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Shel Silverstein – A Master of the Child Mind

Shel Silverstein, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Writing for Children

I grew up with Shel Silverstein, and I have never come across another writer quite like him. His humor, sarcasm, down-to-earth, and unique style of writing never fail to make me laugh or feel completely fascinated. His silly rhymes, characters, and themes fill me with a sense of lightheartedness and remind me what it is like to be a child again. In reading his different collections and books, I have noticed that many of his works deal with common childhood issues and concerns. They teach children lessons, as well as, help others more fully understand the minds of children. The topics range from everyday childhood frustrations, such as homework and chores to serious worries, such as war and pollution. I was intrigued by this idea and decided to research this topic more in depth. In doing so, I have discovered various childhood themes he has covered in his works. These are expectations and responsibilities, selfishness and greed, fear, and self-acceptance.

Shel Silverstein focuses many of his works upon the idea that most children grow up being expected to act a certain way and live up to responsibilities created by the authoritative figures in their lives. Adults see this control over children as a means to raise respectful and responsible children, but Silverstein lets his readers understand these expectations from a child’s point of view. In his book, A Light in the Attic, his poem, “How Not to Have to Dry the Dishes,” is written from a little girl’s perspective (A Light in the Attic 12). She simply explains to other kids that if they have to dry the dishes, they should drop a dish on the floor, and it will be very possible that their parents will not make them dry the dishes anymore in fear that they will break them. Silverstein adds additional feeling to this poem by placing the girl’s negative thoughts about drying the dishes inside parenthesis. For example, he writes, “If you have to dry the dishes (Such an awful, boring chore) If you have to dry the dishes (‘Stead of going to the store)” (lines 1-4). This just makes the reader understand the girl’s frustration with this chore to a greater extent. He focuses more on the irritation of childhood chores in his poem, “Messy Room” (35).

In this work, a boy is looking in at another boy’s room and commenting about how messy it is. He goes into great detail describing the various things thrown all over the room and stuck to the wall, but at the end, cunningly says, “Huh? You say it’s mine? Oh dear, I knew it looked familiar” (lines 15-16). The end of this poem makes the reader realize just how much he knows he was expected to keep his room clean, but was too lazy and unwilling to follow through with it. Therefore, he figured he would just blame someone else and take the attention off of himself (35). Besides cleaning one’s room, taking out the garbage is another bothersome chore kids must deal with.

In Silverstein’s, “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out,” a girl refuses to take the garbage out, and it eventually piles up so high that it reaches the sky, and all of her friends and neighbors move away. Finally, she decides to take it out, but it collapses on top of her, and she dies. In this poem, Silverstein’s exaggeration emphasizes the girl’s hatred for taking out the trash, a common chore children despise but are expected to do (Where the Sidewalk Ends 70-71).

In addition to chores, children are also expected to go to school, do their homework, and go to doctors and dentists appointments. These are things most children like to avoid, and Silverstein stresses this idea in both, A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends. His poem “Hurk” is about someone who is willing to do “anything,” as long as it is not going to the dentist, doctor, or doing work (A Light in the Attic 50). Silverstein also emphasizes children’s feelings of disgust with school and homework in his poems, “Homework Machine,” “Kidnapped!,” and “Sick.” “Homework Machine” is a about a kid who attempts to create a machine that will do his homework for him (56), and “Kidnapped!” is a poem in a which a girl tells her own exaggerated and fabricated story about why she was late for school (159). She states, “This morning I got kidnapped by three masked men” (lines 1-2). Then she goes on to say that they, “Dragged me from the car down to some cold and moldy basement, where they stuck me in a corner and went off to get the ransom leaving one of them to guard me with a shotgun pointed at me, tied up sitting on a stool…That’s why I was late for school!” (18-25). Both of these poems demonstrate the extensive measures a child will take to avoid going to school or doing their homework.

