And The Piece Rolls On… recapturing Shel Silverstein

Sheldon Allan Silverstein was born in Chicago. Some reports say 1930, some say 1932. He was a poet, cartoonist, performer, and songwriter. He wrote some of the strangest, simplest, deepest books that I have ever seen. I have only read these three: The Missing Piece, The Missing Piece Meets the Big O, and The Giving Tree.

Those first two are hard to explain. They were shown to me by a tattoo artist who was preparing to ink my friend Kirsten. They are white books, with minimal black line drawings and contain very few words. These books are really, very noticably, predominantly white. This merits mentioning twice because they seem almost empty. If you were to quickly flip through them youd see many pages that bore nothing but a circle and a line. You wouldn’t expect that the line could symbolize the Earth, our individual journeys, and the personal path that each of us struggles to follow. You wouldn’t expect that the circle could symbolize the state of being human, our commonalities and our uniquenesses. And you wouldn’t think that the interaction between a circle and a line could be so astute, and so profound that they might give new perspective to your life. But they may.

The Missing Piece books are the story of a circle with a slice cut out. We find the circle rolling along the line, looking for a piece to fit that gap. One day it finds a really big piece that looks to be the right shape but it can’t squeeze all the way inside the circle’s little space. The circle tries but cannot continue to roll with the big piece protuding. It realizes it can�t take the big piece with it, and sadly has to say goodbye. It rolls on and eventually finds a very little piece that seems to be the perfect solution. The piece jumps into the circle’s space with lots of room to spare, but it keeps falling out as the circle begins to roll. This piece cannot stay either. Another tearful goodbye. Next we find a piece that advertises! It lays posing under a heap of neon signs and flashing lights, an overly elaborate array of flamboyant arrows pointing to its scene… See now, that was my problem said the tattooist, and there was a quiet pause, a moment of understanding between us. Soon we encounter a piece that seems to fit just fine, but it gets scared, doesn’t trust the process, and jumps out at the first roll. That was mine. I pointed. The tattooist gingerly tipped his head to the side sympathetically, nodding in compassion.

The piece rolls on, still looking for its mate. It is a heart-tugging read, as each couple of pages contain an epic love story, some (great metaphors for) hot sex, and a tragic breakup. That’s a lot of plot for just a circle and a few lines to convey! Of course, a lot is left to your imagination. And if you have a good one, the books are even better.

Our tattooist had been carrying both these books in his bag. I believed this qualified him as a great therapist somehow, or maybe a guru. These books were better than therapy. They just seemed to explain e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. And what was left out, the things left unsaid or undrawn, were declarative in their absence. These books evoke a strong reaction. So much can be said by so little.

The next time I went back, I asked to see the books again. The tattooist thought he recognized me. “Are you the girl who just started crying when you read them?” he smiled as he asked. “No, I didn’t cry.” I told him, but truthfully I had wanted to. “Just show me the books again. I need to see them. My life is frigged and there’s got to be something in there to help.” See, these are the only 2 guidebooks you need in life and love.

In the 50s Shel served in the US Army during the Korean War, where he drew cartoons for Stars & Stripes. In the 60s his drawings appeared regularly in Playboy Magazine, especially variations on “Don’t Bump the Glump”, a fictional creature who looks alarmingly like, well frankly … like a penis on stilts. Shel was actually a very close friend to Hugh Hefner, some even say best friend, and he always employed a perversely adult and politically incorrect humour. Shel was even known by some to be every bit the ladies man that Hugh was, but in a less flashy fashion.

By the 70s he had become drawn to the folk music scene. He picked up a guitar and began writing songs which reflected his spirited imagination and clever sense of humour. He wrote novelty songs for Dr. Hook (Cover of the Rolling Stone, Sylvia’s Mother) and Johnny Cash (A Boy Named Sue). He soon became a recording artist in his own right and was easily recognizable by his friendly yet raspy, animated voice. Here are a few cunning lyrics from one of his later songs, Aphrodisiac:

Now, listen to me, folks…
Hear what I say.
You got to eat oysters every day
They’ll put your love life back on track
They’re nature’s own aphrodisiac.

