Shel Silverstein

Shel Silverstein (1932 - 1999)

As Edwin McDowell reported in the New York Times Book Review (8 Nov 1981), Silverstein “for several years now… has refused interviews and publicity tours, and he even asked his publisher not to give out any biographical information about him.” What is known about Silverstein, however, is that he was born in Chicago (Illinois) in 1932, is divorced and has one daughter. Most of what is known about his views and opinions, aside from what may be interpreted from his works, comes from a Publisher’s Weekly (24 Feb 1975) interview with Jean F. Mercier. Silverstein discussed the roots of his career in his childhood with Mercier:

“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… So, I started to draw and to write. I was… 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 till I was around 30.”

Silverstein’s talents were already well-developed by the time he served in the US armed forces during the 1950s. He was stationed in Japan and Korea, and while in the military, he was a cartoonist for the Pacific edition of the military newspaper, Stars And Stripes. After his stint in the military, Silverstein became a cartoonist for Playboy in 1956. His work for that magazine has resulted in some published collections, such as A Playboy’s Teevee Jeebies and More Playboy’s Teevee Jeebies (Do It Yourself Dialogue for the Late Late Show).

Silverstein did not begin writing for children until he penned Uncle Shelby’s Story of Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back, published in 1963. He confided to Mercier:

“I never planned to write or draw for kids. It was Tomi Ungerer, a friend of mine, who insisted… practically dragged me, kicking and screaming, into [editor] Ursula Nordstrom’s office. And she convinced me that Tomi was right, I could do children’s books.”

Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back is the story of a lion who obtains a hunter’s gun and practices until he becomes a good enough marksman to join a circus. A Publisher’s Weekly (28 Oct 1963) reviewer called the bool “a wild, free-wheeling, slangy tale that most children and many parents will enjoy immensely”, and it met with moderate success, as did Silverstein’s Uncle Shelby’s A Giraffe and a Half (1964).

But Silverstein achieved fame as a children’s writer after the publication of The Giving Tree in 1964. The book had been rejected by editor William Cole who felt that the book fell between adults’ and children’s literature and would never sell. In Silverstein’s eyes it was a story about two people; one gives and the other takes. Ultimately, both adults and children embraced the book. The story of a tree that gives its shade, fruit, branches, and finally its trunk to make a little boy happy, The Giving Tree had slow sales at first, but its audience steadily grew. As Richard R. Lingeman reported in the New York Times Book Review (30 April 1978), “Many readers saw a religious symbolism in the altruistic tree; ministers preached sermons on The Giving Tree; it was discussed in Sunday schools.” But feminist critics later saw something else in Silverstein’s tale; as Barbara A. Schram noted in Interracial Books for Children (Vol. 5, No. 5, 1974): “By choosing the female pronoun for the all-giving tree and the male pronoun for the all-taking boy, it is clear that the author did indeed have a prototypical master / slave relationship in mind… How frightening that little boys and girls who read The Giving Tree will encounter this glorification of female selflessness and male selfishness.” Nevertheless, the book remains popular with both children and adults.

In the late 1960s Silverstein became also known for being a composer and lyricist of songs, including “A Boy Named Sue” (sung by Johnny Cash, 1969), “One’s On The Way”, “The Unicorn” (sung by the Irish Rovers), “Boa Constrictor”, “So Good To So Bad”, “Sylvia’s Mother” (sung by Dr. Hook, 1972), “The Great Conch Train Robbery”, and “Yes, Mr. Rogers”.

Albums of Silverstein’s songs recorded by others include FREAKIN’ AT THE FREAKER’S BALL [Columbia] (1972), SLOPPY SECONDS [Columbia] (1972), DR. HOOK [Columbia] (1972) and BOBBY BARE SINGS LULLABYS, LEGENDS AND LIES (THE SONGS OF SHEL SILVERSTEIN) [RCA Victor] (1973).

