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Shel Silverstein: Five Lessons for Grown Ups

By Connie Diamond. Nov 23, 2015. 9:00 AM.

Topics: Poetry, Children's Books

Every once in a while the literary world produces a creative genius who, despite initial impressions, defies definition. Shel Silverstein was such a genius. One can find his poetry collections artfully and prominently displayed in the children’s section of any bookstore or library and stacked on pint-sized carts in kinder classes everywhere. Read any one of them with a listening child, and watch the “light in the attic” go on as she discovers a kindred spirit who is full of dreams and fond of silly.

Little ones relish the absurdity in his poems and lean in for more, as with the fun uncle who pulls quarters from behind their ears. The simple pen and ink drawings hearken back to Silverstein’s early career as a cartoonist, and his rhythmic language to his early success as a musician and lyricist. Both of these creative endeavors shed light on his ability to use simple forms to express complex and profound lessons—lessons that children should be taught for the first time and adults should be reminded of again, and as many times as necessary. Let's explore these lessons for grown-ups with the help of excerpts from some of Silverstein's most renowned writings.


Lesson I:  Be Your Authentic Self

She had blue skin,
And so did he.
He kept it hid
And so did she.
They searched for blue
Their whole life through,
Then passed right by-
And never knew. —"Masks"

In “Masks”, Shel Silverstein, with eight lines, reveals the root of loneliness. The two blue-skinned characters hide the defining characteristic in themselves, and then search fruitlessly to find its match. They fail to connect with one another and continue to journey alone. The poem also warns that a lack of self-acceptance precludes acceptance by others. Unless we share our authentic selves with others, we can never truly be in relationship with them.

What's more, in "The Voice" Silverstein shares the following insight:

There is a voice inside of you
that whispers all day long,
'I feel that this is right for me,
I know that this is wrong.'
No teacher, preacher, parent, friend
or wise man can decide
what's right for you - just listen to
the voice that speaks inside. 

The eight lines that comprise “The Voice” speak of independence and empowerment. There are all kinds of influences in the world that can script one’s decisions and behavior, but there is a quiet sense of self that deserves to be heard because it is truly the wisest voice. Of all the things we can outsource in life, defining ourselves is not one of them. “Adulting” is a term that has come into vogue as of late. The general consensus among twenty-somethings is that “adulting is hard.” Sometimes the voices of authority in our lives are oppressive. Sometimes they are sought after. Sometimes they are both. Silverstein encourages us to quiet them and engage in the solitary and challenging work of self discovery.

Lesson II:  Dream Big

Listen to the Mustn'ts, child,
listen to the Don'ts.
Listen to the Shouldn'ts,
the Impossibles, the Won'ts.
Listen to the Never Haves,
then listen close to me.
Anything can happen, child,
Anything can be. —"Listen To The Mustn’ts"

The bulk of this poem is about limitation, but somehow the uppercase imperatives at the beginning are overpowered by the emphatic whisper at the end that “Anything can be.” It reads like a secret shared from someone who knows from experience that possibilities are endless. The author tells the adult reader to examine the why and the why not of an idea, and to see opportunity where others see obstacles. Was a great thing ever accomplished any other way?

Lesson III:  Give Generously

One of Shel Silverstein’s best-selling books, amid a plethora of award-winning titles, is The Giving Tree. The simple, and now iconic, drawings of the Boy and the Tree as the one ages and the other divests itself of all its gifts illustrate what selflessness requires. The simple refrain, “and the tree was happy” illustrates what selflessness can accomplish. The little green book has been enjoyed by children who have had it read to them so repeatedly that they know the refrain by heart. They may even fool themselves into thinking that they have in fact learned to read.