Ohh, ohhh… yes it’s true
What a little oyster can do for you.
Ohh, ohhh… ain’t it fun
Here’s some things them oysters done…

They made Jim Beam and
They made Allen Thick
They made Jonathan Swift
And they made Gracie Slick
They made Victor Mature
And they made Tom Petty
They started Willie Waylon
And they got Helen Reddy.
They made Tom Cruise
They made Oscar Wilde
They gave Gary Hart
But they gave Gomer Piles
They made William Hurt
They made Lucille Ball
They made Wilson Picket
And that ain’t all.

In 1963, Shel had begun writing children’s books, and these are still considered to be some of his most influential and unforgettable works. However, they aren’t ALL the sort of thing you’d give a child to read today, as there is still an element of adult absurdity in a few of them. Perhaps it’s better to say that some of his books fall in between the kiddie and adult classifications. His twisted sense of humour prevails in this example from Uncle Shelby’s ABZ�s:

D is for Daddy.
See Daddy sleeping on the couch?
See Daddy’s hair?
Daddy needs a haircut.
Poor Daddy.
Daddy has no money for a haircut.
Daddy spends all his money to buy you toys and oatmeal.
Poor Daddy.
Daddy cannot have a haircut.
Poor poor Daddy.
See the scissors?
Poor poor poor your Daddy.

The Giving Tree is a book for all ages. It is the story of an environmental awakening, or maybe a lack thereof. There is none of the ‘adults-only’ twisted humour, it’s an innocent story through and through. Many see in it a divine or religious connotation, and it speaks volumes of our humanness on this once plentiful planet. But I’ll let you discover that one on your own.

And if you still aren’t familiar with Shel Silverstein, here is a poem that many will recognize. It played a major part in the soundtrack of my childhood. It is The Unicorn, set to music, recorded, and made famous by the Irish Rovers:

A long time ago, when the Earth was green
There was more kinds of animals than you’ve ever seen
They’d run around free while the Earth was being born
And the loveliest of all was the unicorn

There was green alligators and long-necked geese
Some humpty backed camels and some chimpanzees
Some cats and rats and elephants,
but sure as you’re born
The loveliest of all was the unicorn

The Lord seen some sinning and it gave Him pain
And He says, “Stand back, I’m going to make it rain”
He says, “Hey Noah, I’ll tell you what to do
I want you to build me a floating zoo,
and take some of those

Green alligators and long-necked geese
Some humpty backed camels and some chimpanzees
e cats and rats and elephants,
but sure as you’re born
Don’t you forget My unicorns

Old Noah he was there to answer the call
He finished up the ark just as the rain started to fall
He marched on the animals two by two
And he called out as they came through
“Hey Lord,

I’ve got your green alligators and long-necked geese
Some humpty backed camels and some chimpanzees
Some cats and rats and elephants, but Lord, I’m so forlorn
I just can’t find no unicorns”

And Noah looked out through the driving rain
Them unicorns were hiding, playing silly games
Kicking and splashing while the rain was falling
Oh, them silly unicorns

But there was green alligators and long-necked geese
Some humpty backed camels and some chimpanzees
Noah cried, “Close the door because the rain is just pourin’
And we can’t wait for no unicorns”

Well the ark started moving, it drifted with the tide
The unicorns looked up from the rocks and they cried
And the waters came down and sort of floated them away
That’s why you never see unicorns to this very day

But you’ll see green alligators and long-necked geese
Some humpty backed camels and some chimpanzees
Some cats and rats and elephants,
but sure as you’re born
You’re never gonna see no unicorns.

Shel spent the 80’s writing a series of bizarre plays, one of which would star Richard Dreyfuss. Shel Silverstein died of a heart attack in his hotel room May 10, 1999.

And here’s a nice quotation to end with…

“I’m free to leave….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. I want to go everywhere, look at and listen to everything. You can go crazy with some of the wonderful stuff there is in life.”

Further Reading:

Links to more of Shel’s poems and drawings are available from the links page on my website.

Here are a few other interesting articles…

Dr. Hook Remembers Shel Silverstein

Shel Silverstein, a brief synopsis & link to his plays.

For a further list of his most popular books, follow this link.

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!