Albums of original motion picture scores include Ned Kelly [United Artists] (1970), Who Is Harry Kellerman And Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? [Columbia] (1971), in which Silverstein even played a role, Thieves (1977) and Postcards from the Edge (1996). Other recordings include Drain My Brain [Cadet] (), Dirty Feet [Hollis Music] (1968), Shel Silverstein (Songs And Stories) [Casablanca] (1978) and The Great Conch Train Robbery [] (1980).

In 1974 Silverstein published a collection of poems for children called Where The Sidewalk Ends. Bringing him comparisons to the likes of Dr. Seuss and Edward Lear, Where The Sidewalk Ends contained humorous efforts such as “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout / Would Not Take the Garbage Out”, “Dreadful” and “Band-Aids”. Kay Winters lauded the author’s achievement in The Reading Teacher: “With creatures from the never-heard, Ickle Me Pickle Me, Tickle Me too, the Mustn’ts, Hector the Collector and Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout (who would not take th garbage out), Silverstein’s funny bone seems to function wherever he goes.” She further noted that Where The Sidewalk Ends “is an ideal book for teachers to have handy.” The book has proved popular with child readers as well; it continues to sell many copies, as does Silverstein’s 1981 follow-up collection of poems, The Light In The Attic. Publisher’s Weekly called the latter book “a big, fat treasure for Silverstein devotees, with trenchant verses expressing high-flown, exhilarating nonsense as well as thoughts unexpectedly sober and even sad.”

Silverstein’s 1976 picture book, The Missing Piece, like The Giving Tree, was subject to varying interpretations. It chronicles the adventures of a circle with a wedge of itself missing, who goes along singing and searching for that missing part. But after the circle finds the right wedge, he decides he was happier on the search – without the missing piece – than he is with it. As Anne Roiphe explained in The New York Times Book Review (2 May 1976), The Missing Piece can be read in the same way as “the fellow at the singles bar explaining why life is better if you don’t commit yourself to anyone for too long – the line goes that too much togetherness turns people into bores – that creativity is preserved by freedom to explore from one relationship to another… This fable can also be interpreted to mean that no one should try to find all the answers, no one should hope to fill all the hopes in themselves, achieve total transcendental harmony or psychic order because a person without a search, loose ends, internal conflicts and external goals becomes to smooth to enjoy or know what’s going on. Too much satisfaction blocks exchange with the outside.” Silverstein published a sequel, The Missing Piece Meets The Big O, in 1981. The latter book is told from the missing piece’s point of view; as in the original, the book’s protagonist discovers the value of self-sufficiency. A new book for children, Falling Up, was published in 1996. Silverstein illustrates his own books with black-and-white line drawings. Being himself a book collector, he takes the feel and look – the paper, the type, the binding – of his titles very seriously. He does not allow his books to be published in paperback. But this hasn’t hurt his popularity: Silverstein has 14 million copies in print.

Since 1981, Silverstein has concentrated on writing plays for adults. One of his best known, The Lady or the Tiger Show (1981), about a television producer who goes to unbelievable lengths to get his ratings up, has been performed on its own and in a group of one-acts entitled Wild Life (1983). Silverstein has also collaborated on the screenplay Things Change (1988) with playwright David Mamet.

Shel Silverstein died on 10 May 1999 from a heart attack.

Analysis, meaning and summary of the poem by Shel Silverstein

40 Comments

  1. blakemoreb says:

    fossil societies related institute

  2. Samantha says:

    I love johnny cash and shel silverstein. They are both genuises.

  3. teddy says:

    I love This song it is awesome!!!I love johnny cash, i had sex with him onr time and it was amazing!!!! To bad he isn’t here now.

  4. Sabrina says:

    This is a great poem/song. It’s one of my favorites by Johnny Cash. You also have many other awesome poems!

  5. James says:

    Dude this poem is awesome i can’t belive you wrote it it’s my favorite song by johnny cash!!!!

  6. Taylor says:

    I love this poem. I chose it to memorize to recite to the class.

  7. Jordan says:

    I LOVE this song!!!!!! I love Jhonny Cash and his music. I always listen to it. I am so glad that this was posted. I always go on this to check it out and I love to see this Jhonny Cash song!!!!!!!!!

