Celebrating the Controversial Genius of Shel Silverstein

Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein (1974, Harper & Row)

My first-grade class would file into the school library on Fridays. Six-year-old me made it my mission to get inside, walk down into the reading pit, and sit as close to the front row as possible. This is because we always started things off with the nice librarian reading a book and I didn’t want to miss a thing!

It was there in the pit that I fell in love with poetry. For a few months straight the librarian would read a couple of pages out of two books; the first entitled “Where the Sidewalk Ends” and the second “A Light in the Attic,” both written by Shel Silverstein. I hung onto every word, and each week I was disappointed when she said I could not check them out for the weekend. Months went by before she finally relented, and I devoured both books from cover to cover. That weekend I laughed, I reflected, and I escaped into a completely different world.

Silverstein circa 1964 as featured on the back cover of “The Giving Tree.”

This being National Poetry Month I have been reminiscing about that time and place. I smiled at the thought that it is time for me to share that same joy with my own six-year-old. I hopped on to Google only to find that these two glorious books have been BANNED! Not just my favorites but many other Shel Silverstein children’s books had been removed from shelves across America. WHY???? This was my immediate question. The complaints were that his poems promoted disobedience and cannibalism and had a few dark overtones.

Promoted? Encouraged? Rereading the identified poems as an adult I completely disagree. First considering his writing style which is full of riddles, and requires a lot to be deciphered by reading in between the lines, he hardly provides a concept introduction for a sheltered child. It’s my opinion they wouldn’t pick up on it anyway. Like watching Disney movies as a youth and watching those same movies as an adult and going… OHHHHHHHHHH!

Second, his poetry doesn’t hold a candle to the sinister roots of classic children’s poems like “Ring Around the Rosie,” “Mary Mary Quite Contrary,” or “Rock-a-bye Baby.” Yet they are not controversial enough to be banned. These poems are still spoon fed to children via Cocomelon. I’m not saying they need to be banned, just that it makes it hard for me to believe Shel Silverstein’s work was banned because of the content, and not because of the author himself.

Like many writers and artists he experienced a troubled life. But like many artists he found beauty in unlikely places and turned it into art. The tortured artist trope is an accurate one.

It has been scientifically proven that artists have a higher tendency to be depressed. They are often —correction — “we” are often highly sensitive people with a tendency to internalize our experiences. We try “off the cuff” communication and we know we are weird. This being the case, art becomes the preferred mode of communication. At times art is shocking, sometimes commemorative, sometimes controversial, still other times uncomfortable.

That is the point of art.

Art should start conversations.

Art should not be banned.

A native of Phoenix, Arizona Aundrea Sayrie is a firm believer in the power of words, faith and a strong spirit. Her greatest desire is to encourage those around her to discover and honor their truth, and to passionately live on purpose.

Any views or opinions expressed in “Living on Purpose” are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Watershed Voice staff or its board of directors.