Happy birthday to one of the world’s most beloved children’s book authors, Shel Silverstein! Sheldon Allan Silverstein was born on September 25, 1930, in Chicago,Illinois, to Nathan and Helen Silverstein.
Growing up with his sister, Peggy, in Logan Square, a community northwest of Chicago, Shel pursued his two favorite pastimes, baseball and drawing. As an avid White Sox fan, he hoped to one day join the team, but realizing early in his adolescence that he possessed no athletic ability, drawing became his singular passion. As a student at Roosevelt High School, he tried his best to get the attention of girls—at first through his failed athletic ability, then through his art—both to no avail. Concentrating on his drawings in solitude, Silverstein had no mentor to study under and freely developed his own style.
He studied art at the University of Illinois for a year before expulsion due to grades, transferred to Chicago of Fine Arts for a year, finally to study English at Roosevelt University where he cartooned for the student paper, The Torch. He did not complete his education, however, as he was drafted into the Army during the Korean War. In retrospect, Silverstein looked upon his college years with contempt, feeling he could have seen the world rather than waste it in school.
Shel further blossomed as a cartoonist—and a reporter—during his time in the Army with his work on the Pacific edition of Stars and Stripes, lampooning the military. Still, this time help a special place in his heart and he credits it towards his artistic growth, when he also learned to play the guitar.
Upon returning home, he worked odd jobs, including a stint atComiskeyPark, while freelancing as a cartoonist before meeting Hugh Hefner. Shel then worked as a cartoonist for Playboy in 1956 while reporting stories for them from around the globe. After a severe car accident rendered him immobile, he spent his recovery time cartooning and composing music.
But perhaps the most serendipitous encounter arose when a close friend of Silverstein’s, Tomi Ungerer, introduced Shel to his editor at Harper & Row, Ursula Nordstrom. Both Tomi and Ursula persuaded Silverstein to give writing children’s books a try. The rest, as they say, is history. Among his classic children’s book collections are The Giving Tree, which a publisher rejected for being “too short”, as well as Where the Sidewalk Ends, A Light in the Attic, and Runny Babbit. Silverstein had never envisioned himself a children’s book writer and illustrator, with his darker humor and sardonic wit. Yet both playful themselves out whimsically in his collections, whether walking a fine line or something more akin to a flying trapeze.
All in all, this artist led a rather unexpected career that ranged from cartooning for the military to working for Playboy, with eventually writing and illustrating award-wining children’s books, as well as playwriting and composing film scores. It was a combination as eclectic as the man was talented. Sadly, Shel left the world on May 10, 1999, inKey West,Florida. However, his literary legacy lives on as his poetic humor continues to tickle funny bones and warm hearts around the world, both young and old.