The cover of The Giving Tree

The Early Life of the Talented Shel Silverstein

Today, September 25th, is Shel Silverstein’s birthday! You have almost certainly heard of Shel Silverstein from his books of poetry, his cartoons, and his children’s books, including The Giving Tree. Silverstein had a remarkable life, both before and after his career took off. His early life was full of several events that shaped the writer he would eventually become.


Shel Silverstein smiling while holding a guitar.

Image via the Poetry Foundation


In honor of Shel Silverstein’s life and work, here are a few stories from his life before fame.


He was drawn to comics by growing up during the Great Depression.


Silverstein was born in 1930 to Nathan and Helen Silverstein; Nathan was a co-owner of a bakery, (the other owner being Nathan’s brother, Jack) which provided the family’s income. Shel’s birth was timed rather unfortunately, as he arrived when Great Depression was just in its early stages, and by the time his sister Peggy was born in 1934, the family was really suffering from the economic strain.


An illustration of a crowd looking up, drawn by Shel Silverstein

Image Via InspireMore


Nathan found himself working overtime to try to compensate for the Depression’s losses, and in the remaining time he was able to be at home, the stress made him less than pleasant to be with. He and Helen would argue frequently, and Shel took to reading comics and drawing to cope with the stress. This only exacerbated his father’s irritation, but his mother was supportive.


He failed out of college.


Shel Silverstein is proof that grades and talent are not inextricably linked. Shel’s doodling habits followed him into school, leading him to slack off in his studies (again, not pleasing his father in the slightest, but he retained his mother’s support). After attending Roosevelt High School in his native Chicago, he went on to enroll at the University of Illinois.





Shel didn’t do very well in college and was expelled after only a year for poor grades. Whether that can be attributed to his difficulty adjusting to college or to his over-prioritization of drawing is uncertain, but we do know that he later went to the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, where he again had to leave after a year due to his being rather stubborn about his style of drawing. Finally, he went to Roosevelt University to study English, but after three years, he was drafted into the U.S. Army.


He was nearly court-martialed for one of his comics.


While serving in Japan and Korea during his military career, Silverstein was a contributor to the army’s publication, Pacific Stars and Stripes. Here he used some skills he learned from working on Roosevelt University’s paper, for which he would submit cartoons and writing in addition to helping lay out the paper.


Silverstein’s humor would often ruffle the feathers of his superiors, but his work was published anyway. However, one comic in particular appeared to cross the line. The comic in question implied that officers were stealing uniforms to clothe their children.


A Silverstein comic in which a man stands with his children, who are all wearing different kinds of uniforms, including an army uniform, and the caption is "... and then we all went home and put on our father's old uniforms"

Image via Stars and Stripes


While it may seem like a harmless joke, especially given that no officers were named and it didn’t seem to be a serious accusation, Silverstein’s higher-ups were not pleased. Although everything turned out all right eventually, Silverstein was nearly court-martialed over the comic, which would have been a history-making event.


Shel Silverstein's signature

Image Via Wikipedia



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