Saturday, April 4, 2009

Shel Silverstein - writer, illustrator and philospher

This post is a tribute to whom I consider as one of the most original writers/poets/illustrators of our time - Shel Silverstein.

Silverstein's laid back, whimsical wit is truly one-of-a-kind. To me, he is a package of contradictions - his stories are super short, yet tell tales of epic proportions. They are simple, yet hold weighty messages. The books are for kids, yet adults love them. He's like a minimalist Dr Seuss, for lack of a better description.

Three of his books I have and love are:

The Giving Tree

This story is about a relationship between a young boy and a tree in a forest. The tree loves the boy so much she gives him everything he asks, even to the point of letting him cut her down so he can build a boat to sail away. When the boy becomes an old man, he returns and the tree says, "I have nothing left to give you." The boy says he just needs a place to sit down and rest, and the tree which is now a stump, happily obliges.

This book has sparked controversy on whether the tree is selfless or self-sacrificing, on whether it teaches kids to be selfish or about unconditional love. Personally, I feel the the book depicts the complexity of life and relationships - it's not meant to prescribe a moral lesson, the interpretation is up to the reader. But it reflects Silverstein's genius that such a simple story can stir up so much emotion and discussion.

The Missing Piece

Once again belying its simplicity, Silverstein creates a powerful message using just a circle. The circle has no name, it's merely refered to as "it". The story starts: "It was missing a piece. And it was not happy. So it set off in search of its missing piece." The story tells of a circle who goes in search for a piece to complete itself, much like an individual looking for a soul-mate. After many failed attempts, it finds a piece that fits exactly but realises that when it is "complete", it loses part of itself.

A very thought-provoking story and it's amazing how Silverstein can inject so much expression in a simple circle. Some say the book condones divorce, others say it celebrates the acceptance of self. I say, read it and interprete it for yourself!

The Missing Piece Meets the Big O

The sequel to The Missing Piece, this book continues with the theme that life is a journey of constant evolvement and depicts how people often treat others as a crutch or as a means to deflect their own deficiencies. Again, naysayers have criticised the book for playing down relationships, but I believe that the stronger message is that to be happy in a relationship or friendship, it is important to be your own independent person. The last page of the book shows two circles rolling together, so I think that's pretty clear.

If you want to see extracts of Silverstein's books, go to his website under Shel's Books - each one features a quirky animation that will give you a pretty good idea of what the book is like.

Apart from his stories, Silverstein also wrote a few collections of poetry - many of these poems are hysterical, nonsense rhymes accompanied by his signature line drawings. We have Where The Sidewalk Ends and Lesley-Anne LOVES it. Here are two of the poems in the book:

The only downside is that the books are not cheap. All of them are hard covers and I believe over $40 each. Silverstein was very particular in this respect and chose the type, size, shape, colour and quality of the paper himself. As a serious book collector, he felt the feel of the paper, typeface of the stories and binding of the books were very important and was actively involved in these decisions. He did not allow his books to be published in paperback because he did not want his work to diminish in any way.

So they're not cheap. But these are keepers, not something you'll want to borrow from the library and read once. Maybe wait till you have a discount coupon or something, but my view is that they are true gems worth having.


Anonymous said...

Hi Mona
I have only read 3 of his books - ' A giraffe and a half', 'The Giving Tree' and 'The Missing Piece meets the Big O', I like the latter two very much. I am intrigued by the simplicity, wit, and whimsical feel to the two stories. Powerful in a subtle way. My kids couldn't stop laughing at the illustrations in 'The Missing Piece meets the Big O'.

Thanks for the posting, I will check out his collections of poetry.


Puzzled by Puzzles! said...

I agree with you that they are gems. I have most of his collection. These are the books I will get when there's 20-30% off!

eunice said...

Your blog came at the right time as my friend and I were talking about poetry books for children. I've not read any book yet, but will definitely look out for them. Thanks!

bACk in GERMANY said...

Hi Mon,

When B saw your post, he told me to stop scrolling. "Wait, Mommy, I think we have that book."
So he disappeared into his room and came back with the 3 Shel Silverstein books we own.
And then he began to read "The Giving Tree" to me, from cover to cover!
My eyes almost popped out by the end of the reading session! Just as I was complaining that I didn't know what he's been learning in school, he decided to read me the whole book.
Guess no more reason to panic now... phew! Couldn't wipe off the proud grin on my face even when my hubby came home!!!

Thanks for your timely post. Now my son will be encouraged to know that these are great books and many people read them! ;)

I'm gonna go check out those Chinese books you mentioned in the other post. Thanks again Mon!!!

monlim said...

Cindy: You're very welcome! Wah, you see? He's so ready for p1!! Very happy for you, I know you've been worried, now I'm sure you're more assured :) Congrats Bryan and Mummy!!

Lilian said...

Shel Silverstein was regular reading for some time in our house. I have almost everything except the 3 you wrote about :). I remember feeling really touched when reading The Giving Tree at the bookshop and it was a limited edition copy, so even more expensive than normal. I bought the ones that have loads more words in them, you know me lah, kiamsiap!

The first book I bought for Brian was Where the Sidewalk Ends, ribticklingly funny, we spend so much time in bed reading and laughing. We later added Falling Up, A Light in the Attic, A Giraffe and a Half, Lafcadio and Sean's favourite Runny Babbit. For a long time, Sean kept mixing up his beginning sounds for words ala Runny Babbit.

These books were bought for Brian, but Sean used them as well. I still have these books in an Ikea plastic box next to the boys' bed, but unfortunately, we haven't done any bedtime reading in such a long time.

Time to revisit these treasures. Thanks for the reminder.

petite fleur said...

I love Shel Silverstein & The Missing Piece is my personal favorite. His books have been with me everywhere - I'm pretty sure I packed them in the boxes (hopefully be here soon !).

His books just goes to show that not all good things need to come in glossy nor wordy packages.

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