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Shel Silverstein and the Value of Innocent Morality


Published on December 14th, 2019 at 01:18 am

By Henry Kendrick

The importance of children's poetry is far reaching. These are some of the first stories children hear from their parents, and the lessons and morals learned from them are extremely impressionable on young children, making the stories parents and caregivers choose to tell them monumentally important to a child’s upbringing and eventual worldview. The American poet and humorist Shel Silverstein (1930-1999) is among the most prolific writers for children, even after his untimely death, and his bizarre, inane, and fantastical poetry is the perfect way to teach children essential societal lessons that will be valuable to them for the rest of their lives. Silverstein was a child’s poetry giant through the late 20th century up until his death, and remains so today, as no other modern poet for children has captured imaginations and brought smiles to the faces of millions the way he has. Despite the essential nature of this type of poetry and literature, children’s poetry is one of the great unexplored areas is this field, and prolific poets like Silverstein very much define it. Part of what makes Silverstein’s poetry so engrossing to young audiences its ability to not only teach valuable lessons, but also describe relatable scenarios that a child could encounter in their early life, though often exaggerating them for comedic and hyperbolic effect. Many of Silverstein’s works contain a child protagonist agonizing through the turmoil of some sort of chore or activity they would rather not participate in, and they go to great, and absurd, lengths to get out of a less than favorable situation. One of these is “Sick”, from the collection Where the Sidewalk Ends. It features a situation that almost every young American child would find themselves in: pretending to be sick in order to not have to go to school. But Silverstein’s work is not purely comedic. Other poems, such as “The Little Boy and The Old Man” and “Jimmy Jet and His TV Set” use humor to address more sensitive subjects, especially for children. His most famous work, the children’s story The Giving Tree, is anything but humorous. The story is perhaps the ultimate portrayal of selflessness and how humanity can take advantage of such a virtue. An embrace of innocence is what defines Silverstein’s teachings to children, making the ugliest aspects of growing up something to laugh at, to be regarded as foolish. Silverstein’s inner child comes out in full force within his work, teaching children important life lessons through the lenses of someone who embraces laughter and innocence to combat the darker aspect of society that children will inevitably be exposed to.

Silverstein has three large collections of poetry, A Light in the Attic, Falling Up and Where the Sidewalk Ends. The last of which contains many of Silverstein’s most iconic poems which perfectly encapsulate his innocent, satirical style. “Sick” is one of his most popular and influential. The story of Peggy Ann McKay, one of many inanely named characters in his poems, captures precisely the attitude young children have towards going to school, and using a fake-out sick day to try and maneuver their way out of having to go. Like the vast majority of Silverstein’s poems, “Sick” is first and foremost a hyperbolic and comedic interpretation of the desperate lengths children might go to fool their parents, however it does lack a central, universal theme that permeates many of Silverstein’s other works. Without an essential lesson to be learned from this poem, “Sick” acts more as an innocent way to poke fun at childlike antics; behaviors that Silverstein’s readers will eventually grow out of. The end of the poem explicitly creates both a believable and essentially childlike action that innocently pokes fun at said behavior. The poem ends with Peggy Ann McKay learning that all her complaining and excuses are for not, when she learns it’s not a school day at all: “...My brain is shrunk, I cannot hear, /There is a hole inside my ear. /I have a hangnail, and my heart is—what? /What's that? What's that you say? /You say today is. . .Saturday? /G'bye, I'm going out to play!’” (Silverstein). Obviously, the rhyming pattern here, a simple AA, BB, CC, DD… and so on, is both repetitive when read in its entirely within the poem, and a very basic and manageable structure for children. Silverstein’s work was and is never analyzed or lauded for any sort of audacious or scholarly structure, they simply exist to entertain children while serving up easily digestible, yet critically essential, themes about societal morality. A journal article entitled “The Weirdness of Shel Silverstein” (1984), by Ruth K. MacDonald, attempts to unravel many of these essential ideas of what makes up a Shel Silverstein poem. MacDonald is quite clearly criticizing Silverstein in much of her piece, but explains many of his shortcomings as an artist while acknowledging why the poet is so beloved. As stated previously, Silverstein is certainly no magician with words, his rhyming often crude and serviceable for child’s entertainment, and MacDonald elaborates on this, saying, “So what is it about Silverstein’s books that make them a commercial success? The first possibility to be eliminated must be the literary excellence of his poetry. Rarely venturing into the uncharted territory of free blank verse except when narrating a story in near-prose form, and seldom stumbling into novel vocabulary, a Silverstein poem remains unalterably committed to traditional language, rhyme, meter, and stanzaic formats (MacDonald, 268).” While this is all true, MacDonald, in attempting to write an essay about the popularity of a children’s poet, almost seems to forget that she is, in fact, criticizing a children’s poet; one who would have no obligation to write in sophisticated and literary formats, as his audience would not even consider such an approach should be important to their enjoyment of his poetry. Silverstein’s poems often tend to have a nostalgic appeal as well, where they not only act as moral compasses for young children, but as more mature ways for older children and young-adults to laugh at and reminisce about the joys and ails of childhood and how realistically Silverstein portrays them, especially in a poem like “Sick”. MacDonald addresses this as well, pointing out the value of revisiting these poems after your early youth. She explains,

