10 of the Best Shel Silverstein Poems 

Shel Silverstein was born in September of 1930 in Chicago, Illinois. In 1963, Silverstein came into contact with a book editor, Ursula Nordstrom, who sent him on the path of children’s literature. With a background in cartoons and illustration, he was able over the next decades of his career to weave his two passions together. Tow o this most popular books, A Giraffe and a Half and The Giving Tree, were published soon after. 

After the publication of The Giving Tree, it became massively popular and has been translated into over thirty languages.  Another of his most memorable books, A Light in the Attic, was released in 81. It was followed by The Missing Piece Meets the Big O. Before Shel Silverstein’s death in 1999, he published Falling Up and Draw a Skinny Elephant.

 

Sick 

‘Sick’ tells the lighthearted story of a child who does whatever she can to convince her parents she can’t go to school. She comes up with a collection of reasons, which she thinks are perfectly valid, why she should stay home instead. As it goes on, the claims of ill health get more and more outlandish. The fact that there are so many different things she comes up with adds to the amusing nature of the text. At the end of the poem, she realizes that all these excuses her unnecessary and that it was Saturday all along.

 

Whatif

‘Whatif’ is an incredibly relatable poem that speaks on one’s most persistent worries. The speaker describes how he was trying to sleep but couldn’t stop thinking about all the “whatifs”. The majority of the poem is made up of questions the speaker does not have answers to. They build on one another until the end of the poem when the speaker alludes to the fact this cascade of emotions is likely to happen again the next night. 

 

Where the Sidewalk Ends 

‘Where the Sidewalk Ends’ looks at the differences between the adult world, portrayed as dry and harsh, and a child’s mind. Once one gets to the end of the sidewalk and leaves behind the carefully constructed real world, they can be cooled “in the peppermint wind”. There are “moon-bird[s]” and a happiness that doesn’t exist anywhere else. In the last lines it becomes clear that this isn’t a real place, but one created by children in order to escape the black smoke and dark streets. 

 

Snowball 

The speaker of ‘Snowball’, a young child, describes how he went outside on a wonderful day and made a snowball. It was “perfect” and he had no intention of throwing it away or giving it up. The speaker decided to take it inside and try to keep it. He is determined to prolong his happiness. There is humour in the fact that he doesn’t seem to realize it’s surely going to melt. 

Once inside the child makes “pyjamas” for the snowball as well as a pillow. He treats it as he would a friend or a pet. It even gets to sleep in bed with him. Everything went okay at first, that is, until morning when he wakes up and interprets the snowball’s absence as a sign it ran away. 

 

Dirty Face

This poem contains numerous amusing explanations, from a child speaker, as to why their face is so dirty. The child’s parent asks them directly what’s going on, and then the response follows in perfectly rhymed lines. They go through a variety of fantasies, adventures, as well as probable and improbable answers to the question. 

These range from exploring dark caves and silver mines to eating blackberries right off the bush. The poem concludes with the young speaker reminding the parent that it doesn’t matter what they’ve been doing, they’ve been having more fun than the parent has. 

 

Needles and Pins 

‘Needles and Pins’ is a short poem that uses repetition to get across a message about determination and industriousness. Silverstein presents a few scenarios in which the work that goes into creating a new experience or a new life is emphasized. With “Needles and pins / Needles and pins” one can “sew….a sail”. Then later, with “Hammers and nails, / Hammers and nails” one can “build a boat”.  He speaks more broadly on the creation of a ship, and how that ship will take the speaker “anywhere new”. 

 

Messy Room

’Messy Room’ is another humorous poem by Shel Silverstein that describes a very messy room and all the chaotic items it contains. The speaker exclaims over the state of a room. First, he describes the clothes that are hanging in places they definitely don’t belong to. There is a wet raincoat on a cloth chair and underwear on a lamp. The next lines describe misplaced books and papers, more clothes, and even a single ski under the TV.

 The lines progress in a list-like fashion, building off one another until the reader has a clear picture of what the room contains, By the end, one should feel revulsion on a level equal to that which the speaker has been indulging in. This makes the twist at the end all the more satisfying as the room is revealed to have been the speaker’s room all along.

 

The Bridge 

Shel Silverstein’s poem ‘The Bridge’ is meant to spark the imagination of a young reader and at the same time engage adults. The poet presents a landscape of “gypsy camps and swirling Arab fairs / And moonlight woods”. One has to use a bridge to reach this place. But it won’t reach all the way. The poem concludes with the speaker telling the reader if they want to “share / The twisting trails and wondrous worlds” then one has to take the “last few steps…alone”. 

 

Skin Stealer 

This is one of the many popular poems included in Shel Silverstein’s 1981 collection Light in the Attic. It tells the story of a creature called a “coo-coo” that climbs into the unzipped skin of the speaker. The creature was naked until it put on the “head / That once belonged to me”. It wore the speaker’s feet and ran through the “street /  in a most disgraceful way”. The speaker sees himself doing things that he would normally never do and asks that those involved do not take offence as it was “the coo-coo /Who’s wearing [his] skin”. 

Like many of Silverstein’s poems, this was can be enjoyed by adults and children alike. A child will be charmed by the outlandish scenario. At the same time, an adult can consider the underlying themes of identity and personality. 

 

Listen to the Mustn’ts

‘Listen to the Mustn’ts’ is one of Shel Silverstein’s most creative poems. It describes all the negativity a child will face in their life and encourages them to ignore these voices. Contrary to one’s exceptions, the speaker tells the child at the beginning of the poem that they must take the time to listen to all the naysayers in the world. There are the “MUSTN’TS” and the “DONT’S” as well as the “WONT’S”. All of these people will tell the child that what they want cannot and should not occur. One should hear what these people have to say, and then push their voices aside.

The most important themes of this piece are self- confidence and open-mindedness. It is in the final lines that the speaker tells the listener that anything is possible. One’s dreams can come true, all ideas are relevant and “ANYTHING can be.”

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