He also expresses this same idea in his poem “Sick” (Where the Sidewalk Ends 58-59). A girl says she cannot go to school because she is suffering from multiple serious ailments. Then at the very end of the poem she says, “What’s that? What’s that you say? You say today is…Saturday? G’bye, I’m going out to play!” (lines 30-32). This is just another example of how badly children do not want to go to school. This girl would rather act as if she is dying than go to school. She hopes to convince her parents she is too ill to go to school, but as soon as she finds out she does not have to go, she is cured and ready to go play outside!

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Besides being expected to attend school and various appointments and carry out different chores and responsibilities, children are also expected to behave in a certain way. In “I’m Making a List,” a child makes a list of all the things he must say to be a polite and kind person (37). It makes it seem as if being respectful is a chore and takes much effort on a child’s part. Having good manners is also emphasized in “With His Mouth Full of Food” (128). In this poem, a character named Milford Dupree constantly talks with his mouth full of food, and his parents are not very fond of this habit. His father says, “Get married or go get tattooed, but don’t talk with your mouth full of food” (lines 11-12). His parents continue to plead with him not to chew with his mouth full, but he continues to do so, and they end up gluing his mouth shut. This demonstrates a child’s strong desire to just do as he pleases (128). Kids do not want so many rules, because they do not see the harm in acting the way the do. Parents place these expectations upon them, and rather than seeing it as a teaching method, they interpret it as another way for adult’s to feel powerful. This poem simply provides another peak into a child’s perspective on expectations and rules.

In the real world, expectations are placed upon everyone. Adults, as well as children, have to get up and go to certain places, do certain things, and act in certain ways, but the difference is that adults have learned that there is a good and valid reason for this. Therefore, most do not need others to force these expectations upon them, as they are very much aware of them already. The reason for this is because they were children once and felt the same way as the children in Silverstein’s various works do. They “suffered” and dealt with all the expectations and responsibilities thrown at them too, and this is why it is so interesting to see and understand how children interpret these different responsibilities being placed upon them. They have a completely different mindset about life than adults do, and Shel Silverstein hits it right on the dot. He helps older readers understand a child’s point of view on these expectations and rules, and at the same time, allows younger readers to feel like they are not alone. He lets them know that their feelings are valid and that other kids feel this way as well. Another common childhood theme Silverstein covers in his works is selfishness and greed.

Shel Silverstein focuses many of his works upon the issues of selfishness and greed, two very common issues amongst children. His very famous book, The Giving Tree, emphasizes this idea in a way that really hits home for most people that read it. It is a very touching story, but at the same time, very sad. The story begins with a tree and a little boy. The tree loves the boy, and the boy comes to visit the tree everyday. As the boy gets older, he uses the tree for play. He gathers its leaves, climbs her trunk, eats her apples, swings from her branches, and so on. This makes the tree extremely happy, because she wants nothing but for the boy to be happy, and she is thrilled to provide this happiness for him. As the boy grows older and older, he finds other things to do rather than playing directly with the tree. He asks the tree for money, takes all of her apples and branches, and finally years pass, and he comes back again to ask for wood to make a boat. He cuts down the tree’s entire trunk and there is nothing left but a tiny stump. Years later, he comes back again as a very old man, and all the tree can offer him is a place to sit. Although the tree is very happy to provide this happiness for him, as always, she is very sad that the man only loved her for what she could provide for him (The Giving Tree).

This is a very common issue with all children and their relationship with their parents as they grow older. Children need to learn early on how much their parents love them and long for their close bond to continue throughout life. Marc Gellman, a Rabbi of Temple Beth Torah in Dix Hills, New York, stated, “The love of the tree for the boy/man is a selfless love, while the love of the boy for the tree is a selfish love. The boy never tries to help the tree (by pruning it, feeding it, etc.), while the entire being of the tree is devoted to helping the boy meet his most recent need, whether trivial or essential” (Gellman). Parents are there to provide, but they are also in need of their children’s love in return. Whether it is a small favor, a hug, or an “I love you,” children need to learn not be selfish. They cannot just accept things without showing gratitude in return. Silverstein also encompasses the issue of selfishness and its tie to relationships with others in his short poem titled “Friendship” (A Light in the Attic 132).

