Shel Silverstein was an American cartoonist, author, poet, songwriter, and playwright most famous for children’s books such as The Giving Tree and Where the Sidewalk Ends. Know more about the life and work of Silverstein through these 10 interesting facts.
#1 Shel was expelled from the University of Illinois due to poor grades
Born on September 25, 1930 in Chicago, Illinois, Sheldon Allan Silverstein was the son of Nathan Silverstein, who owned a bakery shop, and his wife Helen. After attending the Theodore Roosevelt High School, Shel joined the University of Illinois but was expelled due to poor grades. He then joined the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where he dropped out. Finally he studied English for three years at Chicago’s Roosevelt University.
#2 He was about to be court martialed over a comic strip
Silverstein was drafted into the United States Army in 1953 and sent to serve in Japan and Korea. He became a journalist and cartoonist for the Pacific edition of the U.S. military’s newspaper, Stars and Stripes. Shel could have been court martialed over a comic strip which suggested that officers were dressing their families in stolen uniforms but he was able to narrowly avoid what would have been world’s first cartoon-related court martial.
#3 Shel Silverstein was a leading cartoonist in the Playboy magazine
After being discharged from the army in 1955, Silverstein returned to Chicago where he started working as a freelance cartoonist while also selling hot dogs at Chicago ballparks. His cartoons began appearing in magazines such as Look, Sports Illustrated, and This Week. In 1956, Silverstein joined Playboy. Apart from becoming one of the leading cartoonists of Playboy, Shel supplied the magazine with articles, poems and comically captioned photos.
#4 The cover image of Now Here’s My Plan is one of his most famous cartoons
Silverstein’s cartoon collection, Now Here’s My Plan: A Book of Futilities was published in 1960. It contained many of his cartoons which were first published in Playboy. The cartoon on the cover that provides the book’s title would turn out to be one of his most famous and often-cited cartoons. It shows two dying prisoners chained to the wall of a prison cell. Despite their hopeless situation, one says to the other “Now here’s my plan.”
#5 Silverstein used the alias Uncle Shelby in some of his works
In 1961, Silverstein’s satirical alphabet book titled Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book was published. Uncle Shelby was an alias Shel occasionally adopted. It represented the mischievous uncle in the family who subverted the authority of the parents and encouraged bad behavior in his nephews and nieces. ABZ Book is a black humored parody of ABC books in which children are advised to eat unripe apples and drink black ink, among other things.
#6 Shel Silverstein is one of the highest selling children’s authors
In 1963, at age 32, Silverstein published his first children’s book, Uncle Shelby’s Story of Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back. It features one of his most popular characters, Lafcadio, a marshmallow-loving lion that faces an identity crisis after becoming a celebrated marksman. Silverstein went on to become one of the most popular writers in children’s literature. Translated into more than 30 languages, his books have sold over 20 million copies.
#7 His most famous book is The Giving Tree
The Giving Tree, a children’s picture book, is the most famous work by Shel Silverstein. It took him four years to find a publisher for the book as editors found it too depressing for kids and too simple for adults. Published in 1964, interest in the book increased by word of mouth. By 2001, over 5 million copies of the book had been sold, placing it 14th on a list of hardcover “All-Time Bestselling Children’s Books” from Publishers Weekly.
#8 His poetry collections are considered classics in children’s literature
Shel is a renowned for his poems which are known to be simple, silly and humorous. His greatest contribution is “convincing millions of children that poetry is neither difficult nor threatening.” His most famous poetry collections are Where the Sidewalk Ends, published in 1974 and A Light in the Attic, published in 1981. Both these books are considered children’s classics and have had a monumental effect on how poetry is taught in American schools.
#9 Shel Silverstein wrote more than 800 songs
Silverstein was also a prominent musician. He released 9 original albums and wrote more than 800 songs. Shel didn’t enjoy mainstream success in music until someone else did the singing. Several of the songs written by Shel went on to become huge hits including A Boy Named Sue, which was made popular by Johnny Cash; and Sylvia’s Mother, the first hit by Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show. He also composed songs for several films and TV specials.
#10 He died due to a heart attack at the age of 68
Silverstein died due to a heart attack at his home in Key West, Florida on May 10, 1999. He was 68 years old. Silverstein married once to Susan Taylor Hastings but it ended in a divorce. His wife died in 1975. He had a daughter with her named Shoshanna but she too died at the age of 11 in 1982. Shel also had a son with Sarah Spencer who was named Matthew. Silverstein is buried in Westlawn Cemetery in Norridge, Illinois.