Shel Silverstein: A Life in Doodles

Shel Silversteins newest poetry collection, Every Thing On It, was released last week, featuring pieces selected from his archives by his surviving family members.

If I may, a quick story from’90s Chicagoland:

When I was a tot and the Midwestern heatwaves threatened to melt us in our un-air-conditioned house, we had a single window unit humming along in the 8×8 sunroom where we could hole up all day with the door shut tight and wait for the discomfort to pass. I’d sit there for hours on the hottest days with a stockpile of books, and always, always at the top of the pillar were the Big Three: Where the Sidewalk Ends, A Light in the Attic, and the then-still-recently-released Falling Up.

These details are important. It’s not just any book that can sustain a less-than-ten-year-old for several hours a day, several hot days a year, every season and every bedtime. Shel Silverstein was a rare master of making books that felt, for lack of a better term, like toys, perpetually new, shining, and exciting. Reading poems like “Recipe for a Hippopotamus Sandwich” and seeing its accompanying cartoon was never short of hysterical, especially since Silverstein mastered the art of hiding or extending the joke in the illustrations. It was a real scavenger hunt, and a point of personal pride to memorize as many poems as I could, like nursery rhymes for an age set that’s presumably outgrown the unhip tales of Little Jack Horner and Mary of lamb-owning fame. Even as a kid, I knew Shel was giving me more credit than so many of his children’s author counterparts.

I think it’s also significant that, throughout our mid-90’s childhood, Silverstein was one of only a handful of important children’s celebrity figures to die, following on the tails of (and however silly this may sound, I assure you the grief felt abstractly genuine to us) Sherry Lewis, Orville Redenbacher, and Princess Di. In my household at least, these were people whose faces and names infiltrated our walls every day, and it’s something else entirely to reconfigure them as Gone.

But Silverstein’s death has never seemed to stop him from publishing. In 2005, six years after his passing, HarperCollins released Runny Babbit and just last week came Every Thing On It to round out the curiously posthumous collection. Then again, if Shel honestly wrote Every Thing In It, I’ll have no qualms with the material or its oddly meandering release date. (yuk yuk. I learned from the best, didn’t I?)

Anyway, in honor of the man who sent me all through adolescence laughing, reading, and rhyming, here’s a list of my Top Five Favorite Shel Silverstein Poems (in no particular order):

Peanut Butter Sandwich – This Where the Sidewalk Ends gem masters the art of escalation: a “silly young king” will only ever eat the titular meal, and his jaws stick shut so hard from the peanut butter that the entire kingdom has to find solutions to unstick them. More and more ridiculous attempts are made, and any young reader  can tell just why they’re laughing harder with each passing stanza: the joke keeps getting bigger, until we know it can’t sustain itself any longer. The balloon has to burst, as it were. But how? In the end, we learn a lesson in patience, too: the king’s first request after years of lockjaw is, of course, a peanut butter sandwich.

Carrots – By the time Falling Up was released in 1996, Silverstein had mastered the art of writing the poem around the accompanying image, almost as if he penned the latter first. Just look at this poem. What child could see this and not laugh, knowing their speaker’s got it all wrong? Who knew that you could design dramatic irony for seven-year-olds? And why did I try so often to replicate this image myself with baby carrots at the dinner table? (As for that last one, I actually know the answer: it was 100% hilarious, that’s why.)

The One Who Stayed – Reading Where the Sidewalk Ends years later to the kids I babysat–they’d never read the books and were thrilled whenever I brought them over–I came across this unillustrated little thing, a poem I’d completely forgotten. It seems to carry an eerie resonance now, in adulthood, as so many of Shel’s less-heralded poems do. Sort of an alternate perspective of the Pied Piper myth, the poem casts its anomalous narrator as a lucky survivor of the incident, but one who views himself as nothing more than a coward. It’s a veritable existential crisis sitting there on page 153, but most kids tear right past it to get to more pictures. I can’t say I blame them; Melinda Mae the whale-eater’s on the very next page! Besides, it leaves them something to find much later, like new, as I did, and will surely continue to do.

Rockabye – Another one of Silverstein’s masterful tactics was to make a child question the conventional wisdom of their existing lexicon — that is, he reinvented nursery rhymes and fairy tales with delicious irreverence. Rockabye, of course, is pointing out that stashing a baby in a treetop is a pretty horrible idea. Coupled with an illustration of just that, it amuses any reader by mere virtue of the fact that such an obvious thing’s never occurred to us before. We’ve always just sang the song back, full of words we’ve never voluntarily used, like “bough.” Our doodling poet here has forever changed all that, sparked something new, like the radical idea that kids are free-thinking and more than repetition machines. Who knew?

The Voice – This Falling Up throwaway was my Giving Tree, perhaps, as it turns out, even more than The Giving Tree. This poem was always there when I needed it, always a thought to wake my small self in the mornings. It seemed like all the world’s best advice rolled into an eight-line, A-B-C-B rhyme scheme. This was prayer. This was Shel Silverstein all over: procurer of all the goofiest silliness and the silliest goofiness and more wacky imagery than you could pick apart in a single heatstroked afternoon–but above that, a writer who knew exactly how much a book could hold at once between two covers, and sometimes that was sandwich-noshing kings and brave outsiders and hi-monsters and whale-eaters all side-by-side. Sometimes a child could be trusted to take it all in. Twelve years after his death, and well on my way to legitimate adulthood, I’m still taking it all in, and I’ll take in his new collection with the same attention to, and admiration for, the surprising level of detail I’m sure it contains.


There is a voice inside of you
That whispers all day long,
“I feel that this is right for me,,
I know that this is wrong.”
No teacher, preacher, parent, friend
Or wise man can decide
What’s right for you–just listen to
The voice that speaks inside.

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3 thoughts on “Shel Silverstein: A Life in Doodles

  1. Thanks for this – I love his work.

  2. […] you read my previous post on the poetic works of Shel Silverstein, then you’ll know that I vowed to read the newest […]

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