Many children grew up reading Shel Silverstein's poetry, but stories about the poet's darker side depict him in a completely different light. Hints to his creative yet twisted mind appear in some of Silverstein's creepy poems, but the real Shel Silverstein personality emerged through his work for adults, including songs, plays, and cartoons. Silverstein was a private man who never gave many interviews. Instead, he threw himself into almost every area of creative expression.
Born in 1930, Silverstein began drawing at a young age, but was quickly seen as a rebel with controversial ideas and the lifestyle of a drifter. Some of Silverstein's best books, like The Giving Tree, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and A Light in the Attic, harbor creepy insights into the genius's mind. Although these are the titles that brought him the most fame, they also created some controversy by appearing on banned book lists. So, what was Shel Silverstein like? What really lurked in the mind of a man who possessed tremendous amounts of imagination, creative passion, and a twisted sense of humor? These dark Shel Silverstein stories may help shine a little light in that attic.
Shel Silverstein had two children (at least), including a daughter named Shoshanna who stayed with her mother (his wife) until she passed away from cancer. Since Silverstein had no intention of being a father, he sent Shoshanna to live with an aunt and uncle. At the age of 11, she had a cerebral aneurysm and passed away without Silverstein really getting to know her. He was said to have always felt guilty for not spending more time with his daughter and dedicated A Light In The Attic to her memory.
In a obituary written by David Mamet, the playwright noted of his good friend's feelings about his wife and daughter's death, "And he told me that the terrible thing was not that they were dead, but that they stayed dead."
As a child, Shel Silverstein was always drawing. Growing up, he was able to translate his childhood love for art into a few paying gigs for magazines like Sports Illustrated and Look. Eventually, he landed the job that would launch his career - creating cartoons for Playboy. The magazine had started only a few years earlier and Hugh Hefner was excited by Silverstein's work, buying several of his cartoons immediately upon meeting him.
In addition to gaining a larger audience for his cartoons, the new gig at Playboy meant Silverstein was finally able to make a living as an artist. Eventually, he took on more of a writer role at the magazine, creating a series of travelogues, complete with photographs and illustrations.
Considering Shel Silverstein has become one of the most beloved children's book authors of the world, it's funny to think the thing that led him to write stories and poems for kids was his hatred of the genre. He was offended not only by the condescending writing style many children's authors used, but also the artwork. During an interview, he once ranted, "They have modern-type illustrations - some girl does a series of silly-*ss illustrations; she tries to imagine how a six-year-old would draw, and no godd*mn six-year-old wants to look at illustrations that look like they're done by a six-year-old. So they come up with a modern type of children's book that is a real atrocity."
After writing Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book: A Primer for Tender Young Minds, a children's style book that was definitely not for children, a few friends finally convinced Silverstein to give writing a real children's book a shot. Lo and behold, the books were a global hit.
Like many American men, Silverstein was drafted into the US Army in the early 1950s. He was sent to serve in the Korean War, but was luckily able to hold onto his love of art, becoming a cartoonist and writer for a military newspaper called Stars and Stripes. He quickly became known as a sort of rebel and some of his humorous illustrations received complaints from offended soldiers and officers.
In fact, a few of his cartoons almost got him court-martialed. Luckily, the controversy was caused by military officials not completely understanding Silverstein's message in the questionable pieces, and he was let off the hook. Misunderstanding or not, it quickly became evident that Shel Silverstein was not afraid of taboos, even in cartoon form.