Shel Silverstein

Ivor Griffiths, Poet, Novelist & Short Story Writer

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Shel Silverstein
Born September 25, 1930
Chicago, Illinois
Died May 10, 1999
Key West, Florida

Sheldon Alan "Shel" Silverstein (September 25, 1930 – May 10, 1999) was an American poet, songwriter, musician, composer, cartoonist, screenwriter and author of children's books. He sometimes styled himself as Uncle Shelby especially for his early children's books. To this day he remains one of the most beloved authors of children's books in the United States.

Silverstein confirmed he never studied the poetry of others, and therefore developed his own style: laid-back and conversational, occasionally employing profanity and slang.


  • 1 Biography
  • 2 Writings
  • 3 As a songwriter
  • 4 Personal life
  • 5 Interviewing Shel
  • 6 Books
  • 7 Albums
  • 8 Popular culture references
  • 9 References
    • 9.1 Book
    • 9.2 Audio
    • 9.3 German-language sites
  • 10 External links


Shel Silverstein's first book, Grab Your Socks! (1956) collected his early 1950s cartoons for Stars and Stripes.
Shel Silverstein's first book, Grab Your Socks! (1956) collected his early 1950s cartoons for Stars and Stripes.

Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, Silverstein's talents were already developed by the time he served in the U.S. armed forces. Silverstein was stationed in Japan and Korea in the 1950s, and while in the military, he was a cartoonist for the Pacific edition of the military newspaper, Stars and Stripes.

His name is most commonly known for writing and illustrating his children's literature including The Missing Piece, A Light In The Attic, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Falling Up, The Giving Tree, and A Giraffe and a Half.

For adults he wrote Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book, a satirical mock children's book, and created Different Dances, a coffee table book of wordless, adult-themed cartoons. He continued to write colloquial poetry on occasion throughout his life, including a rap version of Shakespeare's Hamlet that was published (on yellow-beige specialty paper) in Playboy magazine in 1998. He also co-wrote the screenplay Things Change with David Mamet.

In 2005, Silverstein's last book, Runny Babbit: A Billy Sook, was published posthumously. As the title suggests, every poem and illustration in the book consists of spoonerisms. In an NPR interview, Mitch Myers, Shel Silverstein's nephew, who wrote the liner notes for a "Best of Shel Silverstein" CD and helped compile the new collection of poems, said, "I think he wasn't sure about how it would be received. It is and was very different. And it's not easy, even for adults to read. I think, actually, younger children have a better time at it because they're not so preconceived in their notions of how words work. And the playfulness of it really comes across."


Silverstein's goal was not to write for children when he first started his career. Silverstein's editor and friend Ursula Nordstrom dragged him "kicking and screaming" before he began to write children's poetry. But after having used his clever, silly ideas in his first book, Silverstein decided that he enjoyed the product and wanted to do it again.

Penzler has since published two more anthologies, Murder for Revenge (1998), and Murder for Obsession (1999), both of which feature Silverstein contributions. As Penzler's blurb about Silverstein from Murder for Revenge states:

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.

And there's still more: 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 generously 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.

As a songwriter

Silverstein's passion for music was clear early on as he studied briefly at the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University. As a songwriter, Silverstein kept a low profile but cast a long shadow. He tended to shun publicity and even photographers. Nonetheless, his musical output included many songs which were hits for other artists.

