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Shel Silverstein Biography | Poet

Photo of Shel Silverstein

Well-known and loved poet and author Sheldon Allan Silverstein was born in Chicago, Illinois on September 25, 1930 to Nathan and Helen Silverstein. He attended the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, which is now the Art Institute of Chicago. He dropped out of college to enlist in the army when he was nineteen, serving in Korea and Japan. He started illustrating cartoon for the Pacific Stars & Stripes magazine. He worked for Sports Illustrated when his military career was over, but it was his work with Playboy that got him national recognition. He had cartoons appear in every Playboy issue from 1957 through the 1970’s. While he was working for the adult magazine, he started publishing his own cartoon books.

In 1963, Harper and Row book editor, Ursula Nordstrom, suggested Silverstein start writing and illustrating books for children. He wrote three books in two years, the last was “The Giving Tree”, which became his best known book. “The Giving Tree” has been causing much debate and criticism. Originally rejected by publishers because the themes seemed more adult than juvenile, it has been called anti-feminist and targeted by religious groups. Even through the debates, it has been translated into over 25 languages and consistently makes the list of top children's books.

He also started writing collections of poetry. Through the 1970’s and early 80’s, he released such collections as “Where The Sidewalk Ends” and “A Light In The Attic”. He made a big comeback in 1996 releasing “Falling Up”, followed by “Draw A Skinny Elephant” in 1998. His poems are silly, and each book has black and white pen style drawings to illustrate some of the funnier points.

Having a creative mind, Silverstein branched out in the 1960’s and 70’s writing music. He wrote musical pieces for films while writing such songs as “A Boy Named Sue” for the great Johnny Cash. One of Loretta Lynn’s top hits was “One’s On The Way”, which is about a pregnant mother of many contemplating her crazy life, was also written by Silverstein. The 1970 film “Ned Kelly” features his songs being sung by legends such as Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. He is still praised in many musical circles, but it is his work as an author that captures his genius.

Even though he found great professional success, he suffered great personal tragedies. He was married to Susan Hastings having one daughter with her, Shoshanna. One day before their daughter turned five, Susan passed away of unknown causes. Shoshanna also passed away at the young age of eleven. She had a brain aneurysm. Even though Silverstein never remarried, he did have one more child, a son he named Matthew. He passed away in Key West, Florida on May 9, 1999 from heart failure.

Shel Silverstein continued to write music and poetry even into his last years. It was his passion in life, and he pursued it to the end. He was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe, and actually won a Grammy for his work with Johnny Cash. In 2002, he was inducted into Nashville’s Songwriters Hall of Fame, and in 2014 he was inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. His books have sold over 20 million copies worldwide. 

Shel Silverstein: Poems | Best Poems | Short Poems | Quotes