Something about Shel

Sunday, May 22, 2005
Children and parents listened to readings at a book party at Poets House in New York to celebrate Shel Silverstein's poems on April 30.

NEW YORK -- There was Lazy Jane, and Hector the Collector, Dirty Dan and Benjamin Bunnn. The Yipiyuk, The Flying Festoon and the Glurpy Slurpy Skakagrall.

And then there was Reginald Clark, an unassuming child with a pleasant face and a fear of the dark. All he wanted was his teddy bear, some stories and hugs, and -- this one is critical -- that we not close the book on him.

Poor Reginald. Of course, that's exactly what my father did over and over and over again, a devilish look on his face as the halves of the tattered book crept closer and closer to each other, snapping shut to delighted shrieks from me and my older brother, Benjamin.

"Do it AGAIN!" we'd demand, nestled next to him on our old red sofa in our house on Star Route in Gouldsboro, Maine. And he would.

My mom says I was about 4 and Ben 5 when our parents began reading Shel Silverstein to us, after my dad discovered "A Light in the Attic" during his "endless, constant browse through the world of kids' books, inspired by Ben's birth."

For the most part, reading together was one of our "dad" things, along with swimming in nearby Jones' Pond, treks into the woods to find each year's Christmas tree and, much to my father's eternal dismay, miniature golfing. His quest to fish beautiful and intelligent books from the treacly soup of the children's sections in bookstores continues to this day, as he searches for gifts and adds to his own collection.

And, of course, "A Light in the Attic," along with "Where the Sidewalk Ends," "The Giving Tree" and the rest of Silverstein's strange and wonderful books.

Now, there's a new one, "Runny Babbit," posthumously published in March -- Silverstein died in 1999 of a massive heart attack at age 68. All in all, I can proudly say my family accounts for at least seven of the 25 million Silverstein books sold thus far.

His spare, black and white drawings are messy, often perverse. The inked lines seem carelessly tossed onto the page, belying HarperCollins' executive editor Antonia Markiet's memory of Silverstein as an "untiring perfectionist."

"Every word mattered, every line in a drawing mattered, no matter how small," Markiet explained in an interview she insisted be conducted by way of e-mail.

"Children in particular are very aware of when they are being condescended to. Shel never did that. He did not try to guess what a kid might like because he knew what HE liked and he trusted that connection," Markiet said in her e-mail. "He didn't think anything was beyond his audience, or too hard for them, or too complex for them."

Silverstein's writing, though not without morals and messages, is just as surprising as his drawings. A creative writing professor of mine used to talk about "strangering" a poem -- making the ordinary strange through unexpected detail and use of language. Silverstein was a strangering master. His books are singular creations among the hyper-colored, cloying gunk usually passed off on kids.

In "My Beard," a small, bald man with prominent nose and bushy brow scuttles along a road rendered in one uneven black line. His eye (he is in profile) is big and round, almost worried. We see just a hint of his bum, his little feet and hunched shoulders -- the rest is all beard: "I never wears no clothes,/I wraps my hair/Around my bare,/And down the road I goes."

If the beard were shorter and the eye more commanding, it would be an exact self-portrait, matching the sultry black and white photograph of Silverstein, feet bare and guitar in hand, on the back of "Where the Sidewalk Ends."

Twenty or so kids jostled and squirmed on colorful woven mats in the Poets House in the downtown neighborhood of Soho, as their parents looked on. The first-ever Shelebration was about to begin.

"We don't have a fire here at the Poets House, just the warm glow of the projector," showcase coordinator Mike Romanos quipped, referring to the screen filled with Silverstein's drawings and set up behind him in place of a fireplace.

It was a rainy Saturday, the kind of spring morning we would have spent reading by our fireplace, Dad's voice zooming from nasal whine to awe-struck whisper to silly growl. Instead, I had to make do with strangers' renditions -- albeit pretty good ones, including 20-year-old Ryan Hoffman's falsetto reading of "Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back."

Younger participants were far more matter-of-fact, whether reading their favorite Silverstein poems or their own creations, such as this gem by 8-year-old Najaya Royal: "Roses are red/violets are blue./I'm from Florida/and so are you."

Safia Karasick Southey read "Hug O' War." The 7-year-old poet looked quite fetching in her black beret, short skirt and pink "No Autographs Please" T-shirt.

Why does she like Silverstein so much?

"I like his poetry because I just do."

I couldn't have said it better myself.

"Runny Babbit" has been sitting on a chest of drawers in my living room for weeks now, waiting for me.

Admittedly, I'm a little worried that it will fail to meet the magical standard set on my parents' living room sofa 23 years ago.

But mostly I think I'm waiting for the right reading companion -- a little someone snuggled next to me, waiting to be amazed. Maybe I should yell Silverstein's "Invitation" from the rooftops and see who yells back. Kids will get first crack, of course, but exceptional grown-ups might be considered:

"If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,

A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer ...

Come in!

Come in!"

Books by Shel Silverstein

* "Where the Sidewalk Ends"

* "The Giving Tree"

* "A Giraffe and a Half"

* "A Light in the Attic"

* "Falling Up"

* "Lafaciado, the Lion Who Shot Back"

* "Who wants a cheap Rhinoceros?"

* "The Missing Piece"

* "The Missing Piece meets the Big O"

* "Runny Babbit"

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: