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Shel Silverstein: Award Winning Songwriter, Artist and Children's Book Author

Updated on February 5, 2020
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Readmikenow enjoys writing about unique and interesting people. He likes to learn about individuals who live or have lived unusual lives.

Shel Silverstein
Shel Silverstein

Shel Silverstein was an American writer known for his children's books as well as cartoons. He studied music and became a recognized composer and musician. One of his well-known songs was A Boy Named Sue that was sung by Johnny Cash. Another song was One's on the Way sung by Loretta Lynn. He is also known as the author of such children's book classics as The Giving Tree, Where the Sidewalk Ends and others. Silverstein's poetry collection A Light in the Attic won two book awards.

Shel Silverstein as a young boy
Shel Silverstein as a young boy

Early Life

On September 25, 1930, Sheldon Allan “Shel” Silverstein was born in the Palmer Square neighborhood of Chicago. His parents were Helen and Nathan Silverstein. Silverstein's father was a co-owner of a bakery called Silverstein Brothers. Shel Silverstein had one younger sister named Peggy. Silverstein did not like to study. He preferred to spend his time doodling when he was at home as well as at school. This is something his father hated. Silverstein was encouraged to develop his art by his mother. This caused many conflicts between his parents. When they would argue, Silverstein would go further into his world of drawing.

Shel Silverstein listing in yearbook
Shel Silverstein listing in yearbook


Silverstein started school at Charles R. Darwin Elementary School and then went to Roosevelt High School. After graduating, he attended the University of Illinois. He didn't last long there and was expelled because he had such bad grades. Silverstein then went to the Chicago Fine Arts school. He didn't like it there and left after a year. Silverstein then attended Roosevelt University and studied English. He never earned a degree and also left there early. During this time, Silverstein had his writing and cartoons published in the Roosevelt Torch, the school's student newspaper. He also assisted in laying out the paper. At Roosevelt University, he was influenced by an English teacher named Robert Cosby. The teacher tried to work with Silverstein to develop his talent. Silverstein did not work hard enough to finish Robert Cosby's course.

Shel Silverstein in U.S. Army
Shel Silverstein in U.S. Army

U.S. Army

Silverstein was drafted into the United States Army in 1953. He was sent to the Far East and spent his time in Korea and Japan. His job was to do the layouts and paste-up for Pacific Stars and Stripes, a military newspaper. Silverstein would also submit cartoons to the newspaper. His cartoons were known for offending those in charge. They were often still published with some editing. In 1955, he had a book published by Pacific Stars and Stripes. It was called Take Ten. It was a compilation of the Take Ten Cartoons Silverstein had created during his time with Pacific Stars and Stripes.

Shel Silverstein book Around the World
Shel Silverstein book Around the World


When Silverstein was discharged from the U.S. Army, he went back to Chicago and began submitting his cartoons to many different papers. During this time, he sold hot dogs at Chicago park for an income. His work appeared in such national magazines as This Week, Look, Sports Illustrated and others. His book Take Ten was republished by Ballantine Books. Its new title was Grab Your Socks. Silverstein was made the leading cartoonist at Playboy magazine in 1957. When he worked for Playboy, Silverstein traveled around the world and created illustrations. He created 23 installments for a feature in Playboy called Shel Silverstein Visits. His illustrations and travel essays were published in a book in 2007 called Around the World.

Ursula Nordstrom
Ursula Nordstrom


Silverstein met a book editor named Ursula Nordstrom in 1963. She got Silverstein to agree to start writing material for children. His first two books were The Lion Who Shot Back and Uncle Shelby's Story of Lafcadio. The following year he wrote A Giraffe and A Half and his most popular book, The Giving Tree.

Book cover for The Giving Tree
Book cover for The Giving Tree

The Giving Tree

It was initially rejected by several publishers. They often felt the book was more for adults than children, and they didn't think it would sell well with adults. Silverstein's goal when writing this book was to provide children with an unadorned view of the reality of life. It is a children's book that is one of the most discussed of all time. It has been translated into over 30 languages. The Giving Tree is often named to lists of the all-time best children's books.

Book cover for Where the Sidewalk Ends
Book cover for Where the Sidewalk Ends

Where The Sidewalk Ends

This is a collection of Silverstein's poems that deal with a variety of common childhood concerns. It was published in 1974. In 2007, a poll was organized by the National Education Association. The results had Where The Sidewalk Ends included in the list of Teachers Top 100 Books for Children.

