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Shel Silverstein

Ballantine Books published Shel Silverstein's 1956 collection of cartoons from Pacific Stars and Stripes
Born September 25, 1932(1932-09-25)
Chicago, Illinois
Died May 9, 1999 (aged 67)
Key West, Florida[1]
Occupation Author
Short story writer
Nationality American
Genres Children's fiction
Black comedy
Notable work(s) Where the Sidewalk Ends (1974)
The Giving Tree (1965)
"A Boy Named Sue" (1969)

Sheldon Alan Silverstein, better known as Shel Silverstein (September 25, 1932 – May 9, 1999),[1] was an American poet, singer-songwriter, musician, composer, cartoonist, screenwriter and author of children's books. He sometimes styled himself as Uncle Shelby, especially for his early children's books.



Shel Silverstein's illustrated travelogues for Playboy were collected by Fireside in 2007.

Born in Chicago, Silverstein began drawing as a child by tracing the works of Walt Disney, and he was also influenced by the style of gag cartoonist Virgil Partch. He told Jean Mercier of Publishers Weekly: "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."[2]

He was first published in the Roosevelt Torch (a student newspaper at Roosevelt University). In the military, his cartoons were published in Pacific Stars and Stripes, where he had originally been assigned to do paste-up and composition. His first book, Take Ten, a compilation of his military cartoons, was published by Pacific Stars and Stripes.

Returning to Chicago as a civilian, Silverstein began submitting freelance cartoons to magazines while also selling hot dogs at Chicago ballparks, setting a record for the number of hot dogs sold at the Thursday night games. His cartoons began appearing in Look, Sports Illustrated and This Week.[3]

Mass-market paperback readers across America were introduced to Silverstein in 1956 when his Army cartoons were published by Ballantine Books in Grab Your Socks! with a foreword by Bill Mauldin.

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 of this regular feature, "Shel Silverstein Visits...", 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, Mexico, London, Paris, 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." These illustrated travel essays were collected by the publisher Fireside in Playboy's Silverstein Around the World (2007), with a foreword by Hugh Hefner and an introduction by music journalist Mitch Myers.[4]

"Now, here's my plan...", Shel Silverstein's best known cartoon of the 1950s, became the title of his 1960 cartoon collection.

His best known cartoon of the 1950s showed two prisoners, both with wrists and ankle shackles attached to the wall and floor, while one says, "Now, here's my plan..." This was featured on the cover of his next cartoon collection, Now Here's My Plan: A Book of Futilities, published by Simon & Schuster in 1960. Silverstein's cartoons appeared in every issue of Playboy from 1957 through the mid-1970s.[3]

Children's books

Silverstein's work did not include writing for children when he first began his career, but his editor at Harper & Row (now HarperCollins), Ursula Nordstrom, encouraged Silverstein to write children's poetry. Silverstein 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. Talking with Publishers Weekly, he recalled:

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... 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-illlustrator 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 ten 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.[2][5]

Otto Penzler, in his crime anthology Murder for Revenge (1998), commented on Silverstein's versatility:

The phrase "Renaissance man" tends to get overused these days, but apply it to Shel Silverstein and it practically begins to seem inadequate. Not only has he produced with seeming ease country music hits and popular songs, but he's been equally successful at turning his hand to poetry, short stories, plays, and children's books. Moreover, his whimsically hip fables, beloved by readers of all ages, have made him a stalwart of bestseller lists. A Light in the Attic, most remarkably, showed the kind of staying power on the New York Times chart — two years, to be precise — that most of the biggest names (John Grisham, Stephen King and Michael Crichton) have never equaled for their own blockbusters. His unmistakable illustrative style is another crucial element to his appeal. Just as no writer sounds like Shel, no other artist's vision is as delightfully, sophisticatingly cockeyed. One can only marvel that he makes the time to respond so kindly to his friends' requests. In the following work, let's be glad he did. Drawing on his characteristic passion for list making, he shows how the deed is not just in the wish but in the sublimation.

This anthology was the second in a series, which also included Murder for Love (1996) and Murder and Obsession (1999). All three anthologies included Silverstein contributions. He 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, as he told Publishers Weekly: "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. But for them, not for me. 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. 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. 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 are 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."[2]


Silverstein's passion for music was clear early on as he studied briefly at Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University. His musical output included a large catalog of songs; a great number of which were hits for other artists - most notably the rock & roll group Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show.[4] He wrote Tompall Glaser's highest-charting solo single "Put Another Log on the Fire," "One's on the Way" (which was a hit for Loretta Lynn), and "The Unicorn" (which became the signature piece for the Irish Rovers in 1968). Another Silverstein-penned song recorded by Cash is "25 Minutes to Go," sung from the point of view of a man facing his last 25 minutes on Death Row, with each line of the song counting down one minute closer.

