Poet for Children, Dies
WILLIAM H. HONAN
Shel Silverstein, whose goofy, gross and macabre yet always
enchanting poetry for children sold more than 14 million books,
was found dead Monday morning at his home in Key West, Fla. He was
Neither the time nor cause of death had been determined Monday
afternoon, said Shel Vidibor, his friend and lawyer.
While Silverstein's talents led him into a diverse series of careers as
cartoonist, playwright, singer and song writer, it was his children's verses
are best known and often compared with masters of the form like Dr. Seuss
and A.A. Milne.
His collections of children's poetry, "Where the Sidewalk Ends: The
Poems and Drawings of Shel Silverstein" (Harper, 1974) and "A Light in
the Attic" (Harper 1981), both enjoyed long runs on the best-seller ists.
Silverstein was also the author of the children's classic "The Giving Tree"
In addition to his writings for children, he contributed cartoons to
Playbody magazine for many years and wrote nine plays for adults. In
1988, when several of those plays were packaged as "Wild Life" and
were produced at the Vanguard Theater in Manhattan, Frank Rich, in his
review in The New York Times, suggested that playwrighting "may
eventually prove his most fruitful career to date."
Silverstein's career as a children's author began in 1963 with the
publication of "Uncle Shelby's Story of Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot
This yarn about a lion who acquired a hunter's gun and practiced until
became a good enough shot to join the circus, was only a moderate
success. It was not until publication of "The Giving Tree," a story about
tree that surrenders its shade, fruit, branches and finally its trunk to
in order to make him happy, that Silverstein developed a mass following.
In 1974, when he published the collection of
poems called "Where the Sidewalk Ends," his
work was compared to that of Dr. Seuss and
The combination of silliness and sophisticated
word play in Silverstein's poetry is illustrated
by the poem "Eggs Rated" in the collection
"Falling Up" (HarperCollins, 1997). Here, the
syllable "ex" is wittily replaced by "egg," as in
"Eggstra fluffy,/Eggstremely tasty/Cooked
eggsactly right . . ." But those eggs are "much
more eggspensive than I eggspected."
Many of the poems reflect a ghoulish taste that
children tolerate better than many adults. In
the poem "Safe," also in the collection "Falling
Up," a child preparing to cross a street
carefully looks to one side and then the other
before confidently proceeding oblivious to a
steel safe hurtling down from the heavens.
Silverstein, who maintained residences on
Matha's Vineyard, Mass.; Key West;
Greenwich Village, and on a houseboat in
Sausalito, Calif., refused the grant interviews in recent years.
Shelby Silverstein was born in Chicago in 1932, and backed his way into
publishing. "When I was a kid -- 12 to 14, around there -- I would much
rather have been a good baseball player or a hit with the girls," he once
told a reporter for Publishers Weekly. "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. By the time I got to where I was
attracting girls, I was already into work, and it was more important to
In the 1950s Silverstein served with the United States armed forces in
Japan and Korea and began drawing cartoons for Stars and Stripes, the
American military publication.
When he returned to the United States, he began drawing cartoons for
Apart from his cartoons, Silverstein began writing songs in the
country-western style. In 1969 one of these, "A Boy Named Sue," was
made a hit for the singer Johnny Cash. In 1980 Silverstein recorded a
country music album called "The Great Conch Train Robbery."
Silverstein is survived by his son, Matthew, and a sister, Peggy Myers