Most notably, he wrote the music and lyrics for "A Boy Named Sue" that was performed by Johnny Cash (for which he won a Grammy in 1970), "One's on the Way" (which was a hit for Loretta Lynn), and The Unicorn Song, which, despite having nothing to do with Ireland nor Irish culture, became the signature piece for The Irish Rovers in 1968 and is popular in Irish pubs all over the world to this day. Another Silverstein song recorded by Cash is "25 Minutes To Go", sung from the point of view of a man facing his last 25 minutes on Death Row, with each line of the song counting down one minute closer. He wrote the lyrics and music for most of the Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show songs, including "Cover of the Rolling Stone", "Freakin' at the Freakers' Ball", "Sylvia's Mother", and the cautionary song about venereal disease, "Don't Give a Dose To the One You Love Most". He also wrote many of the songs performed by Bobby Bare, including "Marie Laveau", "Rosalie's Good Eats Cafe", "The Mermaid", "The Winner", and "Tequila Sheila". The song "The Ballad of Lucy Jordan", recorded in 1979 by Marianne Faithfull and later featured in the films Montenegro and Thelma & Louise, was also by Silverstein, as was "Queen of the Silver Dollar", which appeared on Emmylou Harris' 1975 album Pieces of the Sky. He was nominated for an Oscar for his music for the film Postcards from the Edge. He also composed original music for several other films, and displayed a musical versatility in these projects, playing guitar, piano, saxophone, and trombone.

Silverstein also had a popular following on Dr. Demento's radio show. Among his most popular songs were, "Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout (Would Not Take The Garbage Out)", "The Smoke Off" (a tale of a contest to determine who could roll—or smoke—marijuana joints faster), and "I Got Stoned and I Missed It". He also wrote "The Father of a Boy Named Sue", in which he tells the story from the original song from the father's point of view, and the 1962 song "Boa Constrictor" that is sung by a man who is being progressively swallowed whole by a snake, although it is now better known as a children's playground chant.

A longtime friend of American singer and songwriter Pat Dailey, Silverstein collaborated with Dailey on the (posthumously released) 2002 Underwater Land CD. It contains 17 children's songs written and produced by Silverstein and sung by Dailey. Silverstein also appears along with Dailey on a few tracks. The album also contains artwork by Silverstein.

Silverstein was posthumously inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2002.

Personal life

Shel had two children. His first child was daughter Shoshanna (Shanna), born June 30, 1970, with Susan Hastings. Susan Hastings died 5 years later, on June 29, 1975, in Baltimore, Maryland. Shoshanna's aunt and uncle, Meg and Curtis Marshall, raised Shanna from the age of 5 until her death of a cerebral aneurysm in Baltimore on April 24, 1982 at the age of 11. Shanna was attending the Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore at the time of her death. Shel dedicated his 1983 reprint of Who Wants a Cheap Rhinoceros to the Marshalls. "It was the single most devastating event of his life, and he never really did recover from it", says a close friend. Had Shanna lived, she would have been 28 at the time of Shel's death. A Light in the Attic was dedicated "to Shanna", and Shel had drawn the sign with a flower attached. Shoshanna means 'lily' or 'rose' in Hebrew.

Shel's other child was his son Matthew, born in 1984. Shel's 1996 Falling Up was dedicated to Matt. Matthew's mother is alleged to be the "Sarah" mentioned in the other thanks for Falling Up.

Shel Silverstein died sometime during the weekend of May 8, 1999, in Key West, Florida of a heart attack. His body was found by two housekeepers the following Monday, May 10. It was reported that he could have died on either day that weekend (Saturday or Sunday).

Interviewing Shel

Shel had his own view of how his life started out:

"When I was a kid—12, 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.

--(Jean F. Mercier. "Shel Silverstein", Publishers Weekly, February 24, 1975).

Shel Silverstein 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:

"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. But for them, not for me. 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."

--Shel Silverstein, from Publishers Weekly, February 24, 1975

Shel did however give a few more interviews in his life, each of which helped to contribute insight into his convoluted thinking patterns. One example of such interviews:

Question: "Why do you have a beard?" Shel: "I don't have a beard. It's just the light; it plays funny tricks." Question: "How do you think your present image as world traveler, bawdy singer, etc. combines with your image as a writer of children's books?" Shel: "I don't think about my image." Question: "Do you admit that your songs and drawings have a certain amount of vulgarity in them?" Shel: "No, but I hope they have a certain amount of realism in them." Question: "Do you shave your head for effect or to be different, or to strike back at the long-haired styles of today? Shel: "I don't explain my head.."

--(1965) from the album "I'm So Good That I Don't Have to Brag."


