty million people I can't see? Uh-uh. And I won't give any more interviews."
Silverstein put his cowboy hat back on and got ready to leave. Hastily, PW rushed in one last question. What does he plan to do next? "I'm going to write a couple of plays." He agreed the idea of such a different genre was a challenge. "But I've been fooling with the thoughts about these plays long enough; the time has come to see if I can bring them off."
And he was on his way, leaving PW—and, no doubt, his publishers—with the thought that whatever else he may try, it would be a sad day for the children if "Uncle Shelby" were to desert children's books.
Ruth K. MacDonald (essay date 1997)
MacDonald, Ruth K. "The Poet's Place." In Shel Silverstein, pp. 116-32. New York: Twayne, 1997.
[In the following essay, MacDonald discusses what makes Silverstein's poetry successful among adults and children.]
The Poet's Place
Poetry has long been one of the great unexplored areas in children's literature. Few reputations, of either poets or critics, have been built on it, since most acclaim and notice goes to novels. What criticism exists for poetry derives in many cases from the "beauties" school of criticism—pointing out the poetry's beauties, such as a poet's or a line's excellence, without any particular explanation of wherein the beauty lies. The reasons for this neglect of children's poetry are twofold: first, except for the most simple rhymes, the American population has a general distaste for poetry, a result of the second reason, the unfortunate way in which poetry is introduced to children in school. Poetry has for some time had to be taught to children, especially since it has lost its currency with the general reading public by becoming increasingly obscure and unavailable to any but the most poetically literature. Poetry has lost its audience because of the hard work it takes to understand both its form and its content.
The result is that children first meet up with poetry in school, where it is presented in a pedagogical, systematic way, with emphasis on the poems' literary and didactic values. In fact, since Isaac Watts, children's poetry has been, in the main, designed to preach. Most children, and most adults as well, realize that the poetry introduced at school is designed to propagandize manners and values that are predominately Protestant and puritanical. In fact, from the seventeenth century to the present, the didactic mode of children's poetry has been the only justification that most educational theorists have been able to find for presenting it to children. The entertainment value, if any, was clearly and distantly secondary. Poetry has had "spinach" value—good for you but with little appeal to the palate. No one particularly thought to teach children how to enjoy poetry, thereby lessening its appeal even further. So teaching poetry has had a double detriment: it has conveyed the message that, first, poetry is difficult and cannot be understood without extraordinary linguistic tools and skills, and second, it cannot be enjoyed.
Perry Nodelman has admitted that, for all of us who do not read poetry regularly, the life untouched by poetry can be perfectly satisfying. Poetry has no minimum daily requirement; one's life is not deficient because one does not enjoy reading it. America's founding fathers, especially Thomas Jefferson, insisted that citizens of a democracy needed to be literate in order to function responsibly, but such literacy did not necessarily demand poetic sensibility. On the other hand, Nodelman says that many more people would enjoy poetry if only they knew how. He points to those schoolchildren who read poetry without instruction on what an dhow to enjoy as being ill served.1 Thankfully, Nodelman has nonetheless entered the void and begun teaching the pleasure in poetry that has long been neglected.
Fortunately, readers of Silverstein's poetry need no such compensatory education, and that is one of the beauties of Sidewalk and Attic : no special tools of interpretation, either for the pictures or for the poetry, are necessary. Although the volumes may have richer meaning and experience for those who understand poetic and illustrational techniques, Silverstein's poems are immediate enough that they carry plenty of weight and pleasure without the other knowledge in hand.
In his book Can Poetry Matter?, Dana Gioia likewise decries the distance between poetry and everyday readers but points to the success of regional poets in speaking to their audiences and attracting a readership. A regional poet's ability to speak using the diction that his audience understands, to choose topics in which the audience has particular interest and understanding of, to write about everyday occurrences in a natural, poetic way, serve both the poet and the audience well. Because the regional poet does not attract national or literary interest, the intensely loyal following of his readers is not well know to literary professionals, nor is the regional poet's distinctive success realized beyond the region. Outsiders frequently just don't get it.
Although Gioia speaks mainly of Midwesterners Ted Kooser as his exemplar regional poet,2 all the guidelines that he sets for judging a regional poet a success can be applied to Silverstein, a kind of regional poet whose audience is children in the lower elementary and middle school grades, the regions of childhood before adolescence. Silverstein does not expect to speak to a general audience of readers of all ages or even to children in general. If he succeeds with adults, it is because these adults remain actively connected to the child of the age and sophistication that Silverstein has targeted. One of Gioia's statements about Kooser could also apply to Silverstein: "There is little in Kooser's work that would summon forth a great performance. There are no problems to solve, no dazzling bravado passages to master for the dexterous critic eager to earn an extra curtain call.… [T]here is little critic can provide that the average reader cannot, because the difficulties.…re experiential rather that textual" (p. 95). Both Silverstein and Kooser, who do not provide anything for professional critics to latch onto, have attracted their audiences as champions.
Yet Gioia is not without standards to judge poetry's success; even the successful Kooser can fall short occasionally, as can Silverstein. But Gioia's guidelines are fair and sensible and give a handle on how to judge an individual poet's works. The poet's originality, not necessarily of poetic technique but perhaps of topic and voice, the scope of the volume and its integrity as a whole, and the poet's clear sense of addressing a specific audience are Gioia's standards, as are the number of perfect poems and the variety of the voice (pp. 97-98). There are admitted failures in Silverstein's volumes of poetry, as noted in chapters 3 and 4. But there are also those excellent models that are perfect, in expression, diction, word choice, and sometimes even meter, also noted in those chapters.
Finally, it is Silverstein's choice of topics and range of voices that establish his place among poets for children; he has been recognized even among literary professionals for his staying power and popular appeal. His topics are sometimes unspeakable but are certainly thinkable, and Silverstein has succeeded Alexander Pope's poetic criterion of saying in poetry what is universally thought but nowhere else expressed so well. The voice in the poem "Whatif" (90), from Attic, about the negative possibilities that children are free to consider only during the dark night of the soul and only when they are alone, is one of Silverstein's most potent. Silverstein takes on the voice of the older child considering what might happen to him in the case of certain bad events, some of which are major traumas, such as parental divorce, others of which are less large but no less significant and frightening to a child, such as green chest hair. In "Listen to the Mustn'ts" (27), from Sidewalk, Silverstein takes on the avuncular voice of an adult advisor, encouraging a child in the face of all the social etiquette that limits him; the unclelike voice seeks to free the child's imagination, to let the mind's possibilities range freely. These are two of the more serious and successful poems in the volumes, but Silverstein also manages a range of other voices and topics that reliably succeeds in capturing what school-children think about and how they express it—everything short of the swearing and obscenity that would call down the censors' and other adults' opprobrium.
It is Silverstein's subversion of topic that captures Alison Lurie's attention and commendation. Silverstein's subversion is part of his popular success, although it has mitigated literary recognition of his works. Literary critics continue to devote their attention to a canon of poetry that has messages and techniques acceptable to critics, teachers, parents, and other adults. But there are those books that Lurie call "sacred texts of childhood," those works she would therefore call "great" because they "express ideas and emotions not generally approved of or even recognized at that time; they make fun of honored figures and piously held beliefs; and they view social pretenses with clear-eyed directness, remarking—as in Andersen's famous tale—that the emperor has no clothes.3
Silverstein tells the truth to children, right down to the messy, open, inconclusive endings and occasional sentimentality. He debunks fantasy happy endings as lying to children and inculcates self-reliance as the best protection against life and guarantee of success in it.4 In his wish-fulfillment poems, about disposing of annoying siblings and parents and about manipulating parents, he give voice to children's unspoken thoughts and sometimes becomes the subjects of children's private conversations. Silverstein's ideas have seldom before become subjects of poetry and are certainly not ideas that adults discuss without preachy rejoinder. But in such poems as "For Sale" (Sidewalk, 52) and "Clarence" (Attic, 154), about disposing of siblings and parents, Silverstein enters the fantasy so completely, with such gusto and approval, that the child readers learn to trust the poet and entwine themselves in the experience of the poetry. In Silverstein's advice poems, which are few but nonetheless genuine, he has the readers' trust so thoroughly that the didacticism is likely to be taken to heart rather than scoffed at for being treacly. Silverstein follows in the tradition of Isaac Watts in this infrequent educational mode and follows eighteen-century assumptions about children's poetry both delighting and teaching, yet Silverstein's teaching is infrequent enough and the lessons taught so easily embraced that the primary motive never seems pedagogical.