Shel Silverstein with guitar
Shel Silverstein with guitar


Silverstein spent a brief time when he was at Roosevelt University attending the Chicago College of Performing Arts. During this time, he created a large catalog of songs. Many of them eventually became hits for various musicians.

*Put Another Log on the Fire – Tompall Glasser

*Hey Loretta and One's on the Fire – Loretta Lynn

*25 Minutes to Go – Johnny Cash

*A Boy Named Sue – Johnny Cash

*The Unicorn – The Irish Rovers

*The Taker – Waylon Jennings

*The Cover of the Rolling Stones, Freakin' at the Freakers' Ball, The Things I didn't Say, Sylvia's Mother – Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show

*Silverstein wrote many songs done by Bobby Bare including The Winner and others.

*The third album done by Tompall Glaser had eight songs written by Silverstein

He also wrote many less recognized songs.

Movie poster for Postcards from the Edge
Movie poster for Postcards from the Edge

Songs For Movies

Several movies have had original music composed by Silverstein. In many of these songs, he would play various instruments including the trombone, guitar, saxophone, and piano.

*The soundtrack for the 1970 film Ned Kelly

*Thelma & Louise - The Ballad Of Lucy Jordan

*Coal Miner's Daughter - One's on the Way

*Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? - Bunky and Lucille, Last Morning

*Postcards from the Edge - I’m Checkin’ Out’

He also wrote songs for lesser-known movies.


Silverstein worked with playwright David Mamet to create the screenplay Things Change. He provided the stories for a TV movie called Free to Be...You and Me. He wrote and narrated an animated short based on his book The Giving Tree. It was produced in 1973.

Shel Silverstein grave maker
Shel Silverstein grave maker


Shel Silverstein died in May of 1999 of a heart attack at his home in Key West, Florida. He was buried in Norridge, Illinois at Westlawn Cemetery.


Shel Silverstein won many awards for his writing and music.

*Grammy Award for Best Country Song in 1970 for A Boy Named Sue.

*Outstanding Book award in 1974 for Where the Sidewalk Ends,

*Notable Book by American Library Association in 1974 for Where the Sidewalk Ends.

*Best Book Award in 1981 for A Light in the Attic.

*Children's Choice Award in 1982 for The Missing Piece Meets the Big O.

*William Allen Book Award in 1984 for A Light in the Attic.

*Grammy Award in 1984 for Best Children's Recording of the audiobook Where the Sidewalk Ends and poetry compilation.

*Nominated for Academy Award and Golden Globe Award in 1991 for Best Original Song for I'm Checkin' Out in the movie Postcards from the Edge.

*Named to Nashville Songwriters' Hall of Fame in 2002.

*Quill Award in 2005 for his book Runny Babbit.

*Poets' Award in 2017 by the Academy of Country Music.


It is accepted the phrase Renaissance Man is something that could have easily been applied to Shel Silverstein. He produced country music hits and many other songs. Silverstein was successful at writing plays, short stories, poetry as well as children's books. His work covered such a wide spectrum that Silverstein is still loved by people of all ages and backgrounds.

Shel Silverstein
Shel Silverstein

“I would hope that people, no matter what age, would find something to identify with in my books, pick up one and experience a personal sense of discovery. That's great. I think that if you're a creative person, you should just go about your business, do your work and not care about how it's received.”

From a Shel Silverstein interview published in Publishers Weekly on February 24, 1975.

Shel Silverstein on the Johnny Cash Show


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    • Readmikenow profile imageAUTHOR


      3 months ago

      Bushra, thanks. I found him to be a very interesting person.

    • Readmikenow profile imageAUTHOR


      3 months ago

      Umesch, thanks. I found him an interesting and successful person.

    • Bushra Iqbal profile image

      Aishatu Ali 

      3 months ago from Rabwah, Pakistan

      Thank you for introducing me to a new writer.

    • bhattuc profile image

      Umesh Chandra Bhatt 

      3 months ago from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India

      Excellent presentation about the life and works of such a personality.

    • Readmikenow profile imageAUTHOR


      3 months ago

      Liz, I agree. If you have children or grandchildren his book The Giving Tree is a real positive experience. Thanks for the comment.

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      3 months ago from UK

      This is an interesting biography of a multi-talented person. I had not heard of him before.

    • Readmikenow profile imageAUTHOR


      3 months ago

      Eric, my wife has all of this children's books. I was also surprised at the success of his songs. Thanks.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      3 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      A very cool article on a great contributor and American. I did not know about the songs. I have read a couple of the children's books to my children. Thanks


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