Every Thing On It, published eleven years after Shel Silverstein's death, arrived yesterday. Homework was instantly abandoned. The Girl Who Hates To Read simply had to dive into this collection of 139 poems.
This speaks volumes.
Shel Silverstein's books are said to be for children 9 to 12. Nonsense. We started reading him when The Girl Who Hates To Read was six, and now we have the full collection. Only Roald Dahl comes close --- and he's a distant second.
What is Silverstein's appeal?
Simple: He's not full of the mealy-mouth bullshit that used to pass for children's books. Starting way back in the '60s -- when Ozzie and Harriet values were finally starting to wither and die everywhere but in kids' books -- he talked to kids with respect. He thought they were smart. And creative. And they needed to be encouraged, not sedated.
Here's Silverstein's message in 34 words:
Listen to the mustn'ts, child. Listen to the don'ts. Listen to the shouldn'ts, the impossibles, the won'ts. Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me... Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.
In Every Thing On It, he goes much further. There are poems about garlic breath and hats and why you start work in a candy store without getting sick if you insist on sampling the merchandise, but there is also this, right at the start:
Although I cannot see your face
as you flip these poems awhile,
Somewhere from some far-off place
I hear you laughing -- and I smile.
Wow, death! Once said to be an idea terrifying to kids. Here addressed directly. No wonder kids love him. [To buy Every Thing On It from Amazon, click here.]
Silverstein had no experience with children's books when he published his first, Lafcadio, The Lion Who Shot Back, in 1963.
The following year, he brought out The Giving Tree. Within the publishing world, opinion was divided. One editor said it was "too sad" and "a book for adults." Another was more direct: "That tree is sick! Neurotic!"
I loathe The Giving Tree. Silverstein casts it as a love story -- "Once there was a tree, and she loved a little boy" --- but I see it as a study of masochism. Consider: A boy plays in a tree. As a young man, he takes some of its wood to build a house. Later, he uses more of its wood to build a book. And when he is old, and the tree is just a stump, he sits on it to rest. "And the tree was happy."
Here's my take: The tree gives and gives, with no thought to itself -- like a mother who will do anything for her beloved. I think immediately of the Mel Brooks-Carl Reiner routine in which, thousands of years ago, some parents come to visit their son in his cave. It's raining. But they don't come in -- they're happy standing in the rain and looking in. Sick! Neurotic!
But what do I know? The Giving Tree has sold more than 5 million copies and is the favorite book of many.
In 1974, Silverstein published Where the Sidewalk Ends,: his first collection of poems. Instant classic! Almost five million copies have been sold -- it's the all-time leader in its category. [To buy "Where the Sidewalk Ends" from Amazon, click here.]
And then came a cascade. The Missing Piece. A Light in the Attic was a New York Times bestseller for 182 weeks. Falling Up. And Runny Babbit: A Billy Sook, a favorite in our clan. See why: "So if you say, 'Let's bead a rook/That's billy as can se,'/You're talkin' Runny Babbit talk,/Just like mim and he."
Silverstein was a ferocious worker. He wrote more than 100 one-act plays. And a batch of hit songs, of which this was the biggest:
But it's the books that stand above his other work. Even now, when much more is permitted, they still push the single most important idea we can present to our kids.
There is a voice inside of you
That whispers all day long,
"I feel this is right for me,
I know that this is wrong."
No teacher, preacher, parent, friend
Or wise man can decide
What's right for you -- just listen to
The voice that speaks inside.
Shel Silverstein's books are Exhibit A.
[Cross-posted from HeadButler.com]
Follow Jesse Kornbluth on Twitter: www.twitter.com/HeadButler