Truly, Silverstein was a man who went so much further than any one discipline or project. Today, of all days, we should take a moment and reconnect with the full array of Shel Silverstein's work.
A musician and poet in addition to being a children’s author, Silverstein established himself as a composer in Chicago where he was born. He wrote some notable songs you may have heard of, including A Boy Named Sue (which was popularized by Johnny Cash) and One’s on the Way for Loretta Lynn. Silverstein began his career by enlisting in the army in 1950 and served in both Korea and Japan. He became a cartoonist for the Stars & Stripes, learning to draw for the magazine.
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Afterwards, he continued his work as an illustrator and found acclaim when he began drawing for Playboy magazine. He doodled short cartoons for the magazine, his work appearing in every issue from 1957 to the mid 70s, where he found great popularity with the readership. While working for Playboy, he began exploring other areas of his imagination, writing songs, poems, along with self-publishing his own original cartoons. He also recorded his first album during this period, in 1959, which was entitled Hairy Jazz.
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In 1963, Shel Silverstein was approached by Ursula Nordstrom, who convinced him to try and write material for children. He did so on short notice, producing The Lion Who Shot Back, A Giraffe and a Half, and The Giving Tree in rapid succession. The third title became Silverstein’s most popular work, as its themes were ambiguous in intent and left an open question of what it meant, which made publishers initially balk. Although criticized by some for a bleak or hash worldview, The Giving Tree was nonetheless translated into 30 languages and has been a mainstay of the best children’s books of all time.
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Shel Silverstein went onto write two more children’s books in the 1970s, Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic. He passed in 1999, right at the turn of the millennium. His legacy will live on for producing some of the most thoughtful children’s books of all time and showcasing that children’s literature can be truly thought provoking while also being fun to read.
Go on and introduce your own kids to his work to celebrate his birthday!
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Though children’s books can be simple in context, the messages they leave behind are often times quite powerful. When we read them as children, they usually have no deeper meaning to us, because at that stage in our life our emotions have not blossomed. There are a few books, however, that resonate so deeply as we take a step into adulthood. In fact, the sheer truth that lies within them can prove to be quite depressing. The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein is a pure example.
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The book follows a female apple tree and a boy, who develop a relationship with each other. The tree is very “giving” and the boy evolves from a naive kid who merely wants to play, into a “taking” teenager, man, then elderly man.
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Through each stage of the boy’s life, he takes more and more from the tree to support his life, from her branches, to her apples, and finally her trunk. Throughout each stage she remains happy, despite losing so much, because she is sacrificing for the happiness of the boy.
This story is the embodiment of unconditional love. The tree was happy without her leaves, without her branches and even without her trunk. It did not matter what the boy did, as long as she could still give and make him happy, she would remain happy. His selfishness did not affect her, she was only made happy by her ability to provide him what he wanted or needed. Like a parent, the tree is happy to help in any way she can because she always sees him as her kid, or her “boy”.
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I actually believe that this story is more suitable for adults, who need to be reminded of greed and selfishness. It teaches us not to take anything for granted, and to be aware of everyone’s worth. It is a beautiful book that you absolutely need to revisit.
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