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Who is Shel Silverstein?

By Phil Shepley
Updated Mar 06, 2024
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Shel Silverstein was born Sheldon Allan Silverstein on September 25, 1930 in Chicago IL. He was widely known as an award-winning children’s author and illustrator, but was also a composer, folk singer, playwright, and prolific writer and poet. His best-known works are The Giving Tree, Where the Sidewalk Ends, A Light in the Attic, and Falling Up.

Shel Silverstein grew up in a relatively low-class area in Chicago and quickly developed an interest in writing and drawing. He attended the University of Illinois for a year as an art student before attending the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. In September 1953, he was drafted into the Army and served in Korea and Japan. While there, he worked as a cartoonist for Stars and Stripes, a U.S. military publication.

As a civilian in 1956, Shel Silverstein took another job as a cartoonist, this time with Playboy magazine. There he went on to draw many cartoons and write many articles, his first being “Confessions of a Button Down Man.” During this time, he also became known as a songwriter. Johnny Cash made the song “A Boy Named Sue,” written by Silverstein, number one in 1969.

While Shel Silverstein had many talents, his best-known works are his children’s books. In 1963 he wrote and illustrated his successful children's debut, Uncle Shelby’s story of Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back. It was The Giving Tree, written in 1964, however, that made Shel Silverstein a household name. The simple story of a tree who gives and a boy who takes has had wide appeal for both children and adults. The Giving Tree was not without controversy, however, as its simple premise opens itself up to a wide variety of interpretations. Some of these interpretations assert that the book has religious implications, for example, while others accuse it of being anti-feminist.

Once an author creates a book that causes so much controversy, the same is sure to follow in subsequent works. This was true with Where the Sidewalk Ends: Poems and Drawings (1974), The Missing Piece (1976) and The Missing Piece Meets The Big O (1981), which also continued to generate critical praise while upholding the popularity of Shel Silverstein and his work. The controversy has sometimes even led to the banning and challenging of his books in schools and libraries. A Light In the Attic, published originally in 1981, is the most famous for this, having been challenged because it supposedly “promotes disrespect, horror and violence.” The book made it on the American Library Association’s (ALA) list of “The 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000.”

Aside from writing his immensely popular children’s books, Shel Silverstein was known as somewhat of a Renaissance Man. He wrote and assisted in writing several plays, most notably The Lady Or The Tiger Show (1981) and the screenplay for the movie Things Change (1988). He wrote and composed music and lyrics for many artists and released his own country album, The Great Conch Train Robbery, in 1980. Throughout his life he also continued working as a reporter and a cartoonist.

Shel Silverstein published another acclaimed book of poetry and drawings, Falling Up, in 1996, three years before his death. He passed away on May 10, 1999 in Key West, Florida, leaving his estate to his son Matthew. Runny Babbit: A Billy Sook was published after his death in 2005, once again to critical praise.

PublicPeople is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By anon77542 — On Apr 14, 2010

Shel Silverstein was a genius. I gave copies of his books of poems to all my daughter's friends when they were young, for birthday presents. His books are great reading for the young and the old. When he died, my daughter who was eight years old said, "oh! no more poems!" and burst into tears.

He was right behind Jim Henson as a childhood hero in our house! Thanks, Shel, RIP.

By dmobile215 — On Apr 14, 2010

Shel Silverman this is a very interesting subject to read on more like a interesting person to read about. I never heard of him until now. Thanks for sharing that information. Dmobile215, Philadelphia

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