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In this poem, a child tells another child, “I’ve discovered a way to stay friends forever – There’s really nothing to it. I simply tell you what to do and you do it!” (lines 1-4). Many young kids do not understand that in order to have a successful and genuine relationship with someone, it is important for each person to have an equal opportunity to contribute to the relationship. Once again, children must learn at a very early age not to be selfish. Someone needs to teach them the importance of giving as well as gratitude. Shel Silverstein also covers the issue of childhood greed in several of his poems.

Being selfish is not always about relationships, and Silverstein makes this very clear in his poem, “Prayer of the Selfish Child.” This poem is simply about a child who actually says a prayer that if he dies, no one will take his toys (15). This is a very simple concept pertaining to selfishness and greed, but children do experience this feeling, and Silverstein understands this. He exaggerates the ideas he tries to get across to his readers, but in doing so, truly makes his point. This poem is so simple, yet one comes away from reading it understanding how important it is to some children that they will not have to share their toys with others.

A very humorous poem that encompasses the lengths a child will go to in order to get what they want is “Little Abigail and the Beautiful Pony” (120-121). In this work, a girl begs her parents for a pony and tells them that if she does not get one, she will die. Of course, they think she is just being dramatic, but she actually ends up dying because they would not get one for her. Then, at the end of the poem, Silverstein has comically written, “This is good story to read to your folks when they won’t buy you something you want” (lines 41-44). This poem is simply meant for laughs, but it definitely does make readers realize that wanting certain things to the point of greed is something children are very well known for doing.

Another poem that teaches children not to be greedy is “Lester” (Where the Sidewalk Ends 69). It is about a man who was given one magic wish, but instead of making a worthwhile wish, he wished for more wishes. He did this until he grew old and was extremely wealthy. Then, he died never having had any true relationships or meaningful experiences with others, because he was too caught up in riches and materialistic things. Even though Lester had all the money he could ever want, his greed caused him to live a sad and lonely life and miss out on what really makes life meaningful. Silverstein made it a point to emphasize this by stating, “And more…and more…they multiplied while other people smiled and cried and loved and reached and touched and felt. Lester sat amid his wealth” (lines 18-21). This quote shows children the truly important things that they would be missing out on if they acted greedy as Lester did. Another topic commonly portrayed in Silverstein’s works is fear.

A more serious, but very real issue children deal with is fear, and Shel Silverstein has written various poems based on this matter. In his poem, “I Won’t Hatch,” a “chickie” talks to the reader and explains that it does not want to hatch, because it is scared of the troubles and problems in the world today, such as war, pollution, and noise (127). This is a very important poem for both, children and adults to read, because children need to understand that their fears are valid and that it is okay to be scared sometimes. For adults, this poem is about awareness. Many older people think that children are not aware of the dangers and problems the world is experiencing, but actually, they are very much aware of these things and worry just like adults do. Therefore, it is important for adults to listen to children and encourage them to communicate their concerns.

Silverstein also wrote a poem about the importance of facing one’s fears. It is simply called “Fear” (A Light in the Attic 136). This poem is about a boy that was sacred of drowning, so he locked himself in his room so that he would never have to swim, take a bath, or face any situation that involved water. He had so much fear that he cried until his entire room filled with tears and he drowned. Through this poem, Silverstein is trying to communicate the lesson that children have many fears in life, but if they do not learn to face them, these fears will take control and get the best of them.

Another poem, “Whatif” is simply a list of all of a child’s worries that flood his or her head while lying in bed (90). For example, he or she states, “Whatif they start a war? Whatif my parents get divorced? Whatif the bus is late?” (lines 19-21). These concerns range from trivial to extremely serious, and once again, help children open up and admit to their worries. This poem also helps adults understand that children also worry about serious matters and need someone to communicate these concerns to.