Above all, Silverstein renders pleasure to the reader; that is the primary motive behind his poetry, and in it he succeeds. At the beginning of Perry Nodelman's book on understanding children's literature, aptly titled The Pleasures of Children's Literature, he gives a long list of pleasures that literature for children can give.5 On these counts, Silverstein renders full measure. The jokes are frequent and ribald enough to keep the reader's attention, yet the book is segmented into two-page spreads so that the reader avoids a surfeit of humor. Sidewalk and Attic need not be read continuously, from front to back, but can be sampled, placed aside, and reentered at almost any point. The reader need not put forth much effort to enjoy these books, and the enjoyment is fulsome regardless of the effort. The illustrations are both a lure and a gift from the illustrator; as discussed earlier, they, to, are easily enjoyed, and the code of the cartoon—quick, radiating lines that indicate motion, movement primarily from left to right to encourage forward motion, and few symbols, mostly faces and action with little background—simply supports the book's rapid, pleasurable pace. The easiness of reading both poetry and illustration also underscores the author's overall approach to life—easy, full of motion and progress, with short stops along the way to enjoy the view.
The physical appearance of these volumes simply encourages their easy pleasure. No cheap knockoffs in paperback have appeared. Both Sidewalk and Attic are still constructed of the same high-quality materials used for the first issue, with their distinctive white background and black illustration and lettering, mark a Silverstein volume with his signature design. The volume of poetry without its dust jacket simply does not appear to be authentic Silverstein. The heavy paper stock makes page turning easy, and the generous white space, between poems and illustrations, even between individual letters, makes the book a gift for the eye. A book like this is hard to lose and easy to treasure. It is definitely made for keeping when not in use and unlikely to be discarded, either unwittingly or deliberately—this is not a book one is likely to be done with permanently.
Silverstein fails as a technical poet for a reason: he invites the child, as the poet's equal, to join in a poetic moment. In order to do so, the poet must use language and poetic form that a child can recognize. As X. J. Kennedy and Dorothy M. Kennedy note, old-fashion patterns of rhythm, rhyme, and sound dominate even the most contemporary children's poetry. It is as if "shaken only a little by those winds of change that in the 1960s and 1970s swept the mainland of American literature, poetry for children today seems an offshore island doing its best to stay serene" with poetic devices clearly antiquated in poetry for adults.6 If Silverstein pushes the limits of topics and voice, he wisely avoids pushing the limits of poetry and technique.
It seems likely that Silverstein knew instinctively those qualities that research shows children most prefer in poetry. Two studies, one a survey of the research, the other of a survey of children, show that the qualities children like best in poetry are identifiable rhythm, rhyme, and sound patterns. But even more telling that the poetic devices is the poems' tone. Children's overwhelming preference, as reported in the research, is for humor in poems.7 Here Silverstein succeeds without question, even among adult professional literary critics. Such words as "uproarious," "zany," and even the more tepid "delightful" dominate the reviews of both Attic and Sidewalk.
After Silverstein's absence of more than 20 years, Falling Up appeared on bookstore shelves as a surprise.8 Twenty years is several generations in children's literature, and the reading public for children's poetry during this time habituated itself to the kinds of poetry that Silverstein had originated and popularized earlier. In fact, other poets carried Silverstein's tradition of the gross and disgusting in verse even further and kept current with new inventions and gadgets and language in the popular culture of kid life that informed the basis of Silverstein's early success. After 20 years, the scatological joking found in Falling Up has become common, and as noted earlier, Silverstein's books have begun to show their age. As a result the bawdy and bathroom humor in Falling Up now seems tame and almost nonchalant.
Much of what is new in Falling Up has to do with poetry about new gadgetry, especially that unavailable to the poet earlier. This is Silverstein catching up with 20 years of technology. Thus there is a poem about using a computer in the writing process, "Writer Waiting" (58). The computer's promise to make writing easier through word processing, however, has no merit unless the poet has a topic, something to write about; the computer fails to generate writing on its own, and the writer using the computer in the poem finds himself with low-tech writer's block. As most adults and children know, only a human can make a computer work, and finding inspiration to write is not easier because of new technology. Thus Silverstein ends the poem typically—a great work is promised while the writer sits at the keyboard, but the punch line is that he can find nothing to write about.
As might easily be expected, there are also poems about the ubiquitous use electricity to power children's amusement, and there is even a poem about a Walkman and its uses and abuses. "Headphone Harold" (161) is one of Silverstein's peculiarly obsessive children, who insists on walking on the railroad tracks while listening to the radio through his headphones. His doom is obvious—he cannot hear the train coming. Even the TV remote control gets a poem; "Remote-a-Dad" (112) suggests using this dandy appliance to control fathers, the ultimate command being "off," which extinguishes them. The overloading of circuits powering household entertainment and appliances also gets a poem, "Plugging In" (8). The punch line of the tripped circuit breaker seems inevitable, given the long list of electrical implements the family seems to be using at once.
Silverstein even occasionally flirts with the political issues of the nineties, though he nowhere purses them as seriously as he does the issues of the seventies in the earlier volumes. In "Description" (78) children vehemently debate about what God looks like. One insists he is black; another, a girl, insists he is a she. But in this poem, which is a series of one-liners, the punch line belongs to the speaker, who claims to have God's own handwriting sample—unlikely though that may seem. The issue about God's appearance is muted by the preposterous, unexplored issue of having God's autograph at all.
There is a poem about animal rights, "Warmhearted" (59), about a woman who wears a fox stole that is still alive. The live fox around the matron's neck looks put upon but does not appear to be truly suffering. Nowhere in this book is there the persisting, moving poetry, like that found in the earlier volumes, about the political and philosophical issues that now preoccupy Silverstein. The old causes seem to have been resolved, and the new ones are treated less seriously and less extensively.
Instead, there is a pattern of poems about issues that seem typical of an older, gentler poet, one who is considering his advancing age. Even some of the obvious jokes seem more typical of an older person than in tune exclusively with children. For instance, the book's sixth poem, "Scale" (8), is about someone who is overweight, especially around the middle. He is sure that the scale he is standing on would speak reassuringly to him if only he could see it over his spare tire. The person on the scale is not an odd-ball character or even a pudgy child; this distribution of weight around the middle is typical of the middle aged and older. Although children will laugh at this poem, its target audience is more likely the middle aged and lumpy.
Some of the poems start by celebrating children's natural tendencies but at the end make concessions to adults rather than indulging nature inordinately or punishing adults. The most obvious of these is "Noise Day" (26-27), about a national celebration set aside for children to make their loudest, most irritating and disruptive sounds with as much abandon as they can muster. The poem, is a particularly joyful and successful one, with its catalog of all the sounds that children can make, such as dribbling a bowling ball or slamming a door. But the poem ends unexpectedly with an adult's negotiated settlement. These noises can go on all day, but "[t]he rest of the days—be quiet please." A younger Silverstein would have encourage the children to keep it up until the adults were driven crazy. This is the voice of limited indulgence and adult need for peace and quiet, in spite of the fact, that, with the exception of the last line, the poem celebrates childhood's exuberance.
Similarly, Falling Up contains two poems on old age that are the closest to the successful serious poems of the earlier volumes. "Stork Story" (166-70) suggests the process of reincarnation. As the stork delivers babies, so it takes old people away "[w]hen it's their time to go." At their destination, an unspecified location, all their ailments are removed from them; their bodies are reconditioned, their brains are restored to the blankness of childhood, and then the stork takes them back to life as babies. This is a comforting image of death, one that does not press a particular theological point about dying but simply reassures a child reader, or a reader of any age, that dying is not something to be feared. The imagery is more reminiscent of a garage or a recycling center than of a hospital or of heaven, and the reconditioning happens painlessly and without sorrow. That the end is the beginning is also a typical Silverstein reversal. And yet this poem breaks new ground for Silverstein in that it treats the serious subject of death with a light touch but with dignity and without uproar.