He wrote the lyrics and music for most of the Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show songs, including "The Cover of the Rolling Stone", "Freakin' at the Freakers' Ball," "Sylvia's Mother", "The Things I Didn't Say" and a cautionary song about venereal disease, "Don't Give a Dose to the One You Love Most".[4] He wrote many of the songs performed by Bobby Bare, including "Rosalie's Good Eats Café", "The Mermaid", "The Winner", "Tequila Sheila", and co-wrote with Baxter Taylor the song "Marie Laveau", for which the songwriters received a BMI Award in 1975. "The Mermaid" was also covered in 2005 by Great Big Sea, which released its version on the album The Hard and the Easy.

Further famous songs that Shel Silverstein wrote were "The Ballad of Lucy Jordan", (first recorded by Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show in 1975) which was re-recorded in 1979 by Marianne Faithfull and in 1996 by Belinda Carlisle and later featured in the films Montenegro and Thelma & Louise and "Queen of the Silver Dollar", first recorded by Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show (on their 1972 album Sloppy Seconds), and later by Doyle Holly (on his 1973 album Doyle Holly), Emmylou Harris (on her 1975 album Pieces of the Sky) and Dave & Sugar (on their 1976 album Dave & Sugar). He 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 very 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 is composed of Silverstein's songs, performed by Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson among others.[3]

Silverstein had a popular following on Dr. Demento's radio show. Among his best-known comedy songs were "Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout (Would Not Take The Garbage Out)", "The Smoke-Off" (a tale of a contest to determine who could roll—or smoke—marijuana joints faster), "I Got Stoned and I Missed It", and "Bury Me in My Shades". He also wrote "The Father of a Boy Named Sue", in which he tells the story from the original song from the father's point of view, and the 1962 song "Boa Constrictor" that is sung by a man who is being progressively swallowed whole by a snake (recorded by the folk group The Brothers Four),[citation needed] although it is now better known as a children's playground chant.

A longtime friend of American singer and songwriter Pat Dailey, Silverstein collaborated with him on the posthumously released 2002 Underwater Land album. It contains 17 children's songs written and produced by Silverstein and sung by Dailey. Silverstein also appears along with him on a few tracks. The album also contains artwork by Silverstein.


The Rising Sun Performance Company's production of "The Lifeboat is Sinking," from An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein

An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein was produced by the Atlantic Theater Company in New York City in September 2001. The collection of short sketches, directed by Karen Kohlhaas, comprised the following:

  • "One Tennis Shoe" — Harvey claims that his wife Sylvia is becoming a bag lady, but she claims that he is just overreacting.
  • "Bus Stop" — Irwin stands on a street corner with a sign reading bust stop and uses the opportunity to pontificate on the subject.
  • "Going Once" — A monologue in which an auctioneer shows off a woman who is putting herself up for auction to the highest bidder.
  • "The Best Daddy" — Lisa's got the best daddy in the world. After all, he bought her a pony for her birthday. Too bad he shot it dead.
  • "The Lifeboat is Sinking" — Jen and Sherwin sit safely on their bed playing a game of Who-Would-You-Save-If—the family was drowning.
  • "Smile" — Bender and his henchmen have found the man responsible for the phrase Have a nice day, and they're going to make him pay.
  • "Watch and Dry" — Marianne stops by the laundromat, but she's horrified to discover that her laundry hasn't been cleaned.
  • "Thinking Up a New Name for the Act" — Pete thinks that the phrase meat and potatoes is the perfect name for their vaudeville act.
  • "Buy One, Get One Free" — Two hookers who speak in rhymes are offering the deal of the century, offering a golden opportunity to passersby.
  • "Blind Willie and the Talking Dog" — Blind Willie begs for money as his dog argues that they could use his talent to make some real money.

Shel's Shorts was produced in repertory as two separate evenings under the titles Signs of Trouble and Shel Shocked by the Market Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts in December 2001. Signs of Trouble was directed by Wesley Savick, and Shel Shocked was directed by Larry Coen. "The Devil and Billy Markham" was published in Playboy in 1979. It was written as an epic poem in doggerel form. It was then adapted into a solo one-act play that debuted for the first time on a double bill with Mamet's "Bobby Gould in Hell" in 1989, with Dennis Locorriere (primary vocalist in Dr. Hook) as the narrator.

