Shel Silverstein: Poetry for Little Ears

Shel_Silverstein

I had meant to write a post about Silverstein for our poetry month a while ago, but life (literally) got in the way.

Silverstein, who had never meant to write children’s literature and who actually never even liked children’s literature, is probably best known for his children’s literature, in particular the picturebook The Giving Tree.

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The Giving Tree (1964) is an iconic piece of children’s literature that I remember reading as a child. It has received both positive and negative criticisms regarding the relationship between the boy (humans) and the tree (nature) and whether or not it is a positive relationship, as in symbiotic, or a negative relationship, where the boy (humans) is abusive to the tree (nature). While this is an interesting discussion, it is one that I’m going to leave to another time.

What I want to talk about is Silverstein’s many books of poetry for children.

To put it simply: Silverstein’s poetry is quirky and hilarious. It doesn’t necessarily follow all the poetry rules (like any children we know?), it speaks directly to the heart of the child (that mischievous, lovable core) and it is playful with language and wordplay – which I think children just love.

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From: Falling Up

It’s no secret that Silverstein wasn’t a fan of the children’s literature when he came to it (from comics (including Playboy comics) and songwriting) under the influence of his editors – one of which was Ursula Nordstrom, who you may recognize as Maurice Sendak’s friend, mentor and editor as well. He detested the genre for being condescending and generally overly didactic (a little ironic then, that his most famous book is The Giving Tree…) and so, when he came to writing poems and songs for children he sank right to the potty jokes, the puns and opened his mind to the funny questions children ask. He also illustrated all of his works with quirky little drawings that help explain the pun intended. His poems are very child centred in that they take the child’s side, which means they don’t necessarily teach a lesson, or, at least, they don’t teach a good lesson…

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From: Falling Up

But how hilarious is this poem? It’s sneaky and mischievous, it’s daring and, really, it is funny in it’s blunt and flippant tone.

On the other hand Silverstein’s poems can be incredibly empowering for the young reader. Not overly didactic but rather advice, simply put in poetry form.

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I love it. His poems are short and sweet, they are long and fantastic (in the true sense of the word), or they are something entirely different – that is, outside of the “rules” (if you can say there really are rules that are meant to be stuck to in the world of poetry).

I have been reading Silverstein out loud to my two month old and she is captivated by it – I don’t know what it is that she’s latching onto, the rhyme or the flow of the sentences but she loves it. She also laughs when I laugh, but that’s because she’s two months old. Still, I’m sticking to it, she loves it too! In fact I have been branching out and reading other poetry to her and I’m finding that in general, more than trying to get her to focus on boardbooks just getting her to listen to me read poetry while she watches my face as been a great pass-time.

🙂 Check out Silverstein’s books of poetry (Falling Up and Where the Sidewalk Ends are two that I have and enjoy) and try reading them out loud to young children – they’ll love it.

  • I love this. The best children’s authors are the ones who treat them like people, not like children.

    • Exactly! Speak to them on an equal level, have fun with it and tell a story – that’s it! 🙂

  • Ooh, Shel Silverstein was one of my favorites growing up. I did like The Giving Tree, yes, but we had a whole bunch of his books – my favorite poem as a kid was probably the king who ate peanut butter sandwiches. I had my mom read that one to me over and over. We also liked the poem, “Someone ate the baby”.

    • I’m a big fan of the stolen nap poem too 🙂

  • Lazy Jane is hands down my favorite poem of all time! I love reading my copy of Where the Sidewalk Ends that I had as a kid to my two littles.

    • Just so much fun to trip over the words! 🙂