What they, and we as adults, really learn is something much more profound. We see ourselves in one of the characters. Sometimes it’s the boy. Sometimes it’s the tree. When it is the latter, there is some debate about the goodness in that. Feminists and parents are among those who may see the tree’s story as a cautionary tale about subordinating oneself to others and, in the process, losing one’s own identity. There is a sadness to the tale in terms of both the boy and the tree who find themselves rather wrecked and tired at the end of their lives. The story straddled children’s and adult literature so adeptly that it took four years to get published. Eventually Harper and Row ran with it and even let Silverstein keep his ending unchanged because, as he pointed out, “...life, you know, has pretty sad endings.”


Lesson IV:  Be Green

But please walk softly as you do.
Frogs dwell here and crickets too.

Ain't no ceiling, only blue.
Jays dwell here and sunbeams too.

Floors are flowers - take a few
Ferns grow here and daisies too.

Swoosh, whoosh - too-whit, too-woo
Bats dwell here and hoot owls too.

Ha-ha-ha, hee-hee, hoo-hoooo,
Gnomes dwell here and goblins too.

And my child, I thought you knew
I dwell here… and so do you. "Enter This Deserted House"

Does anything hold more intrigue for a child than a deserted house? When a space is abandoned, it needs an explorer, an occupant, and a caretaker. It allows for ownership and freedom—two things that are in short supply when one is very young. This deserted house, however, is particularly special. With its blue ceiling, floor of flowers and many inhabitants, we understand that the house is planet earth. It is home to creatures great, small, winged, and magical. Finally, Shel Silverstein reminds us that we dwell there too—not over, but amid the others and hence entreats us to “enter”, but to “walk softly”.

Speaking to the point of youth, naievity, and the honest truth about our short-comings, Silverstein's words in "God’s Wheel" ring particularly true:

God says to me with a kind of smile,
'Hey how would you like to be God awhile
And steer the world?'
'Okay,' says I, 'I'll give it a try.
Where do I set?
How much do I get?
What time is lunch?
When can I quit?'
'Gimme back that wheel,' says God.
'I don't think you're quite ready yet.

In this poem, a fatherly God hands the responsibility of steering the world to His child. The child is overwhelmed and unprepared to look beyond the immediate rewards of his work. Delayed gratification is a complicated concept for children young and old. We find it hard to look at the big picture and do the right thing when the benefits will not be evident for generations to come. The last line presents us with a challenge. God says that we are not ready “yet”. This tells us that it is not okay to remain selfish or short-sighted. We need to work toward maturity in how we “steer the world”. We need to plant the tree under whose shade we will never sit—we need to plant a “giving tree.”

Lesson V:  Retain your Sense of Wonder

If you are a dreamer, come in,
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer…
If you’re a pretender, come sit by my fire
For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.
Come in!
Come in! —"Invitation"

Of all of the lessons that Shel Silverstein teaches, and of all the absurdity he captures in word and picture, the most important thing he does is present us with an “Invitation.” This poem appears on page 1 of Where the Sidewalk Ends. It is a tantalizing introduction for children who easily identify themselves as dreamers, wishers and pretenders. They know they are welcome into the pages of the book. Adult readers, on the other hand, need to be reminded and encouraged to believe once again in magic beans, and to unplug long enough to sit by a fire and spin tales. These words simultaneously make one’s blood pressure drop and heart rate quicken. The reader knows she is entering a magical place—a place...where the sidewalk ends:

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, and there the moon-bird rests from his flight to cool in the peppermint wind. Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black and the dark street winds and bends. Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow we shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow and watch where the chalk-white arrows go to the place where the sidewalk ends. Yes we'll walk with a walk that is measured and slow, and we'll go where the chalk-white arrows go, for the children, they mark, and the children, they know, the place where the sidewalk ends.

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Connie Diamond
I was a passionate student of literature, and later became a passionate teacher of it. When I left the classroom, I took my love of the subject with me. I have a library in my home in lieu of a dining room, and my favorite social activity is meeting with my book club to discuss impressions and ideas from our latest book choice. I never tire of the beauty of great writing, and am often guilty of reading it aloud to innocent bystanders.


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