Another poem about the aging process, "The Folks Inside" (144), explains to children that they, too, will age and that their potential to become old people is latent in them; it's just a matter of time until "[t]hose old folks / Down inside you / Wake up … and come out to play." One wonders if Silverstein senses his own aging and mortality. Certainly the dust-jacket photo shows a more pensive, more accessible poet than do the earlier photos; his hands are folded in front of him in a restful, perhaps even prayerful attitude, his eyes making clear contact with the viewer. This is not the kicking, sneering musician or the reluctant, casual poet of the earlier dust jackets. The poet in this portrait is accessible, seemingly more gentle and quiet both inside and outside this book.
The illustrations have become both more adventurous and more problematic. In his attempt to unify each page's layout by placing the illustrations across a two-page spread, Silverstein occasionally puts the illustration's focal point in the gutter, something that beginning illustration students learn not to do their first week of class. Overall, the drawing style has not evolved, and Silverstein still has some lessons to learn. On the other hand, there is an illustration on the end page, glued to the cover on the right-hand side, truncated at the gutter: two legs with shoes, the rest of the body lost in the gutter. These legs do, in fact, look as though they are falling, perhaps up, continuing the title even at the end of the book as a design element that demonstrates Silverstein's continuing unconventionality about illustration and what constitutes the illustrator's space. The artist's potential to joke seems much broader than earlier. Some illustrations reappear, with modification. The little bare man who traipses across the last page of Sidewalk and then trails his beard behind him through the index of the same book appears here across the bottoms of the index pages with a placard in hand, which reads "One more time." The two mask, happy and sad, from Attic reappear at the top of the index page this time on children's heads. The children, a boy and a girl, round faced and startled in expression, wear the masks like hats with the visor up. Here we have both the old and the new brought together. One poem, on page 98, "Allison Beals and her Twenty-Five Eels," even makes an illustrational reference to a poem on page 59. The eels and their uses are disposed of effectively, except for the one in the last line: "And one got a new job on page fifty-nine." A quick turn back to page 59 shows that this eel functions as a power cord to a computer, its mouth open as if it were going to bite the outlet. Is this an electric eel? On the whole, Silverstein works harder here to tie the illustrations in with earlier works and with other poems.
One of the other 24 eels that accompany Allison through life demonstrates one of the most significant changes in the book's overall tone and conduct, through this significant is almost more important because its diminution: one of the eels is a spare brassiere strap. Although the bra on the camel in Sidewalk is a significant image, here the bra become simply another item in a long list and not the most interesting or noteworthy. Its function is barely worth a titter. In the time between Attic and Falling Up, sex, sexuality, lingerie, and nudity have declined as subjects of humor, their potential for gaining laughs much diminished. So nudity in this book becomes almost accepted, even full, frontal, Playboy-like self-display.
For instance, two women, albeit cartoons, appear naked in this book, one, visible from the rear, prancing in wild abandon, "Dancin' in the Rain" (108) and clearly enjoying it. The other woman, in "Tell Me" (154), is visible from the front but places her hands, in both dejection and embarrassment, over her lower parts; her upper parts are not much detailed. Neither of these illustrations is particularly humorous or titillating, and the women's nudity is not mentioned in their poems at all. In the illustration for "Tattooing Ruth" (45) a naked man is covered with the markings of a suit, but he, too, covers his lower self with his hands, quite naturally and yet quite discreetly. The overall effect of the tattoos is to cover him fully and decently in a double-breasted suit. Never one to detail genitalia, Silverstein judiciously avoids doing so here as well. Although nakedness and sexuality are treated much more casually than in Silverstein's earlier works, the jokes about urination are much broader; in "Gardener" (68), a boy is sent out to water the flowers and is caught as he bends over, back to the reader, to urinate on them. One of the book's bolder jokes is about a person shaped like a helium balloon ("Human Balloon," 125), full of gas from drinking Pepsis and Cokes, a commercial mention rare in this book and elsewhere in Silverstein. As the boy floats about, the narrator of the poem hopes in an intended pun, that he "doesn't run out of gas." Not mentioned is which end the gas might run out of. Because Silverstein is no longer breaking conventions of decorum and etiquette, which are much more casually observed in poetry and in the popular culture now than earlier, the poems seem much tanner.
Tameness and some human decency are what is remarkable here, especially considering the broad and sometimes bawdy poetry in Silverstein's earlier works. Even parents get their just deserts, with due deference and recognition of the complications and difficulties of their lives. Even in a poem as obviously titled as "No Grown-ups" (113), adults' usefulness becomes clear when the children in the poem find themselves having to pay the bill for pizza at the end. The tacit admission is that grown-ups are really quite handy, and children cannot long get on without them.
The most sympathetic of the poems about adult is "A Cat, a Kid, and a Mom" (104), in which each party complains that it is unfairly persecuted and urged to change, to become something against its nature. This is the first time in all of Silverstein's poems that a parent is a sympathetic figure. The mom explains, "Why try to make me wise? / … Why try to make me be patient and calm? / I'm a mom. " The mom, whose voice here is authentic and exasperated, simply explains that her behavior is a natural part of parenting, something that can't be changed. The child in the poem get his own authentic—voice "why try to make me like you?"—and so does the cat. But the mother gets the last word, and her firm foot in the picture, the only part of her shown, suggests the firmness and finality of her voice and her point of view. The mom's insight and the equal standing of her complaint with the child's gives the mom her due, though this poem also admits the child's point of view. Moms are as immutable as cats.
However, adults are not always so sympathetic. The father in "Quality Time" (143) uses his son's noses as a golf tee; although the naive time with the father, the more knowing reader can see through the ruse and realize what most children and adults know: that there is no such thing as quality time without real interaction and that quality time is no panacea for the lack of time a parent spends with a child. Teachers are still not redeemed in this collection, and school is a special focus and target. "Crazy Dream" (168-69) is a potent revenge fantasy during a child's dream in which teachers are forced to answer impossible questions and are swamped with meaningless homework, then hung by their ears from a clothesline for bad behavior.
Silverstein also makes advances in his use of language and of nearly impossible rhymes. "Shanna in the Sauna" (103) practically picks the English language clean of words that rhyme with sauna. "Bituminous?" (134) catalogs the complex, Latinate vocabulary that confuses children. The title suggests one issue—what is the distinction between bituminous and anthracite? between inflammable and incendiary? The fact that this poem rhymes at all shows the poet's growing control over vocabulary and poetry techniques. Some of the poems celebrate peculiarities in the English language. "The Gnome, the Gnat, and the Gnu" (71) celebrates the silent g by using it in improbable places. The gnome, in gnomish English, concludes "[t]hat gnocking a gnat / In the gnoodle like that / Was gnot a gnice thing to do." One of the more hilarious and extended poems describes the trial of "The Nap Taker" (140-41); the child is accused of taking someone else's nap, as if nap taking were somehow related to stealing or kidnapping. Few children take naps willingly, and taking someone else's nap is only a linguistic possibility. The humor is underscored by the accusing judge, who wears a nightcap. The peculiarities of diction are both explored and illustrated in "They Say I Have …" (75), about various facial features inherited from other family members: fathers's nose, for instance. Although the child's behind, his only unique feature, is not shown, ancestors without their inherited features are like a child's puzzle in which the child is asked to draw in hair, eyes, nose, mouth, and so on. Overall, Falling Up does not contain the terrible failures found so glaringly, albeit occasionally, in Silverstein's other books; the language is more clearly written for recitation rather than for singing, and the poetry is more technically controlled.
