Shel Silverstein Comes Alive in a New Book, 12 Years After His Death

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The author and illustrator of classics like Where the Sidewalk Ends and The Giving Tree has a posthumous collection out this month, Every Thing On It

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"There's a great myth about cartoonists, writers and people that are on TV. People are always giving you credit for really wanting to say more than you said. People say, 'Boy, when you were on TV, I bet you really could have said a lot if they'd have let you,' or 'Gee, I'd like to see the cartoons that the magazine doesn't print.' This is bullshit. What you've got to say, you say. It's always a nice feeling, having people think that you feel things much deeper than you're allowed to say, but this isn't true. If you want to find out what a writer or a cartoonist really feels, look at his work. That's enough."

–Shel Silverstein, 1963

Shel Silverstein, who died in 1999 and would have celebrated his 81st birthday later this month, was a prolific perfectionist. As he said in an interview with the US Army newspaper Stars & Stripes in 1968, children's books, poetry, and songwriting appealed to him the most because "I can write a poem in 10 minutes. I like writing songs, I can write songs in 5 or 10 minutes. My concentration seems very short." This, combined with a work ethic that inspired him to work daily, even scribbling on napkins when writing materials weren't readily available, spurred Silverstein to produce over 1,000 published songs—including classics like "A Boy Named Sue," "The Unicorn," and "The Cover of the Rolling Stone," as well as more ribald material—and hundreds of poems and verses for children in bestselling collections like Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic. (HarperCollins, his longtime publisher of record, has sold more than 29 million Silverstein books in the more than 45 years he or his estate has had a business relationship.)

Feverish productivity, however, contrasted with the drive to get everything just right. The same year of Silverstein's Stars & Stripes interview, his longtime editor at HarperCollins precursor Harper & Row, Ursula Nordstrom, started sending missives to him about when the manuscript for what would eventually become Where the Sidewalk Ends would be ready. It took another six years, several missed deadlines, and many more terse messages from Nordstrom before the book was published.

As a result, what accompanies the understandable excitement produced by a posthumous Shel Silverstein publication is a small voice of uncertainty: Was Silverstein's relentless perfectionism necessary or needless? And if it was the necessary, are these new volumes, including the just-released poetry volume Every Thing On It, as good as the iconic work produced while he was alive?

Dead artists are big business. It's an old phenomenon: Vincent Van Gogh's 1890 suicide helped transform him from penniless painter to fetcher of hundreds of millions on the open art market, and James Dean stayed a star when the car accident that killed him in 1955 rendered him forever young. Example after recent example, however, plainly demonstrate the phenomenon's effect, the staggering lines outside the Alexander McQueen exhibit Metropolitan Museum of Art, Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy selling more that 50 million copies worldwide, The Pale King marking David Foster Wallace's first New York Times Bestseller List appearance three years after his suicide.

Publishing undiscovered or repackaged work by deceased creative types targets an established audience, ready, even eager, for new work. The gap between death and something new also allows newcomers to find out what made the author or artist so amazing when he or she was alive. There are notable cons: something may be new or undiscovered, but it may not necessarily be good. It may have been something intentionally buried by the artist, never meant to see the light of day. That's why it's probably a good thing we won't see the now-mythical, unfinished fourth Stieg Larsson volume, even if that same logic might have deprived us from Kafka's body of work had Max Brod not broken his promise to burn the lot.

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HarperCollins

HarperCollins published Runny Babbit: A Billy Sook, which collected a book's worth of Silverstein-penned "Spoonerisms", transposing consonants and generally embracing the inherent delight and silliness of language in 2005. And yet he first conceived of the book in 1972, working intermittently on it for the next quarter-century, never quite committing to a final version in his lifetime. As Joan Robins, who was Silverstein's editor at HarperCollins from 1972 until his death, described his creative style to Publishers Weekly, "He had mountains of poems and stories, in bits and pieces, and in different versions, written on stray pieces of paper."

"I think he wasn't sure about how it would be received," Mitch Myers, Silverstein's nephew and literary executor, told NPR upon the book's publication. "It is and was very different. And it's not easy, even for adults to read. I think, actually, younger children have a better time at it because they're not so preconceived in their notions of how words work. And the playfulness of it really comes across."

Silverstein needn't have worried; I myself called Runny Babbit his best book since A Light in the Attic. And now, with the publication of a new collection of previously unpublished material, my then-hoped-for "dearest wish" has been granted: there is more that Silverstein had to say, and his estate—Myers, in conjunction with archivist Joy Kingsolver, Silverstein's longtime literary agent Edite Kroll, HarperCollins, and others—have put together the strongest collection they could with Every Thing On It.

While Runny Babbit was united by the common theme of linguistic inversions, Every Thing On It is more akin to Silverstein's three previous poetry collections. There's a mix of shorter, zingier fare and longer pieces stuffed with wordplay that begs to be read aloud fast, with artwork that accentuates poems or delivers in a single image what would otherwise be an extraneous two or three extra lines. "Nasty School", where kids are taught very important lessons like "how pinch and punch and slam a door" or "how to ruin your teeth with sugar pops", stands out, as does the joyous list of every type of "Italian Food" in a singsong rhythm echoing the Danny Kaye classic "Tchaikovsky" (with the punchiest of punch lines to close) and "Call the Please" in which a police station turns into something far friendlier through one sibilant syllable.

Faint echoes of the past linger: A 1960s Silverstein ditty called "Dirty Feet" (the title song of a long-out-of-print collection) is transmogrified into two new poems, one with the same title, another about a "darling dirty-faced child." Silverstein's preoccupation with dentists—the subject of one of his most famous cartoons—returns several times over, either directly or with every reference to sugar and candy. And one of the cheekiest verses rhymes blizzard, gizzard, and lizard, revealing soon afterwards that the triple rhyme is the poem's point ("that, my dear, is why most poems are made").

Lurking behind the consistent sense of fun are some subtle moral lessons for children and adults alike. In "Yesees and Noees", those two camps pay for their behavior but "somehow I think the Thinkforyourselfees/All came out all right." And Silverstein wasn't one for philosophy, but "writesingtelldraw" is as close to his ethos as he ever got: with all the tall stories, sweet songs, ridiculous rhymes and pictures he produced, he seems to say to the reader, "won't you writesingtelldraw one for me?" It seems only fair, after all.

Finally, after more than 190 pages of playful glee, sly subversion and poignant reflection, Every Thing On It ends with something of a gut-punch: "When I am gone what will you do?/Who will write and draw for you?" From the vantage point of a living, breathing artist, it's a fair question, one that evokes posterity, legacy, and control. From the vantage point of posthumous publication, it's wistful elegy and promise bound in one: The poem ultimately posits that someone "smarter" or "better" may come along—the reader, perhaps?—but who could possibly accomplish as much, and with such sublime skill and talent, as Shel Silverstein?

Silverstein himself answered that question throughout his life. He encouraged and collaborated with a great many writers, artists and performers, from the famous (David Mamet, Kris Kristofferson) to next-generation (Bobby Bare, Jr.; their "I Hate Myself" was one of Silverstein's last songwriting credits) to local talent (Pat Dailey in Key West; Fred Koller in Nashville) Even from beyond the grave, Silverstein still looks to keep both peers and readers on the right track, exemplified by the poem that opens the collection: from some "far-off place," he writes, "I hear you laughing—and I smile."

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Sarah Weinman writes about books and publishing for the Wall Street Journal, The Daily, and the Los Angeles Times, among other places.

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