Shel Silverstein began writing when he was twelve years old. He would have preferred to be playing ball with children his age, but he had no athletic ability. Also, girls showed no interest in him, so he began to write. He was not familiar with the style of any famous poets. Since he had no one whom he could mimic, he began developing his own technique. In the 1950’s, Silverstein enlisted in the armed forces and served in the Korean War.
During his time in the military, Shel Silverstein worked as a cartoonist for “Pacific Stars and Stripes,” a Pacific-based U.S. military publication. After completing his military duty, he was hired as a staff cartoonist for “Playboy” in 1956. Silverstein contributed several poems including “The Winner,” “Rosalie’s Good Eats Cafe,” and “The Smoke-off” (see links below to read some of these) and wrote the books “Playboy’s Teevee Jeebies” and “More Playboy’s Teevee Jeebies: Do-It-Yourself Dialogue for the Late Late Show.” In 1963, at the suggestion of fellow illustrator Tomi Ungerer, he was introduced to Ursula Nordstrom who convinced him to begin writing for children. One of Silverstein’s most popular books, “The Giving Tree,” was published in 1964. Ironically, just a few years prior, editor William Cole rejected this book, claiming that it wo uld never sell because it fell between the interests of children and adults. In 1974, Shel Silverstein wrote “Where the Sidewalk Ends,” which won the New York Times Outstanding Book Award, 1974, and went on to win the Michigan Young Readers’ Award, 1981, and the George G. Stone Award, 1984. He wrote “The Missing Piece” in 1976, a non-traditional books which Silverstein himself sees as being a little “disturbing” because of the unique ending he chose for the book. “A Light In the Attic,” a collection of poems and drawings, was published in 1981, and won Best Books, School Library Journal, 1981. This book also won the Buckeye Awards, 1983, and 1985, the George G. Stone Award, 1984, and the William Allen White Award, 1984. The 1981 publication, “The Missing Piece Meets the Big O,” a sequel to “The Missing Piece,” won the International Reading Association’s Children’s Choice Award in 1982. His most recent book, “Falling Up: Poems and Drawings,” appeared in bookstores in 1996, and has been praised by critics everywhere. Silverstein currently writes and draws for “Playboy,” which published his poem “Hamlet as Told on the Street,” in the January 1998 issue.
Shel Silverstein was drawn to folk music in 1960 and later became a respected composer. He wrote the lyrics for and composed “A Boy Named Sue” in 1969, which became a number one hit for Johnny Cash. He appeared in and composed music for the film “Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Such Terrible Things About Me?,” which opened in 1971. In 1980, Mr. Silverstein released a country music album that he recorded entitled “The Great Conch Train Robbery.” Shel Silverstein co-wrote the soundtrack for the 1990 film “Postcards From the Edge,” which was nominated for an Academy Award for best song in 1991, and for a Golden Globe for the same category and year.
Silverstein began writing plays in 1981. One of his best known scripts, “The Lady or the Tiger Show,” was a one-act play first produced in New York City in the same year. It was a satire about a game show in which contestants risked their lives by choosing between two doors: behind one is a beautiful woman, and behind the other is a tiger. He also collaborated with David Mamet on the screenplay for the 1988 Colubmia Pictures film “Things Change.” He wrote the drama “The Devil and Billy Markham” (see link below for poem and illustrations), which was combined with David Mamet’s play “Bobby Gould in Hell” under the collective title “Oh, Hell! Two One-Act Plays,” and was produced in New York at the Lincoln Center in 1989.
Shel Silverstein passed away on May 10, 1999 from a heart attack in Key West, Florida.