There are fewer poems that preach than in earlier volumes and less celebration of the breaking of rules. But there is still that unalterable faith in the certain knowledge of the individual and in self-direction. Falling Up is a book less about changing the world and more about observing its oddities and humor. "The Voice" (38) inside of each person dictates"[w]hat's right for you" without intrusion. This absolute faith in each person's conscience is as iconoclastic as Silverstein gets. This theme, though potently stated here, is not sounded again in the book. There are two poems that comment on the problems of moral paralysis. The diver poised on the diving board who appears at the end of Attic reappears here, in "Diving Board" (24), still poised. This kind of procrastination caused by fear is actively discouraged in the poem. Silverstein also counsels courage in "Woulda-Coulda-Shoulda" (65), about three characters who all run away "[f]rom one little did. "Yet these poems are quieter and more reassuring than those that encourage wild abandon and creativity in the earlier books.
Falling Up ends with a celebration of time, of the problems of living in an for the moment. "The Castle. …rdquo; (171) lies in the land of Now, which is where we all live; the problem is that Now passes so quickly and the castle is only a cardboard facade, so that once someone enters he's automatically deposited out the back of the kingdom and Now has passed. Now is only a moment that passes more quickly than a short poem. This is the poem of someone who knows that many nows have passed and that they are hard to hang on to. This is not the restless spirit at the end of Sidewalk, who finds joy in movement and in searching for elusive happiness, nor is it the poet who celebrates human potential in creating the marvelous, as in Attic. This is an older, more contented voice that puzzles over the passage of the now without lamenting and is content to contemplate rather than driven to pursue life. The poem facing this one on the left page, "In the Land of …" (170), is a celebration of reversals about some other kingdoms. The ideal kingdom is one in which ugly people are held up for public admiration. Some of the reversals are merely overturnings; for instance, in the Kingdom of Listentoemholler, steak is cheap but the tax on it is not. Although this book explores the contradictions and homophones in language particularly effectively, sometimes the logical pursuit of a point give way to simple if unlikely invention.
Above all, this book succeeds not so much as a tour de force but as a big red bow, tying up some of the issues in Silvestein's production over the years, showing his increased technical abilities as a poet and his greater concern for the design of a book as a whole. This book is not a bang, not a whimper, but a gentler, kinder book in which some of Silverstein's issues make a playful reappearance and others are resolved. The brashness is gone, which permits the kindness and decency to emerge. If a poet disappears from the publishing scene for 20 years, this is an honorable and excellent way to reappear.
In all Silverstein books, however, both early and late, it is the humor that sells, convinces, and persuades even the most reluctant readers of poetry. The range of humor in the books makes them appealing to a wide range of school-aged children. It is safe to say that the books are designed for literature children, not for the preliterate. The poems' humor depends on one's ability to ready them an interpret the accompanying pictures. An acquaintance with, though not necessarily a love of, the written word and a rudimentary ability to take the cues rendered in the pictures make the poems inaccessible to young children unable to read and interpret the illustrations. The poems also contain a range of humor designed to appeal to children from first to sixth grade and to older children, including adults, who will nostalgically but accurately recall the kinds of humor that most attracted them to Silverstein earlier in their lives.
Though the scholarly investigation of humor is fairly recent and fraught with the difficulty of gaining serious respectability, given the propensity of the subject to take over the tone of the investigation, several scholars have nonetheless developed theories of children's humor and children's acquisition of various senses of humor. Wolfenstein and McGhee are the foremost theorists in the field, the first a Freudian, the second also psychological but more developmental than sexuality analytical in approach. In spite of their divergence of perspective, both report, though for differing reasons, basically the same stages in the development of humor in the child.
The first stage, starting at one year old, has less to do with the child producing humorous situations and more to do with the child recognizing contextual clues that indicate that the situation is "just for laughs." Between the ages of two and three, the child sees as humorous the reversals of sex by change of name or ascription of gender.9 Slightly older children find humor in play with names, especially nicknames, which Wolfenstein finds is particularly offensive to adults, who carry residuals of some ancient, primal instinct about the sacredness naming.10 Less mythic analysts may find the same results in similar research, since Americans equate names with personal identity and dignity.
Children at ages four and five think that humor consists of making funny motions and faces. Their linguistic humor is reserved for the contemplation of impossibilities, sometimes linguistically induced possibilities: "Have you ever seen a horse fly?" (as opposed to a horsefly). Such questions do not demand an answer, as a riddle might. In fact, when Wolfenstein sought to teach children of this age riddles, they did not understand the punch lines and saw no humor (pp. 139, 147). Their own versions of funny stories were improbable and shapeless, tending towards no particular end other than an entertaining set of circumstances. For children at this stage and before, Silverstein has little to offer. His target audience has more linguistic sophistication and maturity, as does his humor.
Silverstein begins to appeal to like joking riddles, both listening to them and telling the. Both Wolfenstein and McGhee report the emergence, like clockwork, among six-year-olds of the "little moron" likes. Neither reports particularly precocious children learning these rotely memorized jokes early, nor have they found that slow children learn them later. neither specifies the particular developmental point to the consistent themes in the moron jokes' concise verbal quality, which children feel the need to reproduce precisely (pp. 141-44). This is also the stage at which the child is able to control the body long enough to keep it still during the telling of the joke (Wolfenstein, 143); silly gestures are not part of such stories. Wolfenstein also reports the phenomenon that children of this age do not admit to having learned the joke from someone else or to having memorized it; they claim that they have always known it, or that it just exists (pp. 99, 123, 132). For them, jokes are part of the cultural unconscious and simply emerge when the time for telling them is right—this latter is my interpretation of children's sense of the timelessness of such stories.
Concurrent with appearance of the first moron jokes in children's development, other kinds of joke riddles appear. It is important to note that the child in early grade school is dependent on rote performance of these jokes; the skill of the storyteller, the mood of the audience, the sustaining of the audience's interest are not yet matters of concern (Wolfenstein, 21, 143; Bariaud, 34). But the repertoire of humorous appeal expands, and it is here that Silverstein finds his youngest audience. For the child this age, Silverstein provides jokes riddles, such as "What Did?" (Attic, 16-17)—"What did the carrot say to the wheat? / 'Lettuce' rest, I'm feeling 'beet.'"
Memorizing a Silverstein poem can be a relatively simple experience, since some of the poems are only four lines long. The rhyme and rhythm, as well as the situation's short attenuation until the punch line, help the young reader/reciter remember the poem. Memorizing the poem makes it no longer Silversteins' but the child teller's, a part of the vast lore of childhood that simply is, without authorship. Bathroom humor, the kind that concerns not only feces and urination but also the exposure of the posterior, are prominent features both the children's humor at this stage and in Silverstein's books.
Bathroom humor appears shortly after the child learns control of his bodily functions; their silliness about it often results from the baby-talk words that adults use to describe feces and urine. Older children of reading age still find this subject matter humorous, though they demand more complicated joke forms to relate their amusement in and fascination with this otherwise forbidden topic (Bariaud, 27). Silverstein amply fills this need for jokes and riddles about bathroom behavior and exposure. Although children demand his books and read them, if these volumes ever find their way into the hands of conservative and censorious pedagogues, there will be book-banning attempts. As it stands now, the illicit experience of reading these scatological poems provides fun for children at an age at which the delights of reading and of poetry may still be shrouded in schoolteacher obscurantism. These are not poems for teaching; they are simply to be enjoyed.
Silverstein's poem provide the length, breadth, and variety of jokes to fill most children's need at this age for longer, more complex funny stories. This need stems partly from tensions that children frequently feel during their first years at school; they feel the pressure to achieve, not only from teachers but from parents. The "uproarious" relief that Silverstein's poems provide, if one may borrow a term from the reviewers, and the sheer volume of poems in his collections make the books good resources for stress reduction.
