Shel Silverstein

Shel Silverstein (1930 – 1999), was an American poet, musician, cartoonist, and author of children’s books. He styled himself as Uncle Shelby in his children’s books.

Silverstein grew up in Chicago: ‘When I was a kid—12 to 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 anybody 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. 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 1957, he became one of the leading cartoonists in Playboy, which sent him around the world to create an illustrated travel journal with reports from far-flung locales. During the 1950s and 1960s, he produced 23 installments called ‘Shel Silverstein Visits…’ as a feature for Playboy. Employing a sketchbook format with typewriter-styled captions, he documented his own experiences at such locations as a New Jersey nudist colony, the Chicago White Sox training camp, San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, Fire Island, London, Paris, Mexico, Spain and Africa. In a Swiss village, he drew himself complaining, ‘I’ll give them 15 more minutes, and if nobody yodels, I’m going back to the hotel.’

His best known cartoon of the 1950s was featured on the cover of his next cartoon collection, ‘Now Here’s My Plan: A Book of Futilities,’ published by in 1960. Silverstein biographer Lisa Rogak wrote:

‘The cartoon on the cover that provides the book’s title would turn out to be one of his most famous and often-cited cartoons. In the cartoon, two prisoners are chained to the wall of a prison cell. Both their hands and feet are shackled. One says to the other, ‘Now here’s my plan.’ Silverstein was both fascinated and distressed by the amount of analysis and commentary that almost immediately began to swirl around the cartoon. ‘A lot of people said it was a very pessimistic cartoon, which I don’t think it is at all,’ he said. ‘There’s a lot of hope even in a hopeless situation. They analyze it and question it. I did this cartoon because I had an idea about a funny situation about two guys.’

Silverstein’s editor, Ursula Nordstrom, encouraged him to write children’s poetry. He said that he never studied the poetry of others and therefore developed his own quirky style, laid back and conversational, occasionally employing profanity and slang. The relationship between Ursula Nordstrom and Shel Silverstein was mutually rewarding. He considered her a superb editor who knew when to leave an author-illustrator alone.

One of his most successful children’s books, ‘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.’

Silverstein did not really care to conform to any sort of norm, but he did want to leave his mark for others to be inspired by: ‘I would hope that people, no matter what age, would find something to identify with in my books, pick up one and experience a personal sense of discovery. That’s great. I think that if you’re creative person, you should just go about your business, do your work and not care about how it’s received.’

Silverstein’s musical output includes a large catalog of songs; a number of which were hits for other artists, most notably ‘The Cover of the Rolling Stone’ for Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show. He wrote ’25 Minutes to Go,’ sung by Johnny Cash, about a man on Death Row with each line counting down one minute closer. He also wrote one of Johnny Cash’s best known whimsical hits, ‘A Boy Named Sue.’

Silverstein composed original music for several films and displayed a musical versatility in these projects, playing guitar, piano, saxophone and trombone. He wrote ‘In the Hills of Shiloh,’ a poignant song about the aftermath of the Civil War, which was recorded by The New Christy Minstrels, Judy Collins, Bobby Bare and others. The soundtrack of the 1970 film ‘Ned Kelly’ features Silverstein songs performed by Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and others.

Silverstein had two children. His first child was daughter Shoshanna, born in 1970, died of a cerebral aneurysm in 1982, at the age of 11. Silverstein dedicated ‘A Light in the Attic’ to her, and drew the sign with a flower attached. Shoshanna means lily or rose in Hebrew. Silverstein’s second child was his son Matthew, born in 1983. 1996’s ‘Falling Up’ was dedicated to him.

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