By Margueritte Peterson
“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.”
Yesterday in 1999, the United States lost a fantastic poet, cartoonist, writer and amazing person – one who influenced hundreds of thousands of lives with his humorous poems and eccentric cartoons. However, we aren’t here to talk about his death – but rather to celebrate his life!
Shel (short for Sheldon) Silverstein was born on September 25th, 1930 in Chicago, Illinois. He spent all of his formative years in Illinois, attending Roosevelt High School and then the University of Illinois. Though unfortunately expelled from the University, he was then able to enroll in the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. Now, bear with me readers, as there are some contradictory articles to be found online and truthfully I can’t tell whether he was then enlisted in the army or drafted, but either way he fought in Japan and Korea sometime around 1948-1951. When he returned from the army, Silverstein spent a bit of time in college at Roosevelt University, though would later be quoted as saying his years in college were a bit of a waste. He is quoted as saying, “Imagine – four years you could have spent traveling around Europe meeting people, or going to the Far East of Africa or India, meeting people, exchanging ideas, reading all you wanted to anyway, and instead I wasted it at Roosevelt.” That being said, however, it was also when he was first published (in the Roosevelt Torch, a student newspaper)! His time at the Chicago College of Performing Arts (part of Roosevelt University) was spent studying music and composition, a talent he would pursue throughout his life.
Silverstein began submitting cartoons in many different arenas. His work could be found in the magazines Look, Sports Illustrated and This Week. In 1957, Silverstein became the leading cartoonist in Playboy, a job that opened his eyes to the world. He was sent to many countries to create an “illustrated travel journal” with descriptions of far off places. Two decades of his life were spent creating these cartoons for Playboy, and he became an adult household name through his drawing. (Though occasionally his household name was “Uncle Shelby” as that is how he referred to himself in many of his comics throughout the the 1960s and 70s – eventually publishing Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book – to the delight of many!)
Beginning in the 1960s while being published in Playboy, Silverstein began working on poems and cartoons for children. His book The Giving Tree was first published (after four years of trying to find someone willing to publish it) in 1964, and some would argue is his most classic work – having sold over 5 million copies and still amazingly popular. For the next three decades Silverstein would release many best sellers and award winning titles to the delight of children and adults alike. His children’s poems are known for their simplicity and brevity, but also for their tremendous sense of humor! All are accompanied by an intricate black and white cartoon, drawn, of course, by Silverstein himself. However, comics were not his only claim to fame – throughout his life Silverstein kept up a solid musical career as well. While working at Playboy in 1959, Silverstein recorded his first album called Hairy Jazz. It wouldn’t stop there, however, as Silverstein would go on to create over a dozen music albums over the course of his lifetime. Though one could argue that his music was not quite as popular as his comics and poetry, it is obvious that his level of creativity knew no bounds!
Though Silverstein passed away of a heart attack on May 10th, 1999, still almost two decades later his work is wildly popular with children and adults – the mark, in my opinion, of a success.