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Silverstein also wrote a couple more lighthearted poems dealing with some less serious, but very common fears children face from day to day. These are “Jumping Rope” and “Afraid of the Dark.” In “Jumping Rope,” a girl attempts to jump rope, but fails and ends up with the entire rope rapped around her body (Where the Sidewalk Ends 62). She expresses her embarrassment, “You prob’ly think that I’m a dope, but this started out as a jumping rope, and now I fear there is no hope” (lines 3-8). This poem deals with a type of fear every child faces – fear of failure and embarrassment. Although this issue may not seem as severe as other childhood issues that Silverstein covers in his works, this is actually a very common concern of children. As this age, they are developing a sense of self, and at this point in their lives, people can be very critical, and their cruel comments can be extremely hurtful. Therefore, any child would fear this criticism and want to avoid embarrassment.

Lastly, “Afraid of the Dark” is a simple and very clever poem about a boy who is afraid of the dark (159). He states that he insists on always having the light on and having various security items with him. Then, in the last line, he makes a request to the reader, “I’m Reginald Clark, I’m afraid of the dark so please do not close this book on me” (lines 9-10). By adding the clever twist of including the audience in the poem, the reader feels for this boy. Silverstein portrayed the message he was trying to get across very well. Adults and children alike can enter his world and better understand and empathize with this little boy who is afraid of the dark. They can then relate these feelings of acceptance to themselves and any friends or family members that they know who may have fears of their own.

Another issue Silverstein incorporated into his writing is self-acceptance. One of his main books, The Missing Piece dealt with this issue. In this particular work, a circle is missing a tiny wedge of himself, so it decides to go searching for it (The Missing Piece). On its journey, it sings happily and meets great friends, and eventually finds its missing piece. It is not until it starts living life as a whole circle that it realizes life was better as it was before it was complete. This book demonstrates the idea of self-acceptance despite any imperfections one may have. Children struggle with this concept, especially older children, and Silverstein wrote this book in a very subtle way so that kids could enjoy the story while still being able to pick up on the message. In a New York Times Book Review, Anne Roiphe explained,
“This fable can also be interpreted to mean that no one should try to find all the answers, no one should hope to fill all the hopes in themselves, achieve total transcendental harmony or psychic order because a person without a search, loose ends, internal conflicts and external goals becomes to smooth to enjoy or know what’s going on. Too much satisfaction blocks exchange with the outside” (“Biography”). This statement perfectly sums up what children should take away from this story. No one is perfect, and that is a good thing, because people live better and more exciting lives that way. Therefore, teaching children the concept of self-acceptance is one of the most important keys to their ability to live happy and healthy lives.

Shel Silverstein’s fascinating talent and his devotion to making people laugh, appreciate, and identify with children has not gone unnoticed. He did not begin writing for children until he was in his thirties, but has sold over 20 million books and has received awards including the New York Times Outstanding Book Award for Where The Sidewalk Ends, the School Library Journal Best Books Award for A Light In The Attic, the Buckeye Award for A Light In The Attic, the George G. Stone Award for A Light In The Attic and Where The Sidewalk Ends, and the William Allen White Award for A Light In The Attic amongst others (“Biography”).

In researching this topic, I have discovered so much more about Shel Silverstein than I originally sought out to do. As a result, I have gained even more respect for him than I had when I began my research. He is truly an exciting and intriguing writer, and as my research has demonstrated, he can cleverly incorporate many childhood issues into his writing. In doing so, he has allowed both adults and children to more fully understand a child’s mindset. His various works have dealt with issues such as expectations and responsibilities, greed and selfishness, fear, and self-acceptance. Overall, his writing has provided children the opportunity to feel more at ease and accepting of who they are, and has allowed adults to reenter the world of childhood, empathize with children, and accept the validity of a child’s concerns.

Silverstein, Shel. A Light in the Attic. New York: HarperCollins, 1981. 7-169.
Silverstein, Shel. The Giving Tree. Harper & Row, 1964.
Silverstein, Shel. The Missing Piece. New York: Harper & Row, 1976.
Silverstein, Shel. Where the Sidewalk Ends. New York: HarperCollins, 1974. 9-166.