  8. shandos says:

    This is a great poem/song.Did you know that there is a second part. it’s written from dad’s point of view. v. funny. my fav shel poem though is called “the world’s greatest smoke off” if you are a choofa, check it out. some great references to the ‘herb’. Let me know how ya go.

  9. John says:

    I memorized this poem for poetry day and i did great, it is a great poem- woo!! lol!! hehe

  10. Red- haired Kid says:

    I thought the poem was good. I’ve never heard the song though.

  11. Spongy Bull says:

    The poem is great! Why is the slang, and to some offensive words needed?

    If the reader, or listener to the song can’t get the drift, and interpit to his/her own notions, then they have missed the whole picture.

    The cursing, slang, etc. is just a “fill” for lack of vocabulary. If you don’t get that….take some language classes.

    Oh, BTW…I’m not offended personally, and ain’t going to preach…this is just my opinion. (Yes…”ain’t” is not good English…right? 😉

  12. Alec says:

    A poem anyone (or nearly) who reads or listens to the song by Johnny Cash can relate to. Very heartfelt and down to the nitty gritty.

    It’s one of those rare poems that has real soul..and Johnny did it great justice.

    Thanks, Shel and Johnny. Great team.

  13. Chloe says:

    I loved it

  14. Lucas says:

    Im a very big fan of Jony Cash so I really enhoyed it.

  15. Jesse says:

    I really like this poem however, I can’t believe you changed the wrods from ” mother fucker” to “nut”. You are changing a classic.
    I didnt know Shel Silverstein had died!! I’m writng a schoo paper on him and i found this so far the most informative. I may be only 14 but i can appretiate the talents of those who posses it, Shel Siverstein did. I hope more people can enjoy his work. This site is helping to pass on his stories and let the children who didnt grow up in his time still grow up with his stories, thank you.

  16. Katelyn M says:

    I really thought this poem was cute! Espesially cuz it was made into a song. Although “A Boy Named Sue” is a strange name for a poem. I love Johnny Cash though.

  17. Melissa says:

    I also like Johnny Cash. My Grandmother has his records and I heard the song and later I looked up the poem. Shel Silverstein is an awsome song writter and now I listen to his songs all the time

  18. Marissa says:

    I love his poems and everything….BUT….i never knew that he died…lol well jus thought that i’d leave a comment….byee oh yes i love johnny cash also!!!!!!!

  19. Amber says:

    i grew up to johnny cah and im still quite young but no matter what his song wll never get old.I am 13 years ld and I’m proud to admit that i love all music includinggood old Johnny C. R.I.P.Johnny Cash and may your music live on with peaceful notes.

  20. Ethan Smith says:

    This poem us awsoem i never knew that shel wrote it. Im a big fan of johnny and not really reading poems but now im gonna read more of shels cause he wrote this great one

  21. Kristi says:

    I found the other poem that Shel Silverstein wrote in relation to this one. It’s hilarious. No, this one wouldn’t be in a children’s book either.
    http://www.banned-width.com/shel/works/boysuepa.htmlAlthough I found on another website that the original word was “nut” instead of “motherf***er”.
    http://www.straightdope.com/mailbag/msue.html

  22. Billie Sue Johnson says:

    Yes, thats my name. People wonder if I am a girl or a boy if they don’t know me. I really like my name. Yes, it does make you tough.

  23. Taylor Smith says:

    Now when you look at my name what comes to mind? Guy or girl? It depends on who poeple know and their point of veiw. I personally don’t know any guy Taylor’s, although I know there are some. I was given a unisex name and not once have I ever thought about. A name is a name, it dosn’t define who you are. If my name was Bob, I would certainly try to hurt the one who gave it to me. Shel puts a certain amount of information in a very understandable and mabea even child like poem. Now, let me ask you, after you have read this. Can you guess my age as well as my gender? I am 12 years old, suprised?