“...as children mature and approach their teens, they are able to tolerate humor with themselves as the butt. They become storytellers themselves, able to use intonation, timing, and mood to develop a story sufficiently to result in a humorous punchline. Silverstein’s longer poems lend themselves to such storytelling, especially the tall tales-...This willingness of older children to see their own behavior as the source of humor indicates a level of maturity...” (MacDonald 276).

“Sick” is exactly the type of poem MacDonald is referring to. Unlike other Silverstein’s works which are much more morality-centered, “Sick” exists purely to acknowledge the absurdity of childlike actions such as pretending to be sick in order to skip school. As such, the poem really does lend itself to a slightly older audience, as very young readers may actually take the message the wrong way and believe that Silverstein is encouraging this kind of behavior, which, due to the exaggerated nature of the poem, he is obviously not. But “Sick” is an example of Silverstein’s lightest and most easily consumable works, but his influence reaches far into the depths of truly important and essential lessons for children to be exposed to in a tasteful way.

Shel Silverstein may perhaps be one of the funniest child’s poets, but he uses his humor as spoonfuls of sugar to help address more pressing moral themes to young children. Two in particular express this: “Jimmy Jet and His TV Set”, and “The Little Boy and The Old Man”. “Jimmy Jet” is the less subtle of the two, as it consists of a boy who watches TV so much he turns into one, and once again Silverstein uses his simplistic rhyming structure and expressive language to make the pint as clear as possible: “He watched till his eyes were frozen wide,/And his bottom grew into his chair./And his chin turned into a tuning dial,/And antennae grew out of his hair. (Silverstein).” The rhyming here is as simple as can be expected, an A,B,C,B rhyme that repeats for five stanzas. During the height of Silverstein’s writing period, worries such as this were becoming more prolific as television grew and grew in popularity, and children began to put down books in favor of a screen for the first time. The journal article “From Tennyson to Silverstein: Poetry for Children” (1986), by Nancy Larrick, brings up these two poems as examples of children’s poetry that are, as she calls them, decidedly “not sweet”. Larrick elaborates, “And certainly Shel Silverstein is never ‘too sweet’ - not by any measure. Read ‘Jimmy Jet and His TV Set” (1974) - about a boy who watched television so continuously that he grew into the set himself - and you see Silverstein pushing his humor to make a vivid protest. Or read ‘The Little Boy and the Old Man” (1981) and you recognize his ability to touch the heart strings without a trace of sweetness (Larrick 599).” This excerpt perfectly explains why Silverstein’s poems are so essential to the early learning of young children, as they provide and enjoyable, understandable, and logical foundation for what is expected of a child in order to be a kind, decent individual in their life. For children without strong parental figures, Silverstein gives them a moral compass to cling onto for the rest of their lives. The second poem mentioned, “The Little Boy and The Old Man”, is one of Silverstein’s most touching and important poems. It lacks all of his signature humor and zany language for something intimate and valuable. In order to see its full meaning, it must be presented in its entirety:

