Shel Silverstein was born in September of 1930 in Chicago, Illinois. By the age of seven he had developed a passion for drawing. As a young man he attended Roosevelt High School where his cartoons were published in the Roosevelt Torch, the student newspaper. He went on to the University of Illinois and later the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. It was during his time at the Chicago Academy, around 1950, that he was drafted into the army. He served in Korea and Japan.
Career as a Cartoonist
When Silverstein was in the army he worked for Pacific Stars and Stripes, a publication his own drawings were later included in. Pacific Stars and Stripes went on to published his first book. The volume was titled, Take Ten. It included all the cartoons published up until that point.
After leaving the military Silverstein returned to Chicago where he submitted cartoons to magazines. He also worked selling hot dogs at ballparks. During this time period his work was featured in Sports Illustrated and This Week. A year later Take Ten was reprinted as Grab Your Socks!
His reputation continued to grow until he became a leading cartoonist for Playboy. He travelled around the world in order to illustrate an expanding travel journal for the magazine. These instalments were called “Shel Silverstein Visits…” Some of the locations he illustrated were in England, Spain and Africa. The journals were collected in the volume, Silverstein Around the World.
His time at Playboy saw Silverstein explore other creative avenues. He began to write poetry and songs. A few poems were contributed to the magazine over the years including, ‘The Winner.’ He also wrote the volume, Playboy’s Teevee Jeebies, and followed it with a sequel. It was around this period that Silverstein recorded his first of over twenty albums. It was titled, Hairy Jazz, and was released in 1959.
In 1960 Silverstein published his next collection of cartoons titled, Here’s My Plan: A Book of Futilities. It featured what was then his best-known cartoon on the cover. The cover depicts two men, prisoners, who are chained to the wall. He continued to work for Playboy throughout the 60s and into the 1970s. His features in the publication were eventually combined into Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book. It was published in 1961 and was his first book of material aimed exclusively at an adult audience.
It was in 1963 that Silverstein came into contact with a book editor, Ursula Nordstrom, who sent him on the path of writing only for children. His first piece aimed at a young audience was Uncle Shelby’s Story of Lafcadio: The Lion Who Shot Back. It was published the same year. The following year he published two books, A Giraffe and a Half and The Giving Tree, the latter his most popular. The Giving Tree is thought to be one of the most well-loved and discussed books for children of all time. The main story deals with growing up, happiness, sadness and sacrifice.
At first Silverstein had trouble getting a publishing company to pick up the manuscript due to its ambiguous intent. After its publication though it became massively popular and has been translated into over thirty languages.
By the mid-70s Silverstein had turned his attention back to music. He wrote a number of songs recoded by other artists, such as “A Boy Named Sue” (for which he won a Grammy) and “Sylvia’s Mother.” Silverstein also released fun length albums. These included his biggest hit, Freakin’ at the Freaker’s Ball, which spoke on the hippie movement of the 60s. His musical talent spread into soundtracks as well. He wrote the score for films such as Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? as well as many others.
Later Life and Death
The 80s were a less productive period for the writer who had solidified his poetry career in the 70s with Where the Sidewalk Ends. He set this collection to cassette and LP phonograph in 1984 and won the Grammy for Best Recording for Children. One 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 his death in 1999 he published Falling Up and Draw a Skinny Elephant.He suffered a heart attack at his home in Key West Florida in May of 1999, he was 68 years old. Silverstein was buried in Westlawn Cemetery in Norridge, Illinois.