Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Boy Named Shel

A few years ago, I was talking to my daughter's teacher and I told her how much she enjoyed Shel Silverstein poems. Her teacher told me that her older sister had dated Silverstein and did I know that he had written for Playboy magazine for many years? My barely concealed reaction along the lines of "WHAT?!" is probably what most adults of my generation would say, considering that all we know of the man is his delightful poetry and books for children. I walked away from that conversation feeling slightly dazed and curious about this man I had categorized as very talented writer for children.

Fast forward a few years and into my e-mail inbox appeared my library's newsletter with biography selections for the month. I usually skim over those because it tends to be celebrities airing their dirty laundry or shocking facts about people that I never needed to know. But this time there was A Boy Named Shel: the life and times of Shel Silverstein by Lisa Rogak and I remembered that conversation with my daughter's teacher. I decided to find out more about this man whose poems and stories bring back some the best memories of my childhood.

Like so many artists born to immigrant families in the Depression era, Shel's artistry was seen as nonsense by his father, who wanted him to take over the family bakery in Chicago. His mother was always supportive, but his father disapproved, which fueled Shel's insecurities for his whole life. He fooled around at school and college and got by during his short time in the military by cartooning for the military newsletter. He was determined to make it as a cartoonist and never to be tied down to a family and there began his life as a wandering artist.

Shel wrote travelogues and drew cartoons for Playboy magazine for most of his career, though it tapered down as he got into songwriting, playwriting and books. The magazine was his jumping off point and the notoriety he gained there opened doors for him to explore other aspects of writing. Even though he explored so many avenues it always came down to writing. He wrote hundreds of songs for his own albums and for other artists. He drew and wrote many different books, not all for children and some of them downright pornographic. In fact, Shel loved shock value and didn't clean up his mouth for anybody. He was also a famous womanizer and fathered two children with casual sex partners. He didn't change his lifestyle for anybody and he was the type of person you took as he was or he didn't have anything to do with you.

In all, I decided that Shel was a genius at what he accomplished but I would never be interested in being his friend. He was too demanding, unpredictable, morally skewed and his attention span was way too short. But he was generous and loyal, his creativity was unparalleled and he worked harder than anybody else at what he did. It's too bad he died fairly young because who knew what else he could have created with more time. The biography was interesting to get a perspective on how he worked and how his mind functioned, but I'm content to enjoy his children's books and call that good.


  1. I remember reading your tweet about this a few days ago. I remember loving Shel as well. His poems and drawings were wonderful and creative and I liked his take on life. I agree that his creativity is unparalleled and like you would not necessarily care to have him as a friend. His lifestyle sounds like he was continually searching for some sort of happiness that always seemed to be barely out his reach.

  2. Have you read Uncle Shelby's ABZ book? It is laugh-out-loud hilarious, as are his children's poems, but you get a little insight into his more adult side. So I guess, after reading that, I'm not all that surprised that he was a little on the naughty side. Jenny, you should read it if you haven't. Your girls, on the other hand, should not.

  3. It has been a long time since I've read any Shel Silverstein, but as an adult I've decided his illustrations have just a little too much of the Bosch creep factor for my taste. Fascinating, yes, but I may need to wait until my kids are a little older to introduce them.

  4. Shel's poems were a highlight of my childhood: hilarious, absurd, unexpectedly poignant. When I read them to my children, the fun is still there, but I can detect now undercurrents of angst and disillusionment with life, a slightly misanthropic worldview. I had always been led to believe that "The Giving Tree" was a heroic parable of unconditional love, but I don't quite see it that way anymore. It seems more a tale of the emptiness of unrequited love, the heartache that accompanies giving more than you will ever receive. I suppose that comes from Shels's own conflicted past, the experiences of the artist always creeping into his art.