As McGhee points out, as children mature and approach their teens, they are able to tolerate humor in which they are the butt of the joke (Bariaud, 34). They become storytellers themselves, able to use intonation and timing and to create a mood and develop a story sufficiently to result in a humorous punch line. Silverstein's longer poems lend themselves to such storytelling, especially the tall tales—about being late for school, as in "Kidnapped!" (Attic, 159), or about not taking out the garbage, as in "Sara Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out " (Sidewalk, 70-71); Sara Cynthia is presumably buried by the accumulation she avoids. Older children's willingness to see their own behavior as the source of humor indicates a level of maturity that also signals the end of Silverstein's appeal. Although teenagers report resurrecting old jokes that they might have outgrown (Bariaud, 38), and although adults can similarly regress to the jokes of their childhoods (Wolfenstein, 156), a steady barrage of humor at the level Silverstein presents it does not hold these older readers' attention the same way it does for younger readers. Although adults can be convinced to buy Silverstein's books for children based on their own transitory pleasure in his jokes, children of elementary school age find themselves compelled to read the book repeatedly for yet more entertaining, sustained humor.
Silverstein wisely keeps Falling Up from degenerating into a collection of simple school-age jokes by interspersing it with poems that have not only a variety of lengths but also a variety of tones. Unrelenting humor is hard to sustain; Silverstein as a professional cartoonist knew when to change gears. His most consistent, serious concern is promoting the child's powers of creativity and ability to write poetry himself, to amuse himself and others, to think both seriously and humorously. Silverstein's direct, vivid expressions and obvious enjoyment of the same kinds of topics that children find humourous make these encouragements palatable. No teacher here is assigning a poem to be written, no adult is commanding children to enjoy themselves in spite of their own inclinations. The poet is simply a large child himself, capable of perhaps more complex linguistic productions than a child might be but on the other hand a large person still in touch with the smaller person within.
McGhee points to several positive attributes he founded consistently among children who were able to produce humor for themselves and others: their language and social skills were more developed than others' their age; they were more energetic; they showed more assertive tendencies in groups; and they showed more concern for, as well as the ability to get for themselves, the positive regard of others (McGhee, 259). A teller of humorous stories of any age knows the pleasure of being the center of attention and of hearing the laughter of listeners. Silverstein knows it too and manages to provide children with the opportunity to get some of this pleasure for themselves.
In terms of the larger scope of American literature for a general readership, Silverstein, who places himself in the tradition of American humor as identified by Jesse Bier in The Rise and Fall of American Humor, debunks both by reversal and antiproverbialism.11 Hamlin Hill claims that there is unlikely to be a single humorist who will speak for the late-twentieth-century United States because of the multiplicity of experiences and voices among its diverse population.12 Silverstein's works have yet to attain a longevity to merit such a claim for his fame, and two successful volumes rarely constitute a claim to having articulated humor for an entire nation. But it may one day be clear that Silverstein, as the poet of American childhood and as the humorist of American child life, achieved something of that statute for the generations that read his books when they were first published. He stands as a literary predecessor of Jack Prelutsky. By the time today's children become adults and hand Silverstein's books on to their own children and pupils, even Silverstein's toilet jokes may be hallowed.
- Nodelman, The Pleasures of Children's Literature (New York: Longman, 1992), 128.
- Dana Gioia, Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and American Culture (St. Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press, 1992), 92-93; hereafter cited in the text.
- Lurie, Don't Tell the Grown-ups, 4.
- Lingeman, "The Third Mr. Silverstein," 57.
- Nodelman, The Pleasures, 11.
- Kennedy and Kennedy, "Traditional and Revolt" 75.
- Ann Terry, Children's Poetry Preferences: A Natural Survey of Upper Elementary Grades, NCTE Research Report 16 (Urbana, Ill.: NCTE, 1974), 10-11; Carol J. Fisher and C. Ann Terry, Children's Language and the Language Arts, 2nd ed. (New York McGraw-Hill, 1982), 223.
- Silverstein, Falling Up, poems and drawings by Shel Silverstein (New York, HarperCollins, 1996).
- Francoise Bariaud, "Age Difference in Children's Humor," in Paul E. McGhee, ed., Human and Children's Development: A Guide to Practical Applications (New York: Haworth Press, 1989), 19, 24. Hereafter Bariaud's chapter is cited in the text as Bariaud, McGhee's as McGhee.
- Martha Wolfenstein, Children's Humor: A Psychological Approach (Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1954), 75; hereafter cited in the text as Wolfenstein.
- Jesse Bier, "The Rise and Fall of American Humor" (1968), in William Bedford Clark and W. Craig Turner, Critical Essays on American Humor (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984), 105.
- Hamlin Hill, "The Future of American Humor: Through a Glass Eye, Darkly," in Clark and Turner, Critical Essays, 225.
Different Dances. New York: Harper, 1979.
Falling Up. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.
A Giraffe and a Half. New York: Harper and Row, 1964.
The Giving Tree. New York: Harper and Row, 1964.
Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.
A Light in the Attic. New York: Harper and Row, 1981.
The Missing Piece. New York: Harper and Row, 1976.
The Missing Piece Meets the Big O. New York: Harper and Row, 1981.
Now Here's My Plan: A Book of Futilities. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960.
A Playboy's Teevee Jeebies. Chicago: Playboy, 1963.
A Playboy's Teevee Jeebies: Do-It-Yourself Dialogue for the Late Late Show. Chicago: Playboy, 1965.
Uncle Shelby's Zoo: Don't Bump the Glump! New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964.
Where the Sidewalk Ends: The Poems and Drawings of Shel Silverstein. New York: Harper and Row, 1974.
Who Wants a Cheap Rhinoceros? New York: Macmillan. 1964; revised and expanded, New York: Macmillan, 1983.
S ECONDARY S OURCES
Berg-Cross, Linda, and Gary Berg-Cross. "Listening to Stories May Change Children's Social Attitudes." Reading Teacher 31 (1978): 659-63. The authors measure kindergartners' attitudes both before and after reading The Giving Tree to them and found an increase in their empathy and generosity after the reading.
Campbell, Mary. "Sliverstein's Mind Filled with Wandering." Denver Post Roundup (30 December 1973): 10. Short interviews.
Cole, William. "About Alice, a rabbit, a tree …" New York Times Book Review (9 September 1973): 8. Admits that the book may be a "male supremacist's fantasy" abut the domination of women and the environment. Discusses the book's initial lack of success and then its stardom.
Fisher, Carol J., and Margaret A. Natarella. "Out Cabbages and Kings: Or What Kinds of Poetry Young Children Like." Language Arts 56, 4 (April 1979): 380-85. Through a survey, the authors confirmed that children prefer humor and familiar content and form over the obscure and challenging in their poetry.
Hemphill, John. "Sharing Poetry with Children: Stevenson to Silverstein." Advocate 4 (Fall 1984): 38-44. The author experiments with an aggressive reading program for elementary school students to introduce them to poetry. At the beginning of the experiment, the only poet's name that the students know is Silverstein's, and at the end of six weeks
Jackson, Jacqueline, and Carol Dell. "The Other Giving Tree. Language Arts 56, 4 (1979): 427-29. The authors find it difficult to believe that any reader would take the apparent message of The Giving Tree seriously.
Kennedy, X.J. "A Rhyme Is a Chime." New York Times Book Review (15 November 1981): 51, 60. Praise for Silverstein's authentic voice and outrageous humor from a well-established poet for children. Identifies occasional lapses into sentimentality and vaguely serious feeling as rate flaws.
Kennedy, X.J., and Dorothy M. Kennedy. "Tradition and Revolt: Recent Poetry for Children." The Lion and the Unicorn: A Critical Journal of Children's Literature 4, 2 (1980-81): 75-82. Discusses the lack of technical innovation in children's poetry and the tendency of doggerel to masquerade as true poetry for children.
Larrick, Nancy. "From Tennyson to Silverstein: Poetry for Children 1910-1985." Language Arts 63 (1986): 594-600. An overview of tendencies in poetry for children, culminating with Silverstein as a voice of children's genuine experience. Notes that as of the end of April 1986, Attic had been on the bestseller list for 164 weeks.
Lingeman, Richard R. "The Third Mr. Silverstein." New York Times Book Review (30 April 1978): 57. Discusses Silverstein's avoidance of mythical happy endings and fantasy as a real-life possibility.
Livingston, Myra Cohn. "The Light in His Attic." New York Times Book Review (9 March 1986): 36-37. A well-esteemed poet for children deliberately downplays Silverstein's technical flaws in favor of emphasizing his empowerment of children to be creative. Identifies a didactic intent behind the author's humor.
