A Chicago Gift Named Shel Silverstein

A Chicago Gift Named Shel

How might you answer if asked, “Who was Shel Silverstein?” Just who was that bald and bearded one-of-a-kind creative beloved by generations of readers?

Black and white photo of Shel Silverstein clasping his hands and leaning forward. Photo by Larry Moyer

(a) an award-winning children’s book author

(b) a poet

(c) a cartoonist

(d) an award-winning song writer

(e) a performer

(f) a recording artist

(g) an accomplished playwright

(h) all of the above

Not to worry if the correct answer (h) surprised you.  Shel Silverstein was all about surprises.

Fast facts that few folks know:

Sheldon Allan Silverstein was born, reared and educated in Chicago, though he had homes in New York, Sausalito, Martha’s Vineyard and Key West

He taught himself how to draw at the age of five by tracing Al Capp’s L’il Abner comic strips

While serving in the U.S. Army in Japan and Korea, his first published cartoons appeared in the Pacific Stars and Stripes which led to his first published book of cartoons, Take Ten

Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine gave him his first real post-Army job, publishing his travel pieces and cartoons and launching him into the entertainment world.

He wrote the Grammy-winning “A Boy Named Sue,” made famous by Johnny Cash, “The Unicorn,” made famous by the Irish Rovers, “The Cover of the Rolling Stone,” made famous by Dr. Hook, and the Oscar-nominated “I’m Checkin’ Out” sung by Meryl Streep in Postcards from the Edge; 

He was encouraged early on by playwright Herb Gardner and working with David Mamet in later years, his plays were produced in both New York and Chicago.

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

Of course, if asked the title of the 1964 Shel Silverstein children’s book that gifted him with fame, we all know the answer: The Giving Tree.      “Once there was a tree…and she loved a little boy.” As noted in the New York Times last year, readers were still choosing sides: “a tender story of unconditional love or a disturbing tale of selfishness.” According to its author, though?   “It’s about a boy and a tree.  It has a pretty sad ending.” Shel Silverstein went on to write and illustrate a bounty of books that earned him his beloved status – his poetry collections Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic, and his stories The Missing Piece and The Missing Piece Meets O.

Shel Silverstein From A Different Perspective

In Lisa Rogak’s biography of Shel Silverstein, A Boy Named Shel, musician and songwriter Chris Gantry shared that “his friend left a legacy of generosity.  He was a very giving person to the people he respected and loved.  He gave his time and occasionally his money, but more than that, he was willing to share his art with anyone who was truly interested in learning.” So it shouldn’t be a surprise that Shel Silverstein continues to gift his readers after his leave-taking in 1999.

Harper Collins posthumously published the author-illustrator’s collection of spoonerisms, Runny Babbit, in 2005, and in 2011, the illustrated poetry collection Everything On It. And despite his professed dislike of social media, Shel Silverstein has a website – www.shelsilverstein.com – from which you can order Ecards that boast his art, and even a Facebook page – www.facebook.com/shelsilverstein.

Esther Hershenhorn

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