Shel Silverstein Critical Review

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Nicole Turner
ENC 1102
Mrs. S. Padgett-Giorda

Critical Research Essay on Shel Silverstein

While many will point to poets such as Robert Frost and Sylvia Plath when speaking intellectually about the work that was produced by their pens, one should not overlook the valuable contributions of Shel Silverstein. From his first publication, The Giving Tree, to his final work, Falling Up, Silverstein entertained generations of children and parents alike with his use of poetry. His work, specifically in 1981’s A Light in the Attic, has been used as the backbone for many educators’ introduction of poetry to students. Entries like “Hot Dog,” “Homework Machine,” “Superstitious,” “Messy Room,” and “The Sitter” work on many levels with multiple audiences. (Kimmel 3)

Silverstein was born in Chicago, Ill. on September 25, 1930 to modest beginnings. He always dreamt of playing baseball and chasing girls, but he always excelled more with a pen in his hand than he did athletically. He was a superior artist and writer from the start. He did some cartoon drawing while serving overseas in the military in the 1950s, but his real calling did not come until years later when he corroborated with Harper & Row Publishing to release his first children’s book, The Giving Tree, in 1964. Sales for the book started slowly, but after some critical acclaim, it began to fly off the shelves. The book, while in a poetic style, was not a collection of poems, like the ones for which Silverstein would eventually become best known. (Kimmel 4) He continued to produce similar work until his death on May 10, 1999.

Some have overlooked his works as only for children, but upon further examination, it is easy to see how influential Silverstein really was historically. The influence of the times in which he lived on his writing is obvious to some and not as obvious to others. Spending a great deal of his leisure time in notorious 1960s hot spots such as Greenwich Village, N.Y. and Key West, Fla., Silverstein may have been influenced by the culture that surrounded him. Themes of creativity, freethinking and originality are laced throughout his work. While he made no secret of previous drug-use during that time period, one of Silverstein’s greatest hopes was that his writing would reach many different audiences. (MacDonald 2)

This goal has come true in ways that Silverstein could probably not have imagined back when he first began his career in the mid-1960s. Because of his position as a children’s author, his politics and personal life rarely came into play when readers set out to pick up his books. In fact, Silverstein made it a point to remove himself from the public eye, especially later in his life. He had little desire to be known for any communication other than the words he was leaving behind on the pages of his text. For the most part, these words would reach people in different ways. Every reader would be entitled to gain something different from reading his work, and this is what Silverstein liked about it. (MacDonald 5)

For example, in the four-line poem “The Sitter,” he plays on the word “babysitter.” In a world where many adults take for granted the general meanings in our language, Silverstein thinks outside the box, almost like a child, and imagines someone being foolish enough to “sit upon a baby.” (Silverstein 14) The phrase that ends the short poem is absurd enough to not only make a child, who has no doubt heard his or her parent utter the word “babysitter” many times, laugh, but also makes the adults who read these poems with their children laugh as well. This creativity is a virtue rarely found in any writer, let alone a diamond in the rough like Silverstein had proven to be over the course of his 30-plus year career.

One thing Silverstein always had a knack for was reaching his audience, the children. In “Messy Room,” this is the key. Every child has come home to find their room a mess that they did not want to clean at some point....
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