  24. Gina says:

    A few days ago I brought a copy of “Where The Sidewalk Ends” from a local charity thrift shop (couldn’t pass up the $1 price). My daughters (17 & 8) and I dissolve with laughter everytime we read from it. My dad has that Johnny Cash LP and I actually remember listening to “A Boy Named Sue”as a child and thinking, “that’s different”. Now knowing that he wrote the song/poems I can see the similar “style”. Very nice!(67oF/19oC)

  25. Amanda says:

    My mother grew up a huge fan of Johnny Cash to the point where her family nicknamed her Johnny. I just happen to be bored and thought I would read a few poems from Shel Silverstein because his poems are always so interesting in a weird sort of way. I was amazed to find out that Shel Silverstein wrote this poem I think that my mother would love to here where the story came from. I am so glad I found this site!

  26. Linda says:

    I’m reading Larson’s book, saw the reference to the real boy named Sue who was one of the attorneys on the Scopes monkey trial. Does anyone know if Silverstein new the story about the Scopes lawyer, Sue K. Hicks? The song refers to Gatlinburg, TN and the trial was in Tennessee?

  27. Fred says:

    There really was a boy named Sue according to author Edward J. Larson in his book, “Summer for the Gods – The Scopes Trial”, page 89. He was one of the lawyers that prosecuted John Scopes. He was named Sue by his father in memory of the boy’s mother who died during his birth.

  28. Bill Jennings says:

    As a retired English teacher I give occasional lectures to community groups on language and related topics, one being names and their origins, and how one’s name relates to self-image. I sometimes start this lecture with a mention of “A Boy Named Sue”. Its humour lies in its absurdity – why would the boy retain the name when he grew up, as if it was like a birthmark, scar or other unchangeable thing? But the cleverness of the poem is of course it isn’t as absurd as all that. Names are very much a part of our identity, given to us by those responsible for our existence, and we don’t lightly abandon or change our name. Parents often do give children awful, pretentious or obscure names, and mostly the kids put up with them all their life. So “A Boy Named Sue” is partly a satire on this. But surnames can be pretty bad too – Belcher, Swindell, Coward, Ramsbottom, Death (all of these originally had innocuous meanings, of course) – yet you’ll find plenty of people in phone books with such names. Again, our name, whatever it is, is part of identity, and surnames in particular link us to ancestors and present families and relatives. Silverstein of course knows these traditions and sends them up in a marvellously humorous but basically fairly gentle fashion.

  29. gailgw says:

    I am a high school teacher and I was looking for an entertaining poem to discuss with my students – I found one! I will also play the song for my kids to hear and to enjoy.

  30. Frank says:

    Many times, I’ve listened to Johnny Cash do “A Boy Named Sue”, had a laugh and drove on. Not until today did I know that Shel had written the words.

    Frank

  31. Boom Wee says:

    i was realy suprised to see shel say mother fucker

  32. Nikki says:

    this poem iz sooo freakn awesome!! its really funny! i luv shel silverstien!!yayay!

  33. - -*Jade says:

    I really like this poem and song as well! I like it a lot! =)

  34. hana says:

    cute poem.., i think i kno why it wasnt in a kids book… i think…haha…

  35. mike says:

    its one of my personal favorite songs and i cant believe it was written by shell either..wow..

  36. BOO mE says:

    good poem and song..intresting makes you think

  37. becky says:

    Theres always another way to look at things…

  38. The Rooster Girl of Texas says:

    WOW!!! I love Johnny Cash! And Shel Silverstein! I grew up hearing those songs and poems! I can’t belive Shel wrote one of Johnny’s funniest (and very meaningful) songs! That’s really cool!

  39. Hellur says:

    There’s more to it than meets the eye. At first glance it probably seems funny but what it’s really all about is the relationship between parent and child. The parent sometimes (or maybe most of the times) does things that the child can’t understand, which to him would seem like the wrong thing to do. But in reality, the parent did what he did because it’s what he thought would be best for the child. After all, parents only want what’s good for their children.

  40. big whoop says:

    I wonder why this poem wasn’t in a children’s book… I wonder…

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