Shel Silverstein: Cartoonist, Author and Creator

28 November 2003

   For some reason, I have a soft spot for cartoons. The thick lines or squiggles, the funny gag or serious message, they all catch my attention. There are so many good cartoons that it is difficult for me to choose a particular favourite cartoonist. One artist that does come to mind is the late Shel Silverstein, the dynamic and humourous poet, playwright, musician, composer and of course, cartoonist.

    Sheldon Allan Silverstein was born on September 25, 1930 in Chicago, Illinois to parents Nathan and Helen Silverstein. The young Shel was always artistic, drawing and writing at an early age. Developing his own witty style early on, Shel said in 1975, “…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.” *(1) He graduated from Roosevelt High School about 1948 and put in a year at the University of Illinois before he was “thrown out.” He went on to study at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts and then at Roosevelt University (Chicago). Shel was drafted into the US Army in September 1953, before he could graduate.

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    After serving at several American military bases, Shel was shipped overseas to Japan and Korea. There, he joined the Stars and Stripes magazine, where it was said he “began to draw and draw furiously. His cartoons started appearing three times weekly, and they spoke the universal language of soldierdom – he was an immediate success.” *(2) Take Ten, a collection of military cartoons, became Shel’s first book, published in 1955.

    Prolific and varied in his cartooning, Shel submitted adult-style work to Playboy Magazine, which published his first cartoon in the March issue of 1956. In 1957, he began writing several pieces for Playboy including a travel series based on his trips around the world – Africa, Alaska and Hawaii included. His magazine work was published in several books, including Playboy’s Teevie Jeebies in 1960 and More Playboy’s Teevie Jeebies in 1965.

    Apparently not content with "only" magazine work, Shel wrote his first music LP in 1959, entitled, “Hairy Jazz.” His musical work lead him to become a contributor and composer of great renown, creating scores for plays and movies, and popular pieces such as “A Boy Named Sue” sung by Johnny Cash, “The Unicorn” for the Irish Rovers and “The Cover of the Rolling Stone” for Dr. Hook. (He was nominated and won numerous Grammies for his efforts.) Shel also wrote a countless number of successful plays for theater.

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   By 1963, Shel crafted several more adult humour books and produced his first published children’s book, Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back. Several of his most popular kids’ books sprang into publication in 1964 – A Giraffe and a Half, Who Wants a Cheap Elephant, and the enduring and heart-tugging The Giving Tree. (It took some effort to get The Giving Tree into print. Lots of editors loved it but thought it would not catch on. Humpf!)

Though with the hugely diverse body of admired work in his background, Shel became most popular for his children’s verse and cartoons. Where the Sidewalk Ends burst into the hearts of children and parents in 1974 with Shel’s special style of simplistic yet illuminating cartooning, and hilarious (and sometimes subversive from a parental view) poems. Similar in style to the “Sidewalk” book, A Light in the Attic was published in 1981, spending an amazing 182 weeks on the New York Times best seller list. Along with print, both books were made into recordings with Shel’s exuberant voice bringing life to the verse with delight and gusto. Over 20 years later, the books continue to be best sellers. Falling Up, a third similar volume, was published in 1996. Most popular with readers, “The Giving Tree” will be published in a 40th Anniversary edition with a CD, available for Silverstein fans some time in 2004.

    Sadly, Shel Silverstein died of a heart attack at home in Key West, Florida some time over the weekend of May 8th, 1999. His body was discovered in his bedroom by cleaning women. He was predeceased by his daughter Shonna, who died in 1982 of a brain aneurysm at the tender age of 11 and by his daughter’s mother Susan, who died in 1975. He is survived by his son Matthew, born in 1984. Posthumously, Shel was inducted to the Country Music Hall of Fame in November of this year.

    I dearly admire the work of Shel Silverstein, his special skill with a pen that could create a shoe, a wheezing dragon and smirking kids, all from a few well-placed squiggles. I admire his ability to cultivate sparkling smiles, big wet tears and guffaws of laughter for such dissimilar audiences with enormous creativity and joy. His poems and cartoons of whimsy take me back to the uncomplicated times of childhood, where The Light in the Attic could make all the difference.

Find information, games and fun at Shel Silverstein's home page:
http://www.shelsilverstein.com

Read more about Shel Silverstein's other talents by Suite author Erica Davis:
http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/learn_from_classics/89310

A short biography of Shel Silverstein:
*(1) http://www.nassio.com/silverstein/bio.html

Find an abundance of Shel's hilarious adult poems and cartoons:
*(2) http://www.banned-width.com   (No longer active)

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© Susanna McLeod 2003
TheCartoonists.ca  
       
(Originally published in The Cartoonists on suite101.com.)