One of the opening poems in Shel Silverstein’s Don’t Bump the Glump! and Other Fantasies, originally published in 1964, features a creature named The Gletcher. In one very short poem, Silverstein manages to convey the creature’s fearsome nature (he has very sharp claws and more than enough teeth), but Silverstein goes on to note, gratefully, that it’s a good thing this monster is locked up in its cage, or “we’d all be in terrible trouble!”
But what does the illustration show? An empty cage, hanging from a ceiling. The door’s been busted open, and the creature has escaped.
I love so much about this poem, which communicates a great deal about the brilliance of Silverstein’s works for children. It’s almost as if this short rhyme could be about the great man himself: Thank goodness the legendary children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom published his books for children. Thank goodness he didn’t stay “locked up safe inside” the world of adult books or we all might be in terrible trouble. Okay, maybe not in trouble. But children’s literature would be a lot more boring and a lot less risky, had he not busted out.
HarperCollins is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Don’t Bump the Glump!, as well as a host of other Silverstein books: Who Wants a Cheap Rhinoceros?; A Giraffe and a Half; and Lafcadio, The Lion Who Shot Back all turn 50 this year. Where the Sidewalk Ends turns 40. And what is arguably children’s literature’s most polarizing book, The Giving Tree, turns 50. (Do you think the tree is still happy? Another subject for another day, I suppose.)
I was but 2 years old when Where the Sidewalk Ends, dedicated to Nordstrom herself, was published. However, by the time I was old enough to read and appreciate it, it was selling like hotcakes. Mine wasn’t a home with a lot of children’s books, but all my friends had a copy, and I wore out my library’s copy. We’d read and re-read it, mesmerized by the scary poems, entertained by the ridiculous ones. I dare say I could walk up to many people today in their early 40s, where I reside, and say “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout,” and more of them than not would be able to complete the sentence: “…would not take the garbage out.” Silverstein’s poetry is a part of our very DNA.
There were two things that, as children, we sensed about Silverstein—and respected. First, he was fearless. It was evident he didn’t much care for the norms of children’s literature at that time: He was fine, for one, with scaring the everlovin’ pants off of us. Remember that sharp-toothed snail that lives inside everyone’s nose? Oh, the sweet misery.
Secondly, he never ever, not once, talked down to us. There were a lot of children’s books that did, and we immediately loathed them. We could tell from just that iconic photo of him with his guitar, featured on the back of his books, that he was a mischief-maker; he was maybe very scary; and, most importantly, he thought we were smart. He wasn’t going to waste his time singing pretty ditties to us. He was going to challenge and even frighten us. Look at the very cover of Where the Sidewalk Ends, after all: Children, even the timid ones, will always want to go to the edge of the world where the wild wind whirls, where we’re told to keep off, and consider taking a peek. A little fear never hurt anyone. It might even be good for us.
One complaint I commonly hear in children’s literature is that we don’t hear more about the newer children’s poets, which results in yet another school bulletin board about Uncle Shelby during National Poetry Month. It’s true. Those of us who write about children’s literature need to shine the spotlight on emerging poets as well, but that doesn’t mean we can’t stop to occasionally celebrate the man who brought us such memorable works.
Besides, his legend lives on in at least two brand-new poetry collections that seem to pay tribute to his style. More than one reviewer has already noted that fans of Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends or A Light in the Attic (not published till the early ’80s) might also enjoy Douglas Florian’s Poem Depot: Aisles of Smiles, published in February. Karma Wilson in Outside the Box: A Book of Poems, illustrated by Diane Goode, even dedicates her collection to Silverstein. He “encouraged every child,” she writes, “to play with words, and in doing so, encouraged them to learn how to love, fight, and reach others with words as well.” Both books, at least with regard to design and delivery, seem to tip a hat to the debt owed to Silverstein.
It’s fitting that a book called Outside the Box is dedicated to Silverstein. Safe to say he lived nowhere near that box. He lived in a world well past it—miles past where the sidewalk ends.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.