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Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Sidewalk Talk With Shel Silverstein

There are some books that exist in this world that for whatever reason seem to stick with you in life. No matter how old you get, and no matter how many years pass, you can look back on that book and it makes you smile every time.

As it so happens, I have a story to tell you about a book from the author of which this blog entry is based upon. Oddly enough, it takes place during a year in which I did not enjoy at all.

It was when I was in the first grade, which was a year in which I was not a happy boy. I didn't like my teacher, and I always felt as though I was more of an obstacle than an asset in that whole class. It was not my happiest experience, and if I had the chance to go back in time to that year, I would have pulled my younger self out of that classroom and taken him to a different school altogether. But, unfortunately, I don't know Christopher Lloyd, and I don't have a DeLorean that can take me through time.

But, as it so happens, I can think of one pleasant memory of first grade.

The way that the classroom schedule worked (at least as far as I can remember, as it has been twenty-five years since I began first grade), was that after the lunch period, the teacher would take attendance, and then for about a half hour, we would do some sort of math lesson. Then after the math lesson (along with the classwork that we had to work on), it would be story time. All of us kids would gather around the bright blue carpet and the teacher would grab the story time chair to read us a story, do show and tell, and play classroom games like Heads Up, Seven Up' until the afternoon recess bell sounded. Most of the time, the stories would be popular books starring the Berenstain Bears, or stories that were written by Robert Munsch. Sometimes, the teachers would even swap classrooms, and we'd have the classroom teacher from the other grade one class come in to read us stories.

(For the record, I always hated it when Mrs. Bradford had to leave...I wished that she could have stayed as our teacher instead of having the teacher that I had that year.)

However, for all the dislike that I had for the teacher I was stuck with, she did make one decision that I approved of.

Whenever she was the one who read a story to the class, I remember that she would almost always grab a specific book to read. It was a very distinctive looking book. It was bright white in colour, and had cartoon drawings all over the front cover. And whenever our teacher grabbed that lovely white book, I remember my classmates and I squealing with glee. We loved that book.

The book was actually a collection of poems. But, not just your standard, run of the mill poems. I'm talking about poems that made kids laugh. They were a collection of poems that were written for a younger audience in mind, addressing many childhood problems and concerns. Each poem was absolute genius, and conveyed every possible emotion that one could feel. In fact, I'm going to post an example from this very book right now.


Eighteen luscious, scrumptious flavours

Chocolate, lime, and cherry

Coffee, pumpkin, fudge banana

Caramel cream and boisenberry

Rocky road and toasted almond

Butterscotch, vanilla dip

Butter brickle, apple ripple

Coconut and mocha chip

Brandy peach and lemon custard

Each scoop lovely, smooth and round

Tallest ice cream cone in town

Lying there (sniff) on the ground

Poor guy. But, you can really see the change in emotion from the beginning to the end. At first it's a grand exhibit of all the different kinds of ice cream that the person has (and yes, there really are eighteen), and it sounds like a happy poem. But when you get to the end, and you realize that the kid has dropped his gigantic ice cream cone on the ground, you can't help but feel bad for the child. I mean, granted, having an ice cream cone with eighteen scoops on it is gluttonous, and my parents would never have allowed me to have an ice cream cone of that size, but I think we all have been in a situation where we have bought an ice cream and we accidentally drop it on the ground. It's happened to me, and one of the reasons why I love this particular poem is because it's an event that I lived. It's an event that a lot of kids experienced. I think the author really had a way with words, and really knew how to get the attention of his audience.

The poem comes from the 1974 book, “Where The Sidewalk Ends”. And the author of the above poem is the late Shel Silverstein.

Today's blog entry happens to be about Shel Silverstein.

My first experience with Silverstein's work was during those first grade story sessions. I was just so drawn to every poem and every word that he wrote. Who knows, maybe that book kind of opened up something inside my head, and made me realize that what I really wanted to do in life was write professionally.

Or, at the very least, write. The professional thing, I'm still working on.

“Where The Sidewalk Ends” was a classic collection of Shel's best works. With poems having titles like “Ridiculous Rose”, “Peanut-Butter Sandwich”, and “Sarah Cynthia Silvia Stout Would Not Take The Garbage Out”, it made millions of kids laugh and smile. The best part about the book was that each poem would be published alongside drawings and cartoons sketched by Silverstein himself. Take a look at another poem from the book to see what I mean.

Of course, cartooning wasn't anything new to Silverstein. It was after all how he got his start.

Born in Chicago in 1930, Sheldon Allen Silverstein started drawing at a very early age. When he was twelve, he was already tracing the works of Al Capp, the cartoonist behind the popular comic strip Li'l Abner. He graduated from high school in 1948, and shortly thereafter, attended the Art Institute of Chicago. He dropped out after one year, but around that time, his first sketch was published in the Roosevelt Torch (a student university at Roosevelt University). His cartoons also appeared in Pacific Stars and Stripes, and upon returning to Chicago published his first book (Take Ten), and had his work featured in such magazines as Sports Illustrated and Look. During this time, he supported himself by selling hot dogs at Chicago ballparks.

