Thursday, May 26, 2005

OBT: Shel Silverstein

A very nice recollection from CNN

Remembering Shel Silverstein
Celebrating author's wonderful books -- including new one
By Claudia La Rocco, Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) -- There was Lazy Jane and Hector the Collector, Dirty Dan and Benjamin Bunnn. The Yipiyuk, The Flying Festoon and the Glurpy Slurpy Skakagrall.

And then there was Reginald Clark, an unassuming child with a pleasant face and a fear of the dark. All he wanted was his teddy bear, some stories and hugs, and -- this one is critical -- that we not close the book on him.

Poor Reginald. Of course, that's exactly what my father did over and over and over again, a devilish look on his face as the halves of the tattered book crept closer and closer to each other, snapping shut to delighted shrieks from me and my older brother, Benjamin.

"Do it AGAIN!" we'd demand, nestled next to him on our old red sofa in our house on Star Route in Gouldsboro, Maine. And he would.

My mom says I was about 4 and Ben 5 when our parents began reading Shel Silverstein to us, after my dad discovered "A Light in the Attic" during his "endless, constant browse through the world of kids' books, inspired by Ben's birth."

For the most part, reading together was one of our "dad" things, along with swimming in nearby Jones' Pond, treks into the woods to find each year's Christmas tree and, much to my father's eternal dismay, miniature golfing. His quest to fish beautiful and intelligent books from the treacly soup of the children's sections in bookstores continues to this day, as he searches for gifts and adds to his own collection.

But my favorites were long ago secured: E.B. White's "The Trumpet of the Swan," Molly Bang's "Wiley and the Hairy Man," E.L. Konigsburg's "From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler."

And, of course, "A Light in the Attic," along with "Where the Sidewalk Ends," "The Giving Tree" and the rest of Silverstein's strange and wonderful books.

Now, there's a new one, "Runny Babbit," posthumously published in March -- Silverstein died in 1999 of a massive heart attack at age 68. All in all, I can proudly say my family accounts for at least seven of the 25 million Silverstein books sold thus far.

His spare, black and white drawings are messy, often perverse. The inked lines seem carelessly tossed onto the page, belying HarperCollins' executive editor Antonia Markiet's memory of Silverstein as an "untiring perfectionist."

"Every word mattered, every line in a drawing mattered, no matter how small," Markiet explained in an interview she insisted be conducted by way of e-mail.

"Children in particular are very aware of when they are being condescended to. Shel never did that. He did not try to guess what a kid might like because he knew what HE liked and he trusted that connection," Markiet said in her e-mail. "He didn't think anything was beyond his audience, or too hard for them, or too complex for them."

Silverstein's writing, though not without morals and messages, is just as surprising as his drawings. A creative writing professor of mine used to talk about "strangering" a poem -- making the ordinary strange through unexpected detail and use of language. Silverstein was a strangering master. His books are singular creations among the hyper-colored, cloying gunk usually passed off on kids.

In "My Beard," a small, bald man with prominent nose and bushy brow scuttles along a road rendered in one uneven black line. His eye (he is in profile) is big and round, almost worried. We see just a hint of his bum, his little feet and hunched shoulders -- the rest is all beard: "I never wears no clothes,/I wraps my hair/Around my bare,/And down the road I goes."

If the beard were shorter and the eye more commanding, it would be an exact self-portrait, matching the sultry black and white photograph of Silverstein, feet bare and guitar in hand, on the back of "Where the Sidewalk Ends."

Read the rest here . . .


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