McDowell, Edwin. "Behind the Best Sellers." New York Times Book Review (8 November 1981): 50. Discusses the unusual phenomenon of a book of children's poetry reaching the best-seller list.
Mecier, Jean. "Silverstein." Publishes Weekly (24 February 1975): 50, 52. A short interview with the author that contains new insights into his personal history and philosophy.
Milton, Joyce. Review of The Missing Piece Meets the Big O. New York Times Book Review (11 October 1981): 39. Complains that in this book, Silverstein succumbs to being a "publishing phenomenon." Insists that children will not understand the book's meaning.
Nichols, Lewis. "In and Out of Books." New York Times Book Review (24 September 1961): 8. Asserts that the success ABZ is due to its treatment of young and old people as human beings like everyone else.
Nordstrom, Ursula. "Editing Books for Young People." In Celebrating Children's Books: Essays on Children's Literature in Honor of Zena Sutherland. Ed. Betsy Hearne and Marilyn Kay. New York: Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, 1981. 143-53. Silverstein's editor at Harper and Row comments generally on the difficulties and pleasures of working with authors for young people.
Roiphe, Ann. Review of The Missing Piece. New York Times Book Review (2 May 1976): 28. Admits that although the story seems aimed at children, its meaning is more likely clearer to "emotionally weary adults."
Schram, Barbara. "Misgivings about The Giving Tree ". Interracial Books for Children 5, 5 (1974): 1, 8. Comments on the themes of dominance and dependence in Tree.
Strandburg, Walter L., and Norma J. Livo. " The Giving Tree, or There Is a Sucker Born Every Minute." Children's Literature in Education 17 (1986): 17-24. Identifies the tree as the "giving mother" and the boy as a "spoiled kid." Finds that few children choose to read the book themselves, preferring to have it read to them by adults unconscious of its alternate messages.
Terry, Ann. Children's Poetry Preferences. Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English, 1974. Terry's research clearly defines the children's likes and dislikes in poetry written for and directed to them; she further suggests different way of presenting poetry in the classroom so that children will grow to like it.
John M. Kean (essay date 1993)
SOURCE: Kean, John M. "Finding the Humor and Value in Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic. "In Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints, edited by Nicholas J. Karolides, Lee Burress, and John M. Kean, pp. 485-89. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1993.
[In the following essay, Kean praises Silverstein's use of humor and imagination in Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic.]
Sometime in the late 1950s, when I was an undergraduate student at Ohio University, I attended a poetry reading session by Robert Frost. After a delightful hour or so of his reading his poetry, he asked for questions. Someone asked him about the meaning of one of his poems. Frost stared out a window for at least a moment, turned his head and said "It means what I wrote when I wrote it" or words to that effect. I'm sure that he expressed it more eloquently than I remember it, but at the time it struck me as one of the most profound statements I had ever heard. As an undergraduate English major, struggling to figure out why my professors and I never agreed as to what a poem meant, it delighted me to have a poet remind me of what poetry is. Poetry is what it is, imaginative writing which needs to be expressed, lived, not something which is converted into essays in order to decipher the hidden messages. Shortly after this experience, I read John Ciardi's How Does a Poem Mean? through which I came to a better understanding of the relationship between poetry and performance. Even more significant for my future career as a teacher of children and children's literature, I came to understand better why young children like poetry. "[They have] a good time with the poem. The poem pleases and involves [them]. [They] respond to it in an immediate muscular way. [They] recognize its performance at once and want to act with it " (Ciardi, 669; italics are Ciardi's).
Shel Silverstein in his two anthologies Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light the Attic invites the child to act, to walk, to bounce, to dance with his poetry. He conjures up images which tickle a child's imagination, which speak directly to children's fantasies, their fears, frustrations, everyday experiences. Many of his poems are written from a child's point of view. Others invite/demand physical involvement. Silverstein begins Where the Sidewalk Ends with an "Invitation" (9).
If you are a dreamer, come in,
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar.
A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer …
If you're a pretender, come sit by my fire
For we have some flax-golden tales to spin, Come in!
Only readers who are ready to play with language and ideas can enter into Silverstein's world.
Children genuinely enjoy the verse of Shel Silverstein. They don't know why they like it. They just do. They laugh when they listen to it; they enjoy reciting it. They memorize it. They imitate his style when they write their own poetry. They listen to it for long periods of time. Teachers delight in reading it to children. Children delight in reading it to each other. They don't particularly care about its themes or its meanings, (although the teacher does). His poetry is absurd, weird, sick, gross, gooey, odd, obscure, scary, ridiculous, rule breaking, confusing, impossible. It is repeatable, suggestible, understandable and fun.
Silverstein's poetry is for those with imagination and humor, not those who treat all poetry and fiction as a non-literary reference manual for behavior. Silverstein plays with the everyday world of the children with word pictures that provide them with a constantly moving horizon of images that distort reality like the mirror in a circus fun house. Peggy Ann McKay couldn't go to school because she was so sick until she found out it was Saturday. Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout would not take the garbage out and thus met an awful fate, Jimmy Jet turned into a TV set and poor Hungry Mungry ate everything including himself until "Nothin' was nothin' was / Nothin' was left to eat" (Where 161).
The literalist sees doom in every poem. The child sees drama. Some parents have been so concerned about the makeup of Silverstein's poetry that they have asked that his anthologies be banned. The poem "Little Abigail and the Beautiful Pony" evoked such a response in Hoffman, Texas, which resulted in A Light in the Attic being banned in the second grade. Abigail wanted "… that pony … if I don't get that pony I'll die". / And she DID die—/ All because of a pony / That her parents wouldn't buy. / (This is a good story / To read to your folks / When they won't buy / You something you want.) / " (120-121). Silverstein says that he made up this poem, but children and their parents will recognize the exaggerated emotional behavior, calculated or not, that often accompanies children's and adolescent's desire for things they cannot have or cannot do. Because the situation is so familiar the children and their parents laugh at the exaggerated accuracy of the image, not the horrors of suicide seen by the literalist in Texas.
Silverstein uses humor in "Ma and God" not to mock God as some have suggested but to highlight the too familiar scene in many houses when adult views of hygiene and propriety differ from those of children: "God gave us fingers—Ma says, 'Go wash 'em' / But God gave us coal bins and nice dirty bodies. / … Either Ma's wrong or else God is" (Where 119). Both the parents and the children share the joke with no lack of respect to God.
Complaints have been lodged against "Dreadful" because "Someone ate the baby, / It's rather sad to say" allegedly deals with cannibalism (Where 141) and "The Planet of Mars" in which the verse "And they have the same heads, and same faces … / But not in the very same places," is accompanied by an illustration of a side view of a clothed male figure with a head growing from the buttocks (Where 93). The latter is apparently in bad taste.
Poet Myra Cohn Livingston summarized what reviewers have said repeatedly: "Mr. Silverstein's genius lies in a new way to present moralism, beguiling his child readers with a technique that establishes him as an errant, mischievous and inventive child as well as an understanding, trusted and wise adult … " (qtd. in Hopkins 135). His use of contrasts with what adults perceive of as positive behavior only underscores his wit and his oneness with children. In "How Not to Have to Dry the Dishes" he concludes "If you have to dry the dishes / And you drop one on the floor / Maybe they won't let you / Dry the dishes anymore" (A Light 12) should not be perceived as an invitation to break dishes but rather as way to let children know that adults know that children know there really are rules to getting along in social relationships. That "Mrs. McTwitter thinks a baby-sitter's supposed / To sit upon the baby," (A Light 14) does not suggest disrespect for adults but perhaps may deal with those unconscious fears that some children develop about people other than their parents. The "Prayer of the Selfish Child" who says "I pray the Lord my toys to break / So none of the other kids can use 'em …" can help children articulate some of those frequent possessive feelings that they do have about their toys (A Light 15). And although his poetry is directed at children, the humor that children find and the humor that adults find may be of different kinds. In the following example from "They've Put a Brassiere on the Camel" the child sees the surface silliness of animals wearing clothes while an adult might find a subtler poke at those who would try to protect society by reverting to some misguided notion of Victorian prudery. "The camel had nothing to say. / … They say that she looks more respectable now. / Lord knows what they've got in mind for the cow, / Since they've put a brassiere on the camel" (A Light 166).