  • Grab Your Socks! (1956)
  • Now Here's My Plan (1960)
  • Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book (1961)
  • A Playboy's Teevee Jeebies (1961)
  • (Uncle Shelby's story of) Lafcadio: The Lion Who Shot Back (1963)
  • A Giraffe and a Half (1964)
  • The Giving Tree (1964)
  • Who Wants a Cheap Rhinoceros? (1964)
  • Uncle Shelby's Zoo (1964)
  • More Playboy's Teevee Jeebies (1965)
  • Where the Sidewalk Ends (1974)
  • The Missing Piece (1976)
  • Different Dances (1979)
  • A Light in the Attic (1981)
  • The Missing Piece Meets the Big O (1984)
  • Falling Up (1996)
  • Runny Babbit (2005) (published posthumously)

Silverstein believed that written works needed to be read on paper, and with the correct paper for the work. He usually would not allow his poems or stories to be published unless he could choose the type, size, shape and color of the paper himself. Being a book collector, he took the feel of the paper, look of the book from the inside and out, the type for lettering of each poem, and the binding of his books very seriously. He did not allow his books to be published in paperback, as he did not want his work to diminish in any way.


  • The Noodle and his Kaboodle (Cadet Records) (1959)
  • Hairy Jazz (Elektra Records) (1959)
  • Inside Folk Songs (Atlantic Records) (1962)
  • I'm So Good That I Don't Have To Brag (Cadet Records) (1965)
  • Drain My Brain (Cadet Records) (1967)
  • A Boy Named Sue And Other Country Songs (RCA Records) (1969)
  • Freakin' At The Freaker's Ball (Columbia Records) (1972)
  • Crouchin' On The Outside (Janus Records), collection of I'm So Good... and Drain My Brain (1973)
  • Songs & Stories (Parachute Records) (1978)
  • The Great Conch Train Robbery (Flying Fish Records) (1980)
  • Where The Sidewalk Ends (Columbia Records) (1984)
  • A Light In The Attic (Columbia Records) (1985)
  • The Best of Shel Silverstein: His Words His Songs His Friends (Columbia Records) (2005) (released posthumously)
  • Underwater Land (with Pat Dailey) (Olympia Records) (2002) (released poshumously)

Shel Silverstein also recorded numerous unreleased songs. Some were found at A&R Recording studio in New York, but never officially released—though bootleg albums of these exist. These songs are generally more vulgar than his other material. Most are thought to have been recorded around 1969-1970, although they resemble the Songs & Stories musical and lyrical style of 1978.

Popular culture references

  • Canadian post-hardcore band Silverstein takes their name from Shel, and also recites Where the Sidewalk Ends in its entirety at the end of their song "Forever and a Day". The band's bassist, Billy Hamilton, has a tattoo with a picture from Shel's poem Hug O' War.
  • In Fox's Family Guy episode "Barely Legal", Quagmire helps Meg overcome her obsession with Brian by giving her a copy of Silverstein's The Missing Piece.
  • In the book, Diary of a Whimpy Kid, it is said that Shel Silverstein "looks more like a criminal or pirate than a guy who writes poems for kids."
  • A drawing from Shel Silverstein's poem "Hug O' War" can be found in the liner notes of Background by New Jersey hardcore punk band Lifetime.


  • Flippo, Chet. (1998). "Shel Silverstein". In The Encyclopedia of Country Music. Paul Kingsbury, Editor. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 484.


  • WFMU: Unreleased demo: Shel Silverstein: "Terrible Thing"

German-language sites

  • Die überdrehte Welt des Shel Silverstein. Leben, Lieder und Texte eines Multitalents (ORF, Spielräume vom 28. Mai 2006)
  • Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show & Shel Silverstein Pop-Alphabet
  • Weinend am Telefon. Zum Tod von US-Multitalent Shel Silverstein] ("Der Standard", 12./13. Mai 1999)
  • Zum 75. Geburtstag des Kinderbuchautors und Songwriters Shel Silverstein (Wiener Zeitung, Extra vom 23. September 2005)
  • Shel Silverstein at the Internet Movie Database
  • Shel Silverstein and other famous poets, their poems, photos, biography.
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