Silverstein’s incredibly popular poetry collections include A Giraffe and a Half, The Giving Tree, A Light in the Attic, The Missing Piece Meets the Big O, and more. After the publication of The Giving Tree, it became massively popular and has been translated into over thirty languages. Shel Silverstein’s poems are noted for their use of young characters, youthful depictions of the world, creatures, daydreams, and clever use of nonsense language in the vein of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. Below, explore his best poems.
Top 10 Shel Silverstein Poems
‘Sick’ is a funny poem by Shel Silverstein that tells the lighthearted story of a child who does whatever she can to convince her parents she can’t go to school.
“I cannot go to school today,”
Said little Peggy Ann McKay.
“I have the measles and the mumps,
A gash, a rash and purple bumps.
She comes up with a collection of reasons, which she thinks are perfectly valid, why she should stay home instead. As she speaks, 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 text’s amusing nature. At the end of the poem, she realizes that all these excuses are unnecessary and that it was Saturday all along. This is a classic ending to a Silverstein poem.
‘Whatif’ is an incredibly relatable poem by Shel Silverstein that speaks on one’s most persistent worries.
Last night, while I lay thinking here,
some Whatifs crawled inside my ear
and pranced and partied all night long
and sang their same old Whatif song:
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 for which the speaker doesn’t have answers. 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’ looks at the differences between the adult world, portrayed as dry and harsh, and a child’s mind.
There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright,
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 happiness that doesn’t exist anywhere else. It becomes clear that this isn’t a real place in the last lines, but one created by children to escape the black smoke and dark streets.
The speaker of ‘Snowball,’ a young child, describes a wonderful snow day.
I made myself a snowball
As perfect as could be.
I thought I’d keep it as a pet
And let it sleep with me.
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 as long as possible. There is humor 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. Lovers of The Giving Tree will also enjoy this poem.
In ‘Dirty Face,’ Shel Silverstein describes why a child’s face is so dirty.
Where did you get such a dirty face,
My darling dirty-faced child?
I got it from crawling along in the dirt
And biting two buttons off Jeremy’s shirt.
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, and 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. This poem was published in Every Thing On It in 2011.
‘Needles and Pins’ is a short poem that uses repetition to convey determination and industriousness.
Needles and pins,
Needles and pins,
Sew me a sail
To catch me the wind.
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’ is one of the more humorous Shel Silverstein that describes a messy room and its chaotic items.
Whosever room this is should be ashamed!
His underwear is hanging on the lamp.
His raincoat is there in the overstuffed chair,
And the chair is becoming quite mucky and damp.
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 all along. This poem was published in A Light in the Attic in 1981.
Shel Silverstein’s poem ‘The Bridge’ is meant to spark the imagination of a young reader and, at the same time, engage adults.
This bridge will only take you halfway there
To those mysterious lands you long to see:
Through gypsy camps and swirling Arab fairs
And moonlit woods where unicorns run free.
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”.
This is one of the many popular poems in Shel Silverstein’s 1981 collection A Light in the Attic. It tells the story of a creature called a “coo-coo” that climbs into the speaker’s unzipped skin.
This evening I unzipped my skin
And carefully unscrewed my head,
Exactly as I always do
When I prepare myself for bed.
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 offense as it was “the coo-coo /Who’s wearing [his] skin.”
Like many of Silverstein’s poems, this 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’ is one of Shel Silverstein’s best poems. It describes the negativity a child faces in life and encourages them to ignore these voices.
Listen to the MUSTN’TS, child,
Listen to the DON’TS
Listen to the SHOULDN’TS
The IMPOSSIBLES, the WONT’S
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.”