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Jewish Biography --> Biographies --> List of Jews --> Jewish Authors --> Shel Silverstein

Sheldon Allan "Shel" Silverstein (September 25, 1930 – May 10, 1999)[1] was an American poet, singer-songwriter, musician, composer, cartoonist, screenwriter and author of children's books. He styled himself as Uncle Shelby on his children's books, and some sources incorrectly state that he was born Shelby Silverstein. He signed some cartoons simply S.S. Translated into 20 languages, his books have sold over 20 million copies.[2]

  • A Boy Named Shel - The Life and Times of Shel Silverstein - Few authors are as beloved as Shel Silverstein. His inimitable drawings and comic poems have become the bedtime staples of millions of children and their parents, but few readers know much about the man behind that wild-eyed, bearded face peering out from the backs of dust jackets.
  • Shel Silverstein on "The Johnny Cash Show"
  • The Missing Piece by Shel Silverstein
  • Where the Sidewalks Ends - all Hebrew: Shel Silverstein shook the staid world of children's poetry in 1974 with the publication of this collection, and things haven't been the same since. More than four and a half million copies of Where the Sidewalk Ends have been sold, making it the bestselling children's poetry book ever. With this and his other poetry collections (A Light in the Attic and Falling Up), Silverstein reveals his genius for reaching kids with silly words and simple pen-and-ink drawings. What child can resist a poem called "Dancing Pants" or "The Dirtiest Man in the World"? Each of the 130 poems is funny in a different way, or touching ... or both. Some approach naughtiness or are a bit disgusting to squeamish grown-ups, but that's exactly what kids like best about Silverstein's work. Jim Trelease, author of The New Read-Aloud Handbook, calls this book "without question, the best-loved collection of poetry for children." (Ages 4 to 10)
  • The Missing Piece meets The Big O: All Hebrew
  • The Giving Tree: All Hebrew
  • The Missing Piece: All Hebrew

Cartoons

Born in Chicago, Silverstein began drawing at age five by tracing the works of Al Capp, as he later recalled, "The first thing I did was copy Al Capp. He really influenced me. It was the most wondrous thing for me. Al Capp knew how to draw people, shapes, bodies, hands. He knew how to draw well, so I learned how to draw well."[3] 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."[4]

He attended the Art Institute of Chicago but left after one year. 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 layouts and paste-up. His first book, Take Ten, a compilation of his military Take Ten cartoon series, was published by Pacific Stars and Stripes in 1955.

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.[5]

Mass-market paperback readers across America were introduced to Silverstein in 1956 when Take Ten was reprinted by Ballantine Books as 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 his regular "Shel Silverstein Visits..." 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, 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.

"Now here's my plan..."

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 Simon & Schuster 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." Shel 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."[2]

Silverstein's cartoons appeared in every issue of Playboy from 1957 through the mid-1970s, and one of his Playboy features was expanded into Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book (Simon & Schuster, 1961), his first book of new, original material for adults. Because some were confused whether it was for adults or children, the 1985 reprint had a conspicuous cover label, "A Primer for Adults Only".[5]

His stance on art and creativity was revealed in a 1963 Aardvark magazine interview:

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.[7]

Children's books

Silverstein's 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. In the Publishers Weekly interview, he was asked how he came to do children's books:

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.[4][8]

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. 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.[4]

A Boy Named She - The Life and Times of Shel Silverstein

 

 

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