In 1957, Silverstein got a huge break when he became a leading cartoonist for Playboy Magazine. As a result of this job, Silverstein ended up journeying all over the world to create an illustrated travel journal with reports from out of the way places. The feature was called “Shel Silverstein Visits...”, and the feature took Silverstein to such locales as Mexico, Paris, Africa, Spain, Fire Island, the Chicago White Sox training camp, and even a New Jersey nudist colony! Silverstein created twenty-three of these installments, all of which were collected in the 2007 book “Playboy's Silverstein Around The World”.

Perhaps one of Silverstein's best known cartoons was printed in 1960, as the front cover of the book “Now Here's My Plan: A Book Of Futilities”. The cover depicted two prisoners chained to a wall with one of them telling the other one “Now here's my plan”. Many people thought that the image was too pessimistic, but Silverstein defended his work, saying that there can be a lot of hope that can be found in the most dire of circumstances, and he did the cartoon solely to encourage questioning and analysis.

But, the above book was one geared towards adults. How did he make the leap into children's literature?

It all began in 1964. 1964 was the year that Shel Silverstein wrote and illustrated the children's classic “The Giving Tree”. For anyone who has ever read the book, the book is about a little boy and an apple tree that the boy loves to hang around. The reason being that the tree basically provides the boy every single thing he desired. If the boy wanted a snack, the tree gave him an apple or two. If the boy wanted a swing, the tree allowed the boy to hang a swing from its branches. When the boy grew older, the tree actually allowed itself to be cut down so that the boy could build a boat! A few decades pass, and the boy, who is now an elderly man, comes back to the tree stump. At first the tree stump seems unhappy because after years of giving him everything he wanted, it feels that it has nothing left to give. But to the tree's surprise, the man smiles and tells the tree that he doesn't need much more than a quiet place to sit down and rest. The tree is happy to grant his request, and the man is just as happy to sit down beside his old friend once again.

As for me, I loved the story, and I highly recommend it to anybody. But a lot of critics attacked the story almost immediately after it was released. They claimed that the boy was acting very selfishly and that the book wasn't providing a good example for children. They claimed that the friendship between boy and tree was one-sided, and that the tree gave and gave and gave while the boy took and took and took.

The truth is, I see it differently...especially now that I can read it through adult eyes. The way I see it, the relationship between the tree and the boy mimics the exact relationship that a parent might share with their child. In the early years of childhood, parents do almost anything to make their children happy. They take them places, buy them things, make them lunches, provide them shelter...they do so much for their kids, usually not expecting anything in return. Parents often sacrifice a lot of their time and money to give their children opportunities and fun...much like the Giving Tree did with the young boy. A lot of parents do this because they have so much love and devotion for their children, and want nothing more than to see them happy. And, more often than not, one of the saddest moments that parents have to go through is letting their child go (whether it be for their first day of school to having the child move out to start their adult life). The parents naturally feel sad because they feel that they have done all they can do for their children, and they worry that the child won't need them anymore. So, when the child comes back home for a visit, their mood instantly perks up. Do you see the parallel between a parent/child relationship and the relationship between the Giving Tree and the Taking Boy? At least, that's how I see it anyway.

But I think that's what made Shel Silverstein such a success in the literary world. His writing was so poignant and captured so much emotion, but at the same time was ambiguous enough to leave the work open to several different opinions and viewpoints. It was brilliant to see, and he remains one of my all-time favourite authors as a result.

And it wasn't just the literary world that Silverstein thrived in. He also made an impact in the world of music, writing songs for some of the biggest artists of the 1960s and 1970s. Have you ever heard of the Johnny Cash classic “A Boy Named Sue?”

Silverstein wrote that song for Cash, and it became a number one hit for Cash in the summer of 1969, winning a Grammy Award in 1970. He also wrote songs for Waylon Jennings, Loretta Lynn, Gordon Lightfoot, and Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show. Many of the poems he wrote in “Where The Sidewalk Ends” were put onto an album release in 1983, with Silverstein shouting, singing, and performing the poems himself. The audio version of the book was so successful that Silverstein won another Grammy Award in 1984 for Best Recording For Children!

Shel Silverstein's professional life was filled with many highs, but his personal life was marked by a couple of tragedies. His love, Susan Hastings (mother of one of his children), passed away in 1975, just one day before their daughter's fifth birthday. Tragically, Silverstein's daughter, Shoshanna (the daughter he had with Hastings), passed away in 1982 at the age of eleven. He dedicated “A Light In The Attic” to his daughter, and the illustration next to the dedication was of a flower, as in Hebrew, Shoshanna means 'lily' or 'rose'. In 1983, his second child, Matthew, was born, and Silverstein's 1996 book “Falling Up” was dedicated to him.

Silverstein continued to write, draw, and and create new stories well into his final days, and in May 1999, Silverstein died at his home in Key West, Florida at the age of 68.

Although Silverstein is no longer on this Earth, his work will continue to live on. His books are still widely popular today, and if I ever have children of my own, I will definitely be picking up a copy of 'Where The Sidewalk Ends' so I may be able to share the poems that I loved as a kid with them. After all, people say that in life, you have to take the best things from each year and share them with others. And ultimately, Shel Silverstein's work was the best part of the entire first grade year.

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