Said the little boy, "Sometimes I drop my spoon."
Said the old man, "I do that too."
The little boy whispered, "I wet my pants."
"I do that too," laughed the little old man.
Said the little boy, "I often cry."
The old man nodded, "So do I."
"But worst of all," said the boy, "it seems
Grown-ups don't pay attention to me."
And he felt the warmth of a wrinkled old hand.
"I know what you mean," said the little old man. (Silverstein)

This is Silverstein’s most layered and nuanced work, featuring not just a connection between the young and the elderly, but a portrayal of getting old, remembering childhood, and also the alienation between children and adults that occurs during this period in a child’s life. This old man is perhaps the only adult the child has had a real, relatable conversation with, and it’s extremely moving in its simplicity and good nature. This is why Shel Silverstein’s poems are so valuable, but there is only perhaps one other story that is more influential to the growth of a child’s moral mindset.

The Giving Tree is not a traditional poem, but it is Shel Silverstein’s most famous and important work, and it deserves an analysis. The story is simple, timeless, and yes, perhaps quite naive. The Journal Article The Other Giving Tree (1979), by Jaqueline Jackson and Carol Dell, criticizes the story by presenting an alternative, far more thought-provoking rendition of the classic book. Jackson and Dell write, “It is hard to believe that anyone would take Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree seriously, as an admirable story of selfless giving (Jackson and Dell, 427).” They argue that the premise itself is so unrealistic, it fails to teach children the true lesson. Their version goes like this: There is still one boy, but there are two trees. The boy still wants to take things from the trees, but one refuses to comply, so after years of giving her materials to the boy, once again now and old man, one tree is now a stump, the other is still perfectly intact. One day, the old man is sitting on a stump but gets very hot, he asks the other tree for shade, and the other tree finally gives him what he wants. The stump then weeps in shame for her failure. This story is indeed far more thought provoking than Silverstein’s raising the question of whether Silverstein’s works are too easy for children to swallow. Perhaps he could have been a more respected artist if he had taken a different approach. Regardless of whether Silverstein’s work is actually the best story to tell children, it had still become a worldwide phenomenon and will continue to do so for as long as Silverstein’s messages remain timeless.

Shel Silverstein’s poems are all about the innocence of morality at such a young age as his audience is. They teach children about the lessons they will learn in life and about how to be a good person in an unfair world. They are so good at creating moral foundations for our youth that for decades now, Silverstein has been the go-to poet for teaching children grand Aesopian morals, while making the laugh at the same time. Silverstein’s poems may not have much to say about the human condition itself, but they are perhaps children’s first exposure to the concept as a whole, and how multifaceted it really is in real life. Despite their bizarre humor and ridiculous word choice, Silverstein’s poems are always grounded back to reality with strong, universal lessons about society and what it means to be a truly virtuous and honest human being; ideas that should be entrenched in children’s minds from the minute they open one of his books.

Works Cited

Jackson, Jacqueline, and Carol Dell. “The Other Giving Tree.” Language Arts, vol. 56, no. 4, 1979, pp. 427–429. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41404822.

Larrick, Nancy. “From Tennyson to Silverstein: Poetry for Children, 1910-1985.” Language Arts, vol. 63, no. 6, 1986, pp. 594–600. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41405484.

MacDonald, Ruth K. “The Weirdness of Shel Silverstein.” Studies in American Humor, vol. 5, no. 4, 1986, pp. 267–279. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/42573672.

Silverstein, Shel. Jimmy Jet and His TV Set. Harper and Row Publishers, 1974

Silverstein, Shel. The Little Boy and the Old Man. Harper and Row Publishers, 1981

Silverstein, Shel. The Giving Tree. HarperCollinsPublishers, 1964.

Silverstein, Shel. Sick, from Where the Sidewalk Ends. Harper and Row Publishers, 1974

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