If you are a dreamer, come in, begins Invitation, the opening poem in Where the Sidewalk Ends. Millions of dreamers have answered that call, returning again and again to the poems, drawings, fables, songs, plays, and all the other inspired creations of the incomparable Shel Silverstein.
Born in Chicago on September 25, 1930, Sheldon Allan Silverstein grew up to attain an enormous public following, but he always preferred to say little about himself. When I was a kid, he told Publishers Weekly in 1975, I would much rather have been a good baseball player or a hit with the girls. But I couldn't play ball. I couldn't dance. So I started to draw and to write. He began contributing cartoons to Stars and Stripes, the U.S. military publication, when he was serving in the armed forces in Korea during the 1950s.
Shel Silverstein never planned on writing and illustrating books for children, but happily they are now available in more than 30 languages around the world. His first book, Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book, published in 1961, was intended for adults. But Tomi Ungerer, a friend whose own career in children's books was blossoming, introduced him to his editor, Harper's legendary Ursula Nordstrom. In 1963, Shel Silverstein's first children's book appeared, Lafcadio, the Lion who Shot Back, the story of a lion who becomes a famous marksman only to discover that worldly success is not what he wants.
The next year brought The Giving Tree. The book sold modestly at first, but soon this gentle parable about a boy and the tree that loved him was admired by readers of all ages, recommended by counselors and teachers, and being read aloud from pulpits. Decades after its initial publication, with more than five and a half million copies sold, The Giving Tree holds a permanent spot atop lists of perennial bestsellers.
Where the Sidewalk Ends, Shel Silverstein's first collection of poems, was published in 1974 and hailed as an instant classic. Its poems and drawings were applauded for their zany wit, irreverent wisdom, and tender heart. Two more collections followed: A Light in the Attic, in 1981, and Falling Up, in 1996. Both books dominated bestseller lists for months, with A Light in the Attic shattering all previous records for its 182-week stay on the New York Times list.
Silverstein's unique talent ranged broadly. He enjoyed a long career as a songwriter, with credits that included the Johnny Cash's number one hit A Boy Named Sue and I'm Checking Out, written for the film Postcards from the Edge and nominated for an Academy Award in 1991. He performed his own music on a number of albums and produced others for friends, including his last, Old Dogs, which was released in 1998. Silverstein won a Grammy Award in 1984 for his selection of poems recited, sung and shouted from Where the Sidewalk Ends.
Shel Silverstein was so accomplished as a playwright that Frank Rich, the New York Times critic, once wondered if the theater may eventually prove his most fruitful career to date. His theatrical work included the 1981 hit The Lady or the Tiger Show as well as Remember Crazy Zelda? and Wild Life (the 1988 production of several one-act plays that prompted Mr. Rich's happy speculation). He and David Mamet each wrote a play for Lincoln Center's production of Oh, Hell, and they later collaborated on writing the 1988 film Things Change, which Mr. Mamet also directed.
For many years, Shel Silverstein maintained homes in Greenwich Village, Key West, Martha's Vineyard, and on a houseboat in Sausalito, California. He died in Key West in May 1999