April 03, 2014


The Giving Tree. By Shel Silverstein. Harper. $16.99.

Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back. By Shel Silverstein. Harper. $16.99.

Don’t Bump the Glump! and Other Fantasies. By Shel Silverstein. Harper. $17.99.

A Giraffe and a Half. By Shel Silverstein. Harper. $16.99.

Where the Sidewalk Ends. By Shel Silverstein. Harper. $18.99.

     It has been fully half a century since the first publication of The Giving Tree and Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back and other early more-or-less-children’s books by the multiply talented Shel Silverstein (1930-1999). Just in case the time period was unclear to anyone, the new editions of four Silverstein books bear gold “50th Anniversary” stickers on their covers, while a fifth book, Where the Sidewalk Ends, has a red-and-white “40th Anniversary” sticker and is labeled “Special Edition: 12 Extra Poems.” Silverstein was indeed known for his poetry, but not only his poetry; and he was indeed known for his books for children, but not only his books for children. In fact, the phrase “more-or-less-children’s books” is as applicable to much of Silverstein’s work as it is to Dr. Seuss’ The Butter Battle Book and Oh, the Places You’ll Go! The justly famous The Giving Tree, for example, is a touching, even tear-jerking little fable about love, loss and the inevitable changes wrought by age – it looks like a children’s book, and it is written in simple language, but its message has resonance and meaning far beyond what most young readers will understand. For some reason, this and the other re-released Silverstein books are designated as for ages 4-8; but while kids in that age range will generally be able to read the words, there is no way they will pick up on many of the sentiments and messages – or, if they do, they will likely find them somewhere between incomprehensible and disturbing.

     That may in fact have been Silverstein’s point in books such as the one about Lafcadio. Significantly longer and more wryly amusing than The Giving Tree, the Lafcadio story (which was Silverstein’s first book) is a fable about identity: what makes a man a man, a woman a woman, a child a child, and – more directly to the point – a lion a lion. Although addressed directly to “children” by “Uncle Shelby,” and containing many amusing elements, such as speculation as to whether lions run “lickety-split” or “clippety-clop” or even “pippety-pat,” Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back explores issues of identity quite profoundly enough to intrigue adults. Certainly Lafcadio does plenty of lion-ish things, including eating the unpleasant hunter to whom he tries to surrender and later eating other hunters to get the bullets he needs to practice shooting the gun that he took from the first hunter; but he also does plenty of person-ish things, from talking and arguing to becoming famous, walking on his hind legs and dressing in human clothing. Lafcadio eventually has an identity crisis, which Silverstein shows quite clearly even without using that exact phrase, and – this is the crux of what makes this book adult-ish – it is not resolved, not really, the concluding sort-of-happy ending seeming tacked-on and not being likely to fool any but the youngest readers. Silverstein uses language simple enough for children in order to communicate ideas far more complex than most kids will be accustomed to encountering in books with so pleasant a surface appearance and such intriguing illustrations (Silverstein was quite a fine cartoonist, with an instantly recognizable style). The new editions of these Silverstein classics provide an extra hint of the underlying seriousness of their contents through the author photos on their covers – the picture on the back of The Giving Tree, in fact, is so severe that it may scare some children away from the book.

     Some Silverstein, though, is lighter fare, albeit often with an attitude that would not be out of place in the work of Charles Addams. Don’t Bump the Glump! and Other Fantasies has some of the sensibilities of Jack Prelutsky’s absurdist poetry for kids, but Silverstein is more sarcastic and darker. In “The Gletcher,” he draws an empty birdcage with its lock and door torn off to illustrate a quatrain: “See the Gletcher in his cage,/ His claws are sharp, his teeth are double./ Thank heaven he’s locked up safe inside,/ Or we’d all be in terrible trouble!”  Another quatrain, “Slithergadee,” has a two-page-spanning drawing of a slithery something with an evil look in its eye: “The Slithergadee has crawled out of the sea./ He may catch all the others, but he won’t catch me./ No, you won’t catch me, old Slithergadee,/ You may catch all the others, but you wo—.”  Even the self-referential humor has a dark side here, as in “About the Bloath,” which shows a big-horned, rhinoceros-like creature with a little piggy tail: “In the undergrowth/ There dwells the Bloath/ Who feeds upon poets and tea./ Luckily I know this about him,/ While he knows almost nothing of me.”

     Silverstein sometimes has as much fun with real animals as imaginary ones. A Giraffe and a Half, one of his lightest books, features a house-that-Jack-built accumulation of occurrences that start with, “If you had a giraffe…/ and he stretched another half…/ you would have a giraffe and a half.” The little boy doing the stretching then proceeds to more and more outlandish things, giving the stretched giraffe a suit, a hat containing a rat, a rose on his nose (the giraffe’s, not the rat’s), and so forth, leading to such passages as: “If you gave him a flute/ and he played tooty-toot…/ you would have a giraffe and a half/ with a rat in his hat/ looking cute in a suit/ with a rose on his nose/ and a bee on his knee/ and some glue on his shoe/ playing toot on a flute.” On and on the absurdity mounts until, halfway through the book, Silverstein and the boy start taking elements away one by one, until the book ends with the plain old (although admittedly bemused-looking) giraffe with which it began. This is a silly, reasonably straightforward and amusing story with very funny illustrations that will indeed delight young children without taking them down particularly peculiar pathways.

     For a mixture of Silverstein light and Silverstein dark, Where the Sidewalk Ends is a great choice – and can stand as an introduction to Silverstein for families not yet familiar with his work. Here are the worries of Captain Hook (he must be very careful about, for example, picking his nose) and a paean to “Hug o’War,” in which “everyone kisses/ And everyone grins,/ And everyone cuddles,/ And everyone wins.” There is a poem in which rain “dripped in my head/ And flowed into my brain,” and one with a purely charming illustration of a girl thoroughly entangled in a jumping rope. But there is also edgier poetry, such as one piece in which a sadistic dentist – perfectly pictured – insists on pulling a crocodile’s teeth, until the crocodile responds in a thoroughly crocodile-ish way; one poem written by someone while he is being swallowed by a boa constrictor; and one produced by a poet from inside a lion. There are a paean to pancakes here and a tale of a toucan, an image of a Martian with all the same body parts that Earthlings have (but in different places), a very unusual take on the Paul Bunyan legend, and a whole passel of very short delights, such as “My Beard,” a suitably amusingly illustrated trifle that says all it needs to in five lines: “My beard grows to my toes,/ I never wears no clothes,/ I wraps my hair/ Around my bare,/And down the road I goes.” Generally on the lighter side but with enough pointed examples to show that Silverstein was certainly not all sweetness and light, the poems in Where the Sidewalk Ends (including a particularly thought-provoking title poem) help show why Silverstein’s not-entirely-for-children kids’ books continue to delight – and provoke – 40 to 50 years after their first appearance.

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