The 1988-90 volumes of the Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom chronicle a host of complaints against these two volumes of poetry: child abuse, cannibalism, behavior abusive to women and children, suicide as a way to manipulate parents, mockery of God, behavior that is selfish, disrespect for parents, drug use, the occult, violence, disrespect for truth, disrespect for legitimate authority, sexual innuendoes, demonic overtones, subliminal and antiparent material (36.1, 2; 37.2, 51.67-68, 38.3, 80; 39.6, 210).
Most adult readers make guesses about how children will respond to literature. Some make guesses based on many years of teaching, living and working with children and the literature that they hear or read. Sometimes adults make assumptions about children and the literature that do not seem warranted on the basis of the evidence available about what children do with the literature. The accusations about these anthologies noted above have never included any reference to children's having actually been moved to exhibit anti-social behavior as a result of their reading. Critics have made unwarranted assumptions about children and their responses to Silverstein's poetry. They assume that children take everything literally, that they have no understanding of the ironic, satirical or other form of literary humor. The nonsense of Silverstein's poetry amuses only if the reader sees its absurdity. Silverstein actually helps children develop intellectually because he invites comparisons of reality and absurdity. Children take the meaning beyond its literal, explicit senses beyond the meaning of any one word, line, verse, poem, or sequence of poems to a fresh somewhat iconoclastic view of their everyday lives. And Silverstein always challenges the child's imagination. Although he does not seek to overthrow traditional mores, children delight in images and ideals that adults take too seriously. It is possibly true that a child who would answer the question, "How do we tell if a window is open?" by "Just throw a stone at it" (Where 147) and then do it is not ready for this poem. But the child who would laugh at the rest of the poem "Does it make a noise? / It doesn't? / Well, it was open. Now let's try another … / Crash! / It wasn't!" is ready.
Ciardi, John. How Does a Poem Mean? Riverside Press, 1959.
Livingston, Myra Cohn. "The Light in His Attic," New York Times Book Review. March 9, 1986, cited in Lee Bennett Hopkins Pass the Poetry Please, revised edition. Harper & Row, 1987. 135.
Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom 36.1 (1987): 2; 37.2 (1988): 51, 67-68; 38.3(1989):80; 39.6(1990): 210.
Silverstein, Shel. A Light in the Attic. Harper and Row, 1981.
Silverstein, Shel. Where the Sidewalk Ends. Harper and Row, 1974.
WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS (1974)
Booklist (review date 15 January 1975)
SOURCE: Booklist 71, no. 10 (15 January 1975): 509.
Shel Silverstein's 127 poems [in Where the Sidewalk Ends ] are ridiculous, sweet, a little sad, funny, irreverent, imperfect, rhythmic, refreshing, organic. irregular, shoutable, and singable. The subjects of his poems are spaghetti, men from Mars, Band-Aids, double-tail dogs, Paul Bunyan, spit, dirt, a bagpipe who didn't say no, and Captain Hook. His verse is versatile. And his black line drawings on nearly every page fit. There is one thing left to say: "Would you like to hear / Of the terrible night / When I bravely fought the—/ No? / All right." Gr. 3-6, younger for reading aloud.
THE MISSING PIECE (1976)
Booklist (review date 1 May 1976)
SOURCE: Booklist 72, no. 17 (1 May 1976): 1271.
"I'm lookin' for my missin' piece / Hidee-ho, here I go, / Lookin' for my missin' piece," sings the little round-thing with the open mouth [in The Missing Piece ]. The first pie wedge that seems to fit says, "Waitaminute,.…Before you go greasing your knees and fleecing your bees … I am nobody's piece. I am my own piece." Other pieces turn out to be the wrong size or shape. After some adventures, there appears a piece that not only fits but cooperates as well—alas, what a mouthful. Round-thing can't sing, round-thing rolls too fast, round-thing gently sets down the piece and goes its way. The ultimate simplicity of Silverstein's text and black-and-white drawings makes this bittersweet parable about relationships meaningful on several levels to a wide range of children. And adults. All ages.
Margaret A. Dorsey (review date September 1976)
SOURCE: Dorsey, Margaret A. School Library Journal 23, no. 1 (September 1976): 125.
One of the few books for which the publisher's hopeful designation "all ages" is fairly accurate, Silverstein's latest [The Missing Piece ] is written at about the third-grade reading level but will probably be most enthusiastically adopted by YA's [Young adults]. The protagonist is a globular "it" minus a pie-shaped wedge. Off it sets to find The Missing Piece and along the way encounters an uncooperative piece, a piece that's too small, another that's too big, one that's too sharp and another that's too square, one that's lost because "it didn't hold it tightly enough," and another that breaks because "it held too tightly." At last, however, the perfect piece is found, but its initial joy soon vanishes when it realizes that, now complete, it rolls too fast to do the things it so enjoyed on its quest—talking to worms, smelling flowers, and singing. So it lets go of the piece, having realized that seeking is more satisfying than finding. The message is dubious, but that won't matter to Silverstein fans.
A LIGHT IN THE ATTIC (1981)
Booklist (review date 1 December 1981)
SOURCE: Booklist 78, no. 7 (1 December 1981): 502-03
Silverstein's fans will enjoy this leaning tower of nonsense [A Light in the Attic ], though the verses as a whole aren't quite as airy and natural as those in Where the Sidewalk Ends. Still, he knows what children love to chant. "Mrs. McTwitter the babysitter, / I think she's a little bit crazy. / She thinks a baby-sitter's supposed / To sit upon the baby." The drawings boost the appeal quite a bit, as in a little girl's hefting an unnerved, pendulous-teated cow to make a milk shake in "Shaking." There are fleeting moments of gravity too—"The Bridge," for instance—which make a nice break and invariably show gentle perception. A sure lure for even the most reluctant poetry readers.
Marcus Crouch (review date March 1983)
SOURCE: Crouch, Marcus. School Librarian 31, no. 1 (March 1983): 73.
In an appreciative note quoted by the publisher, the American School Library Journal refers to this collection [A Light in the Attic ] as an 'anthology'. The slip may perhaps be Freudian, prompted by the realisation of the many influences which clearly press upon Shel Silverstein, including Lear, Harry Graham, Ogden Nash, Belloc and many others. In poem after poem we feel that we have been here before, sometimes in the company of a more competent versifier! That is unkind. What Mr Silverstein lacks in originality he makes up for in zest with his lively, often funny and spontaneous reactions to the black comedy of everyday life. Most of the rhymes are brief and pointed. The writer uses conventional forms, including the limerick, but he is often in too great a hurry to polish and prune as, for example, Ogden Nash does. One feels that his faulty rhymes and assonances come not as conscious stylistic devices but through an incomplete mastery of his medium.
But Mr Silverstein is not only a poet; he is a cartoonist and one whose draughtsmanship and graphic imagination are on an altogether higher plane. Across the page and around the poems sprawl and twine drawings of enormous gusto and sharp relevance. In their grotesque and sometimes revolting way they bring home the point of each poem with a force which cannot be ignored. They speak a language and mirror a world which is very familiar to today's teenagers. Some of those who have never willingly opened a book of verse may be encouraged to:
Put something silly in the world
That ain't been there before.
THE MISSING PIECE MEETS THE BIG O (1981)
Mary B. Nickerson (review date April 1981)
SOURCE: Nickerson, Mary B. School Library Journal 27, no. 8 (April 1981): 143.
