Shel SilversteinShel Silversein

poet, writer, illustrator, cartoonist, composer, performer, singer, guitarist and recording artist (1930-1999)

He was born in Chicago, Illinois, USA to Nathan and Helen Silverstein on September 25th, 1930, as Sheldon Allan Silverstein. In the 1950's he served in the United States Armed Forces during the Korean War in Japan and Korea where he also drew many cartoons in the employment of the Pacific Stars and Stripes. Since his childhood Silverstein has had a natural talent for drawing and writing, claiming that they were the only things he had any luck with.

"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' 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." (Jean F. Mercier. "Shel Silverstein," Publishers Weekly, February 24, 1975).

Silverstein also published cartoons on a regular basis in Playboy Magazine from 1956 onwards. In the early 60's he was drawn to the folk scene around Chicago's Gate of Horn and New York's Bitterend, becoming a respected composer in the folk genre himself. Many of his works have been used by artists such as Johnny Cash, Irish Rovers, Brothers Four, Lynn Anderson, Loretta Lynn, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bobby Bare and Dr.Hook. His collaborations with Dr. Hook were the most fruitful producing a series of successful singles and records for the band. 

Silverstein's most well known works, it seems, are those for children. His work seems to be timeless in that it appeals to all ages, even though most of his writing is classified for children. Adults and children alike can identify with Silverstein's writing. His poems and lyrics are generally very straight forward, simple and unforgettable. In his own performances and recordings, "...he utilizes his unique voice to dramatize his songs, and his style is a blending of energy, joy, a sense of rhythm, whispers, yelps and groans." (K. Baggelaar and D. Molton, The Folk Music Encyclopedia, (1976), 353)

"While he is not actively writing or drawing he generally has a good time." (backleaf of A Light in the Attic).

"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."


We all will miss our favorite poet who passed away from a heart attack on May 10, 1999. He will be remembered for generations to come through the joy he will continue to bring to children and adults through his life's work.

Shelly Silverstein, most commonly known as Shel Silverstein, was born in Chicago, Illinois, on September 25. The books I read said he was born in 1932, but some other sources give his year of birth as 1930. His full name was Sheldon Allan Silverstein. He is best known in children's literature for his poetry; however, he was also a cartoonist, composer, lyricist and folksinger. His poem, The Unicorn Song, was recorded by the Irish Rovers. Other hit songs included "A Boy Named Sue" and "The Cover of the Rollin' Stone" for Dr. Hook. He composed the music for the movies, Ned Kelly (1970), Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Such Terrible Things About Me? (1971), and Thieves (1977). He composed music for the film, Postcards from the Edge for which he received a nomination for an Academy Award in Music for the song, "I'm Checkin Out." A man of many talents, he co-wrote the screenplay for the film, Things Change (1988) with David Mamet.

Shel began writing as a young boy in Chicago. Although he would rather have been playing baseball or chasing girls, he could not catch or hit a ball, and the girls were not interested in him. He gave his energies to writing. He developed his very own writing style at a young age and was unfamiliar with the poetry of the great poets of his time. "I was so 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 until I was around thirty (1)" By the time girls were interested in him he was involved in his work."

Silverstein's work goes beyond writing children's literature. He began his career as a writer and cartoonist for an adult magazine in 1952. He had served as a member of the U. S. military forces in Japan and Korea during the 50's. While in the military, he was a cartoonist for the military newsletter, Pacific Stars and Stripes. In 1980, he produced a new folksong album entitled The Great Conch Train Robbery. His first play, The Lady or the Tiger Show, was produced at the Ensemble Studio Theater's annual festival of one act plays.

Silverstein never planned on writing and drawing for children. His friend, Tomi Ungerer, brought him to Ursula Nordstom's office where she convinced him to do children's books. One of his earliest and most successful books, The Giving Tree, was rejected by editor William Cole. Cole 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. He hoped that people, no matter what age, could identify with his other books as well. His works include Falling Up (1996), Where the Sidewalk Ends (1981), A Light in the Attic (1981), The Missing Piece (1982), The Missing Piece Meets the Big O. He won awards for all three books: The Michigan Young Readers Award for Where the Sidewalk Ends (1981); a School Library Journal Best Books (1982) for A Light in the Attic, an International Reading Association's Children's Choices Award for The Missing Piece Meets the Big O.

Visit the American Academy of Poets Shel Silverstein Page where you will find biographical information. The site also has an article, an article, "Serious Play; Reading Poetry with Children".

A man of many talents, Silverstein wrote to reach out to as many people as he could with his writing. 
"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 its 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."

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