It’s the birthday of children’s author and illustrator Shel Silverstein (books by this author), born Sheldon Allen Silverstein in Chicago (1930). As a youngster himself, he wanted to play baseball or be popular with girls, Silverstein once said, but he couldn’t play ball and he couldn’t dance. So he wrote and drew to occupy himself, developing a signature style and wit that would delight children all over the world.

It was never his intention. He began his career as a cartoonist while serving in the Korean War, publishing in the military’s daily paper; when he returned from duty, he got a job as a staff cartoonist for Playboy magazine, where he also contributed several poems. It wasn’t until a fellow illustrator who was finding success publishing for kids put Silverstein in touch with his editor that he was convinced to try writing for children. The blend of witty and wistful that would later become his trademark was initially off-putting to some, who told him his work was too mature for kids, but not enough so for adults. He proved them wrong by publishing four children’s books in two years, including his most enduring — and category-defying — The Giving Tree.

Silverstein’s playful rhymes and dark humor achieved success for him in another arena too: songwriting. Of his many songs, his most popular may be “A Boy Named Sue.” About a man whose deadbeat dad named him “Sue” before he skipped town, the song was quintessential Silverstein: both silly and sad. When Johnny Cash sang it at his famous San Quentin State Prison concert, he was so unsure about whether people would like it he hadn’t even bothered to memorize the lyrics. The convicts went wild for the song, as did Cash fans all over the world. It remains pretty popular with kids too.

Silverstein avoided press, refused to go on book tours, and even requested that his publisher not release biographical information about him. As he said in a rare interview with Publisher’s Weekly, “I’m free to … go wherever I please, do whatever I want; I believe everyone should live like that. Don’t be dependent on anyone else — man, woman, child or dog.” Silverstein died of a heart attack in 1999 in his home in Key West, Florida.


Bear In There by Shel Silverstein

There’s a Polar Bear

In our Frigidaire–

He likes it ’cause it’s cold in there.

With his seat in the meat

And his face in the fish

And his big hairy paws

In the buttery dish,

He’s nibbling the noodles,

He’s munching the rice,

He’s slurping the soda,

He’s licking the ice.

And he lets out a roar

If you open the door.

And it gives me a scare

To know he’s in there–

That Polary Bear

In our Fridgitydaire.