"And now, children, your Uncle Shelby is going to tell you a story about a very strange lion -- in fact, the strangest lion I have ever met." So begins one of Shel Silverstein's very first children's books, Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back.
It's funny and sad and has made readers laugh and think ever since it was published in 1963.
It was followed the next year by two other books. The first, The Giving Tree, is a moving story about the love of a tree for a boy. In an interview published in the Chicago Tribune in 1964, Shel talked about the difficult time he had trying to get the book published. "Everybody loved it, they were touched by it, they would read it and cry and say it was beautiful. But . . . one publisher said it was too short . . . ." Some thought it was too sad. Others felt that the book fell between adult and children's literature and wouldn't be popular. It took Shel four years before Ursula Nordstrom, the legendary editor at Harper Children's books, decided to publish it. She even let him keep the sad ending, Shel remembered, "because life, you know, has pretty sad endings. You don't have to laugh it up even if most of my stuff is humorous." Ultimately both adults and children embraced The Giving Tree.
Shel returned to humor that same year with A Giraffe and a Half.
If you had a giraffe . . .
and he stretched another half . . .
you would have a giraffe and a half . . .
is how it starts and the laughter builds to the most riotous ending possible.
Shel's first collection of poems and drawings, Where the Sidewalk Ends, appeared in 1974. It opens with this invitation:
If you are a dreamer, come in.
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer . . .
If you're a pretender, come sit by my fire,
For we have some flax golden tales to spin.
Shel invited children to dream and dare to try the impossible, from making a hippopotamus sandwich to drawing the longest nose in the world, to writing about eighteen flavors of ice cream and Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout who wouldn't take the garbage out.
With his second collection of poems and drawings, A Light in the Attic, in 1981, Shel asked his readers to turn the light on in their attics, to put something silly in the world, and not to be discouraged by the Whatifs.
Last night, while I lay thinking here,
Some whatifs crawled inside my ear
And pranced and partied all night long
And sang their same old Whatif song:
Whatif I'm dumb in school?
Whatif they've closed thw swimming pool?
Whatif I get beat up?
Whatif there's poison in my cup? . . .
Instead he urges readers to catch the moon or invite a dinosaur to dinner -- to have fun! School Library Journal not surprisingly called A Light in the Attic "exuberant, raucous, rollicking, tender, and whimsical." Children everywhere have agreed and Shel's books are now published in 30 different languages.
Yet Shel did not set out to write and draw for children. As he told Publishers Weekly in 1975, "When I was a kid . . . 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. . . . So I started to draw and write. I was lucky that I didn't have anyone to copy, be impressed by. I had developed my own style."
He grew up in Chicago and created his first cartoons for the adult readers of Pacific Stars and Stripes, when he was a G.I. in Japan and Korea in the 1950s. He also learned to play the guitar and to write songs, including "A Boy Named Sue" for Johnny Cash and "The Cover of the Rolling Stone" sung by Dr. Hook. He performed his own songs on a number of albums and wrote others for friends, including his last in 1998, "Old Dogs," a two-volume set with country stars Waylon Jennings, Mel Tillis, Bobby Bare, and Jerry Reed. In 1984, Silverstein won a Grammy Award for Best Children's Album for Where the Sidewalk Ends -- "recited, sung and shouted" by the author. He was also an accomplished playwright, including the 1981 hit, "The Lady or the Tiger Show." He and David Mamet each wrote a play for Lincoln Center's production of "Oh, Hell," and they later co-wrote the 1988 film, "Things Change," which Mr. Mamet also directed. A frequent showcase for Shel's plays, the Ensemble Studio Theatre of New York produced Shel's "The Trio" in their 1998 Marathon of one-act plays.
Yet Shel Silverstein will perhaps always be best-loved for his extraordinary books. His latest collection, and his last book to be published before he sadly passed away in 1999 ... was Falling Up (1996). Like his other books, it is filled with unforgettable characters such as Screaming Millie who "screamed so loud it made her eyebrows steam." Then there are Danny O'Dare the dancing bear, the Human Balloon and Headphone Harold, and a host of others.
Shel was always a believer in letting his work do the talking for him. So come, wander through the Nose Garden, ride the little Hoarse, and let the magic of Shel Silverstein open your eyes, tickle your mind, and show you a new world.
Upside-down trees swingin' free,
Busses float and buildings dangle:
Now and then it's nice to see
The world -- from a different angle.