Happy Birthday, Shel Silverstein!

Authors, Banned and Challenged Books

Today, we celebrate what would have been Shel Silverstein’s 91st birthday. 

Shel Silverstein, born Sheldon Allan Silverstein in Chicago on September 25th, 1930, is probably best known for his work in children’s literature, specifically children’s poetry. However, he was a man of many talents. He also authored a few books for adults, traveled the world as a cartoonist for Playboy magazine, recorded almost a dozen albums (including writing a song performed by Johnny Cash!), and wrote several plays. His work garnered a trove of awards, including a couple of Grammys, the New York Times Outstanding Book for Children award (for Where the Sidewalk Ends), and School Library Journal’s Best Books for Children award, among others. 

Silverstein’s children’s poetry is known for its fantastical humor and thoughtful lessons. His words often make the reader laugh out loud, and sometimes even cry. With such a beloved reputation, you would think there’s no way Silverstein also had a reputation for banned books. However, he is a frequently banned and challenged author, and his book, A Light in the Attic comes in at number 51 on the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books List, 1990-1999. 

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)
If you have to dry the dishes
And you drop one on the floor
Maybe they won’t let you
Dry the dishes anymore

        –     How Not to Have to Dry Dishes, A Light in the Attic (1981)

Cover of A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein, published in 1981

One of the first challenges came in 1985. Cunningham Elementary School in Wisconsin banned the collection, claiming that the poem “How Not to Have to Dry Dishes” “encouraged children to break dishes so they wouldn’t have to dry them”. A year later, another school in Wisconsin argued that some of the poems “glorified Satan, suicide and cannibalism, and also encouraged children to be disobedient.” One poem, “Little Abigail and the Beautiful Pony”, shocked parents because Abigail, a little girl who begs her parents for a pony, dies at the end from sadness over not receiving the desired pony. A parent at Fruitland Park Elementary School in Florida said of the poem, “It teaches children to manipulate their parents.” One of my favorite challenges occurred in Pennsylvania, where a parent objected to the poem “Dreadful” in Where the Sidewalk Ends. They claimed the line “someone ate the baby” might “encourage children to engage in cannibalism”. 

Shel Silverstein died from a heart attack on May 10, 1999, at the age of 68. His books have sold millions of copies worldwide and have been translated into over 30 languages. Though his poems are often remembered for their slapstick humor, his enduring legacy is a man who understood the mind of a child. He knew their hopes, their anxieties, their sorrows. And he knew how to write in such a way that encouraged and reminded children they weren’t alone in their feelings. In fact, Silverstein himself said that he often wrote sad endings, such as in The Giving Tree, because he didn’t want children who experienced hard times in life (as we all do) to feel that their story was singular. Rather, he wanted them to know that life was often hard, but he coupled that with poems that also demonstrated hope, even in hard times. 

Listen to Mustn’ts, child, listen to the Don’ts.
Listen to the Shouldn’ts, the Impossibles, the Won’ts.
Listen to the Never Haves, then listen close to me.
Anything can happen, child, Anything can be.

        –     “Listen to the Mustn’ts, Where the Sidewalk Ends (1974)

Happy Birthday, Shel Silverstein!

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