If you were lucky you grew up reading the work of Shel Silverstein, the poet and illustrator behind "The Giving Tree", "Where the Sidewalk Ends" and "A Light in the Attic."
As a child of the '80s, I had a "Giving Tree"-like relationship with the author. I figured he'd keep feeding my brain forever. When he died in 1999, it was hard to accept that all the morbidly humorous and unconventional secrets he had to share with children had all gone to print. Surprise.
A post-humous collection of 145 Silverstein poems has landed on bookshelves today. "Every Thing On It" was curated and released by Shel's family after editing down from an archive of over 1500 of the author's unpublished poems. Once a week for a year, the family would gather together to read aloud his works and narrow down the selection. "We believe ... that poems need to be read out loud," Silverstein's nephew, Mitch Myers told NPR. "This is one of the joys of the book, and we really were able to determine if it really worked when we said it out loud." Now a new generation of kids gets to feel like they own a part of the Shel mythology.
The thing about Uncle Shelby, as he referred to himself in his work, was that he wasn't exactly a children's author, but an ally. Long before "Falling Up" and his grammy-winning audio narrations, he was a contributor to Playboy magazine and author of an "adults-only" mock children's book that extolled the pleasures of playing hop scotch with real scotch and tossing questionably explicit eggs. It was patented Silverstein, poking holes in the insular walls adults built for children.
When he began crafting books for kids, it was the same formula only for a more impressionable audience. Silverstein's drawings of bizarre two-headed people, his rhymes about perfectionist children who died unsatisfied ("almost perfect but not quite"), weren't as bawdy at his adult work, but they didn't shy from quenching children's creepy cravings. They also repeated one lesson that virtually no other children's author (aside from from Roald Dahl) would dare suggest: go ahead, think about death.
In his life, death was a recurring theme. His wife died five years after giving birth to their daughter, Shanna. At 11, Shanna died of an anyeurism. "A Light in the Attic" is dedicated to her. His gentle nudging of the taboo topic we're most fascinated with seeps into much of his work. And it's a large part of why I personally loved him as a child. Few other adults knew how to handle those questions we had without trying to answer them.
Silverstein's work was more about the curiosity factor. The cover of "Where the Sidewalk Ends" is the perfect example: a little boy at the end of the earth, sniffing underneath it. In his newest work, more than one poem addresses the topic with his patented dark humor. ""There are no happy endings./ Endings are the saddest part,/ So just give me a happy middle/ And a very happy start."
Silverstein entertained kids by crossing the border between the things we talk about and the things we're not to mention. It's what poet and artists do, but few do it so well.