Personal life

Silverstein had two children. His first child was daughter Shoshanna (Shanna), born June 30, 1970, with Susan Hastings. Susan Hastings died 5 years later, on June 29, 1975, in Baltimore, Maryland. Shoshanna's aunt and uncle, Meg and Curtis Marshall, raised her from the age of 5 until her death of a cerebral aneurysm in Baltimore on April 24, 1982, at the age of 11. She was attending the Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore at the time of her death. Silverstein dedicated his 1983 reprint of Who Wants a Cheap Rhinoceros to the Marshalls. A Light in the Attic was dedicated to Shanna, and Silverstein drew the sign with a flower attached. Shoshanna means lily or rose in Hebrew. Silverstein's other child was his son Matthew, born on November 10, 1983. Silverstein's 1996 Falling Up was dedicated to Matt. Matthew's mother is alleged to be the Sarah mentioned in the other thanks that appears on the dedication page.

Late in life, Silverstein loved to spend time at his favorite places, such as Greenwich Village, Key West, Martha’s Vineyard and Sausalito, California. There is a possibility that he served as the model of Father Grigori in the game Half Life 2. Silverstein continued to create plays, songs, poems, stories and drawings until his death in 1999. He died at his home in Key West, Florida on May 9, 1999,[6] of a heart attack, and his body was found by two housekeepers the following Monday, May 10. It was reported that he could have died on either day that weekend.


Silverstein wrote the music and lyrics for "A Boy Named Sue" (which was performed by Johnny Cash and for which Silverstein won a Grammy in 1970). He was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe for his song "I'm Checkin' Out" for the film Postcards from the Edge. He was posthumously inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2002.[7]


The few interviews he did give throughout his life gave insight to his thinking patterns. One example of these interviews:

Question: "Why do you have a beard?"
Shel: "I don't have a beard. It's just the light; it plays funny tricks."

Question: "How do you think your present image as world traveler, bawdy singer, etc. combines with your image as a writer of children's books?"
Shel: "I don't think about my image."

Question: "Do you admit that your songs and drawings have a certain amount of vulgarity in them?"
Shel: "No, but I hope they have a certain amount of realism in them."

Question: "Do you shave your head for effect or to be different, or to strike back at the long-haired styles of today?"
Shel: "I don't explain my head."

—Shel Silverstein (1965) from the album I'm So Good That I Don't Have to Brag.

Silverstein did not really enjoy interviews and because of this, he did not interview very much. Once in an interview he was asked about creativity and being an artist. This was his reply:

“I think that if you’re truly creative, you can work in certain related fields of creativity, but then there are others that are beyond you. For instance, a man who works well with words might work as a writer and as a poet and as a lyricist. But if he tried to work in sculpture, he might get absolutely nowhere. And a guy who is very visual might easily work in painting and drawing, could also work in costume design, if he leaned that way, could work in stage setting, and in those related fields. I do believe that a person who is truly observant in one of the arts will be truly observant and sensitive in the others as well, but it’s his ability to express these things that would limit him. I believe that a man who is a sensitive painter is sensitive to life, and therefore would be sensitive as a writer or as a storyteller, but having the ability to write is something more than merely seeing. Having the ability to paint is something more than merely seeing the colors, seeking the form. It’s in execution, in skill.”

— Shel Silverstein (1963) in an interview with Aardvark magazine.


Silverstein believed that written works needed to be read on paper—the correct paper for the particular work. He usually would not allow his poems and stories to be published unless he could choose the type, size, shape, color, and quality of the paper himself. Being a book collector, he took seriously the feel of the paper, the look of the book from the inside and out, the typeface for each poem, and the binding of his books. Most of his books did not have paperback editions because he did not want his work to be diminished in any way.




  • Gold, Marv. Silverstein & Me (2009) Red Hen Press
  • Rogak, Lisa. A Boy Named Shel: The Life and Times of Shel Silverstein (2007). ISBN 0312353596
  • Flippo, Chet. (1998). "Shel Silverstein". In The Encyclopedia of Country Music. Paul Kingsbury, editor. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 484.
  • Pond, Steve. The Magical World of Shel Silverstein. Playboy (U.S. edition) 1/2006, pp74–78 & pp 151–153.

German-language sites


External links

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