This week saw the anniversary date of the publication of one of the most successful children’s books ever: WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS by Shel Silverstein (published 20 Nov. 1974). So we thought it fitting to chat about ‘ole Shel, and maybe even teach you a thing or two about one of America’s best known poets. After all, you never know when a bit of trivia could win you a million or more (or maybe impress that chick at the bar — never mind, chicks at bars are seldom impressed with trivia). Anyway…
Did you know that Shel Silverstein wasn’t “just” a poet? His first professionally published works appeared when he served in the U.S. military in Japan and Korea in the 1950s, and they were actually cartoons he created for the Pacific Stars and Stripes. While under enormous pressure from the perpetual military effort around him, he somehow thrived as he met daily deadlines to create something new and fresh for the troops — which rather suggests sometimes being a funny, cartoon artist can be quite stressful.
Once back home in the States, Silverstein submitted cartoons to magazines while making ends meet by selling hot dogs at Chicago-area ballparks (and you thought your job sucked). Eventually, a compilation of his military work appeared in book form
and voila! A star was born. Well, maybe not quite a “star” — more like a “planet” or “satellite,” even. Whatever, the thing is, he made enough money that he could chuck the dogs and buns and focus solely on his creative work.
His next step up the rungs of the success ladder came soon afterward when Playboy Magazine, for whom he’d already created a few cartoons, hired him to travel the world and report via illustrative journals in a series of installments called “Shel Silverstein visits…” Quite the enviable job! Who wouldn’t want to be paid to travel about the world and create casual reports? However, most of his readers probably felt relief and appreciation more than they felt envy — he did, after all, provide validation for all those men who claimed they bought that magazine for the articles. Theoretically, because of his hard work, they could have been telling the truth.
As the ultimate creative man, Silverstein was also a lyricist. He even won a Grammy award for a song he wrote for Johnny Cash: “A Boy Named Sue.” What he didn’t win a Grammy for, and we think he should have, is this song he performed himself:
As with everything Silverstein did, while the humor is present in the song, a poignant message is also there. With each verse, he’s proclaiming “Fuck ’em” about a segment of society, mirroring the sentiment that people often use regarding others they don’t like or disagree with. However, when those people themselves are at the other end of the “Fuck ’em” stick, they howl and proclaim it’s unfair. Yes, Shel is telling us to love and accept each other unconditionally because we, too, are not loved and accepted by someone somewhere else.
But back to what brought us to this post: the anniversary of Where the Sidewalk Ends; a book somehow beloved by people of all ages, religions, races, creeds and possibly even space-alien forms. A book written by a master entertainer, story teller, and life-lesson giver.
Yet, it’s also a book written by someone with no formal training in writing. And here’s a final take-away from Silverstein, one for all creatives everywhere:
be yourself, tell your story, draw your pictures AND SHARE THEM WITH THE WORLD. Or, as he said in an interview with Publishers Weekly:
“I think that if you’re a 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.”
Shel Silverstein, born 25 September, 1930 as Sheldon Allan Silverstein in Chicago, Illinois. Died 10 May, 1999 in Key West, Florida.
There are no happy endings.
Endings are the saddest part,
So just give me a happy middle
And a very happy start.