September 25, 1930 – May 10, 1999
Sheldon Allan Silverstein, better known as just Shel (or even Uncle Shelby, to the kids), is one of the few people I would nominate as a representative of great American art. He dabbled in everything, and succeeded at it all - poetry, song-writing, played many instruments, composed music, wrote screenplays and children's books, and of course - drew simple, yet fantastic art.
His best known works are the 'children's' book (personally, I think its a book for anyone, that happens to be short and have pictures), The Giving Tree, and his collections of poetry, Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic. He also won a Grammy for his song "A Boy Named Sue", which became one of Johnny Cash's best known songs.
Reading a few of Shel's poems is like an instant trip back to childhood for me. I remember reading them with my class in the first grade, then returning to the school's library to check out any of his books I could find. His poems have the feel that they're written with the soul of childhood - there's great imagination, pure joy, a world knowledge that somehow diminishes as we grow to adulthood, fear and wonder of the unknown, and stubbornness and selfish behavior we all know we possessed at some point and can laugh at when we see it put down so cleverly. He's one of those rare adults that not only remembers what its like to be a kid, but how to share that experience with everyone.
There are many books for children with colorful, detailed art, but someone Shel's simple ink sketches won the day with their humor, emotion, and imagination. In a way, they remind me of John Tenniel's surreal illustrations in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. There's so many of his poems and sketches I'd love to post, its easier to say I love them all, and to just go read his books.
Shel was an eccentric, in a way. He disliked doing interviews, making it difficult to learn about him as a person. He insisted that he had control over the way his books were presented, from the layout of the poems and art, to the type and size of font, and most especially, the grade of paper. He firmly believed books must be printed on good paper to be enjoyed properly, and would not allow most of his books to be printed as paperbacks. He was an open marijuana smoker, writing several songs referencing the drug.
Everyone should have at least one of his books - I recommend Where the Sidewalk Ends. Its a smaller book, just set it on your coffee table. Flip through it, read a poem or two. I bet many people that spot it will pick it up and enjoy a few too.