A companion to The Missing Piece (Harper, 1976), in which a circle with a wedge omitted seeks, finds and eventually is bored by the matching part, this too is a fable for those familiar with mate-seeking. In this story [The Missing Piece Meets the Big O ], the missing piece (looking like a wedge of supermarket cheddar) sits passively waiting for the right someone to come along and take it somewhere. A long series of others do not work out ("One put it on a pedestal … and left it there.… Others rolled right by without noticing."), and the piece tries to make itself more attractive. A good fit is found, but then the piece grows, so that doesn't work anymore. Eventually a complete circle, the Big O, comes along needing nothing. It suggests that the Missing Piece learn to roll by itself too, and painfully, awkwardly, the wedge flips itself over and over. Slowly the motion reshapes the piece into a complete circle, and when it comes upon the Big O again, the two roll on side by side. With little more than a low horizon line and the informally drawn geometric shapes, Silverstein pulls it off and will find an appreciative audience in college dorms and discussion groups for the divorced. This is a book peculiarly suited to our times and temper, but not suited to young children.
FALLING UP: POEMS AND DRAWINGS (1996)
Publishers Weekly (review date 29 April 1996)
SOURCE: Publishers Weekly 243, no. 18 (29 April 1996): 73.
All the things that children loved about A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends can be found in abundance in this eclectic volume [Falling Up: Poems and Drawings ], Silverstein's first book of poetry in 20 years. By turns cheeky and clever and often darkly subversive, the poems are vintage Silverstein, presented in a black-and-white format that duplicates his earlier books. Like Roald Dahl, Silverstein's cartoons and poems are humorously seditious, often giving voice to a child's desire to be empowered or to retaliate for perceived injustice: one child character wields a "Remote-a-Dad" that will instantly control his father, and another dreams of his teachers becoming his students so that when they talk or laugh in class, he can "pinch 'em 'til they [cry]." The poems focus on the unexpected—a piglet receives a "people-back ride" and Medusa's snake-hair argues about whether to be coifed in cornrows or bangs. Sometimes the art traffics in grossout, as when William Tell gets an arrow through his forehead or a cartoon character sticks carrots in his sockets because he's heard that carrots are good for his eyes. Although some parents and teachers may cringe at such touches, Silverstein's anti-establishment humor percolates as he lampoons conventions (the stork not only brings babies but "comes and gets the older folks / When it's their time to go"), or discards decorum (a small gardener zips up his pants after watering the plants "that way"). No matter that the author's rhythms and rhymes can be sloppy, or that his annoying insistence on leavin' off the endin' to his ING's seems artificially folksy, Silverstein's ability to see the world from, as he says, "a different angle" will undoubtedly earn this book a wide audience. All ages. (May)
Susan Dove Lempke (review date July 1996)
SOURCE: Lempke, Susan Dove. Booklist 92, no. 21 (July 1996): 1824.
Gr. 3-6, younger for reading aloud. It's been a long wait for fans of A Light in the Attic (1981), but it was worth it. This new collection [Falling Up: Poems and Drawings ] includes more than 150 poems, ranging from the story of Pinocchio ("that little wooden bloke-io") in 11 verses to the poignant, two-line "Stone Airplane" : "I made an airplane out of stone … / I always did like staying home." As always, Silverstein has a direct line to what kids like, and he gives them poems celebrating the gross, the scary, the absurd, and the comical. The drawings are much more than decoration. They often extend a poem's meaning and, in many cases, add some great comedy. "Imagining," for example, which begins, "You're only just imagining / A mouse is in your hair," is accompanied by a picture showing a little girl with an elephant on her head. Wordplay abounds, as in the poem "The Gnome, the Gnat, and the Gnu" ("That gnat ain't done gnothing to you"), and the meter only falters a few times. Silverstein also cleverly plays with the design of the book, occasionally continuing a drawing onto the next spread. His final picture actually disappears into the central ditch of the book, with a warning not to pursue, "cause if you try finding I some more in the binding, you may just … disappear." And in addition to all the laughs, he slips in some thought-provoking verses about animal rights, morality, and the strange ways humans behave. Expect high demand, and stock up.
Kathleen Whalin (review date July 1996)
SOURCE: Whalin, Kathleen. School Library Journal 42, no. 7 (July 1996): 96.
Gr 3 Up—Fifteen years after A Light in the Attic (1981) and 22 years after Where the Sidewalk Ends (1974, both HarperCollins), Silverstein, whose poetry has achieved cultlike popularity, offers readers another collection [Falling Up: Poems and Drawings ]. While bodily functions seem to be the source of humor in more poems than in the earlier titles, and while there are fewer wonderful images here, the child appeal is as strong as ever. Once again, Silverstein's pen-and-ink drawings are the perfect accompaniment to the poems, always extending and often explaining the words. The book abounds in energetic wordplay ("I saw an ol' gnome / Take a gknock at a gnat / Who was gnibbling the gnose of his gnu") and childlike silliness ("I only ate one drumstick / At the picnic dance this summer… But everybody's mad at me, / Especially the drummer"). Silverstein writes wonderful nonsense verse, but he has used rhyme and rhythm to greater effect in the past. There is much to love in Falling Up, but it has its ups and downs.
Nancy Vasilakis (review date September-October 1996)
SOURCE: Vasilakis, Nancy. Horn Book Magazine 72, no. 5 (September-October 1996): 606.
This book [Falling Up: Poems and Drawings ]is patterned after (in fact looks just like) Silverstein's two phenomenally successful previous volumes, Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic (both Harper). But anyone who expects children to greet this book with the same uninhibited enthusiasm is likely to be disappointed. Some of the verses, like "Scale," in which a pot-bellied figure standing on a scale is ruminating over his weight, speak to adult concerns. Others, like "Cereal," in which the brands mentioned are not likely to appear in any child's list of ten favorite cereals, seem dated. At times, the poems take on a decidedly preachy tone. An occasional touch of the old spark appears here and there, but these are less frequent than the cheap bathroom humor, which will make adults, at least, wince: "We gave you a chance / To water the plants. / We didn't mean that way—/ Now zip up your pants." For his previous collections, Silverstein can be thanked for helping to return children's poetry to its populist roots, reminding adults that nonsense can help kids wrestle with life's ironies, and teaching kids that poetry can be a shortcut to the truth. The present collection seems to have forgotten its creator's best lessons.
Myers, Mitch. "Shel Silverstein 1930-1999." Rolling Stone 815, (24 June 1999): 26.
Short obituary written by his nephew.
Rosenfeld, Megan. "The Poet Laureate of Kids." Washington Post (11 May 1999): C1, C7.
Rosenfeld discusses the popularity of Silverstein's books among children.
Ward, S. Meet Shel Silverstein. New York: Power Kids Press, 2001, 24 p.
A brief biography of Silverstein, aimed at young readers.
Collins, Anne. "The Lessons of Fearful Geometry." Macleans 94 (22 June 1981): 51.
Reviews The Missing Piece Meets the Big O and comments on the moral message of the story.
Davis, Enid. "Books for Liberated Kids." Emergency Librarian 9, no. 4 (March-April 1982): 32-3.
Comments on sex role socialization in poetry, including Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic.
Juchartz, Larry R. "Team Teaching with Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein in the College Basic Reading Classroom." Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 47, no. 4 (December 2003-January 2004): 336-41.
Discusses how Dr. Suess and Silverstein's works can be used to foster "active meaning making."
Larrick, Nancy. "From Tennyson to Silverstein: Poetry for Children, 1910-1985." Language Arts 63, no. 6 (October 1986): 594-600.
Larrick asserts that Silverstein's volumes A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends marked a new ear in poetry for children.
MacDonald, Ruth K. "The Weirdness of Shel Silverstein." Studies in American Humor 5, no. 4 (1986-1987): 267-79.
MacDonald Discusses the commercial and popular success of Silverstein's books of poetry for children.
Stuttaford, Genevieve. Review of Falling Up, by Shel Silverstein. Publishers Weekly 243, no. 45 (4 November 1996): 49.
Praises Silverstein's humor.
Sullivan, Edward. Review of Falling Up, by Shel Silverstein. Book Links 8, no. 2 (November 1998): 18.
Positive review of Falling Up: Poems and Drawings.
Additional coverage of Silverstein's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 40; Black Writers, Ed. 3; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 5; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 107, 179; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 47, 74, 81; Junior DISCovering Authors ; Literature Resource Center ; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 2; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 49; St. James Guide to Children's Writers, Vol. 5; and Something about the Author, Vols. 27, 33, 92, 116.