Creator: Shel Silverstein
Listen to the MUSTN'TS, child,
Listen to the DON'TS,
Listen to the SHOULDN'TS,
The IMPOSSIBLES, the WON'TS;
Listen to the NEVER HAVES,
Then listen close to me —
Anything can happen, child,
ANYTHING can be.
Shel Silverstein (1930-1999) was best known as an author of offbeat children's poetry. He also wrote picture books, songs, song lyrics (most famously "A Boy Named Sue
"), one-act plays and films. Fans of his mainstream work may be rather stunned to hear
that many of his songs are very
adult in tone, and that he personally was a real-life Chick Magnet
who lived for several years in the actual Playboy Mansion
. He died from a heart attack in May 1999 and was buried in a Chicago cemetery.
His works include:
- A Light in the Attic (poetry collection)
- Where the Sidewalk Ends (poetry collection)
- Lafcadio, The Lion Who Shot Back (children's novel)
- The Giving Tree (picture book)
- Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book (alphabet book consisting of Blatant Lies and intentionally terrible advice)
- Wordless Dances (collection of adult-themed cartoons)
- Falling Up (poetry collection)
- Runny Babbit: A Billy Sook (poetry collection, published posthumously)
- Every Thing On It (poetry collection, also posthumous, probably the last one)
- Things Change, (1988 film directed by David Mamet)
Tropes appearing in his work:
- Abusive Parents / Getting Crap Past the Radar:
- In the poem "Every Lunchtime," the kid's mother packs a venomous snake in his lunch every day.
- In the poem "Quality Time," a father takes his son golfing... and uses him as a tee.
- Affectionate Parody: The song "Sylvia's Mother" is an Affectionate Parody of heartbroken teen love songs. Inevitably, a lot of people who heard the Dr. Hook version somehow missed the joke.
- A.I. Is a Crapshoot: The poem "My Robot."
- All Girls Like Ponies: The poem "Little Abigail and the Beautiful Pony." Let's just say it doesn't end well.
- Aluminum Christmas Trees: People zoos have existed, although they're usually not run by talking animals.
- An Aesop: Quite often, though sometimes sliding into Family-Unfriendly Aesop. For example, in "The Great Smoke Off":
And underneath his fingers
There's a little golden scroll
That says, "Beware of being the roller
When there's nothing left to roll."
- And another, from "Perfect High":
"Well, that is that," says Baba Fats, sitting back down on his stone,
Facing another thousand years of talking to God alone.
"It seems, Lord," says Fats, "it's always the same, old men or bright-eyed youth,
It's always easier to sell them some shit than it is to give them the truth."
- Angry Guard Dog: "Christmas Dog". He mistakes Santa Claus for an intruder and chases him away.
- Annoying Younger Sibling: "One sister for sale! One sister for sale! One crying and spying young sister for sale!"
- Apocalypse How: Justified in "Hungry Mungry," when Mungry starts out by eating his parents, and then proceeds to go all the way up to Class X-4 by eating up the United States, the world, the universe, and finally himself!
- Apocalyptic Log: The poem "Boa Constrictor."
- Also "True Story" where the last line says they died.
- Author Existence Failure: Anything from Runny Babbit onward was released posthumously after Shel had a heart attack in 1999.
- Autocannibalism: "Hungry Mungry" ends with Hungry Mungry eating himself, after having already eaten the rest of the universe.
- Bald of Awesome
- Batman Gambit: In "A Boy Named Sue," the reason the father named him that is because he knew he wouldn't always be there for his son, so he named him Sue so he would grow up hardened and strong from being bullied and picked on.
- Best Served Cold: The song "A Boy Named Sue."
- Bound and Gagged: The poem "Kidnapped," complete with illustration of excessively tied and chained girl.
- Casual Danger Dialog: "Boa Constrictor" The narrator is talking about it as he is eaten.
- Companion Cube: The poem "Snowball," in which the narrator makes himself a pet snowball. It melts.
- The Complainer Is Always Wrong: The poem "Complainin' Jack."
- Contrived Clumsiness: Recommended in "How Not To Have To Dry The Dishes":
If you have to dry the dishes
And you drop one on the floor —
Maybe they won't let you
Dry the dishes anymore.
- Covers Always Lie: Where the Sidewalk Ends has a cover drawing with two children and a dog peering over the edge of the earth. It is from a poem in the book called "The Edge of the World." There is, however, a poem called "Where the Sidewalk Ends" is about the grassy spot between the sidewalk and the street, and has no illustration in the book.
- Daddy Had a Good Reason for Abandoning You: "A Boy Named Sue."
- Dancing Pants: The Trope Namer is a poem in Where The Sidewalk Ends.
- Death by Gluttony: "Pie Problem"
- Death by Irony:
- The poem "Fear (Barnabas Browning)," where the title character is so afraid of drowning that he refuses to leave his room. He dies by literally crying an ocean and drowning in his own tears.
- The poem "Ladies First," in which Pamela Purse is always using the title excuse for her selfishness. When the group gets caught by cannibals and are about to be eaten by the king, she still goes, "Ladies first!"
- In the poem "Lester", the title character gets Three Wishes. He turns out to have some levels of smartassery, as he starts spending his wishes on more wishes. Somehow he dies at the end, leaving behind a now gigantic pile of wishes unused.
- Dem Bones: In "Day After Halloween," a salesman offers low prices on "skeletons, spirits and haunts"; he's overstocked with them now that the holiday's over.
- A Dog Ate My Homework: The narrator of "Blame" says he wrote an extremely wonderful book, but a goat ate it. He wrote a new book in a hurry, but it's not as good as the first one, so he tells people to blame the goat if they don't like the second book. Whether a goat really did eat the book is ambiguous. On one hand, it sounds a lot like a tired old excuse; on the other hand, the poem's illustration is a grinning goat with ripped book pages in its mouth, so maybe he's telling the truth after all.
- Dual Meaning Chorus: The song "I Got Stoned And I Missed It."
- Duck!: The poem "Web-Foot Woe."
- Does Not Like Shoes: Characters in his illustrations rarely wear them.
- Embarrassing First Name: "A Boy Named Sue."
- Eats Babies: "Someone Ate The Baby." It was the narrator.
- Empty Swimming Pool Dive: The punchline of "The Dive."
- Flat World: The poem "The Edge of the World." The illustration for this poem is also on the cover to the collection Where the Sidewalk Ends.
- Gag Penis: The song "Stacy Brown's Got Two."
- A Good Name for a Rock Band: It is one; there's a band called Silverstein.
- Hair Wings: He has a poem about a boy with ridiculously long hair who was mercilessly teased about it until his weeping caused it to flap like wings, carrying him into the air.
- Headphones Equal Isolation: The poem "Headphone Harold."
- Hurricane of Excuses: The poem "Sick."
- I Will Wait for You: The song "In the Hills of Shiloh."
- Killer Rabbit: "Sybil The Magician's Last Show." The eponymous magician can't be bothered to buy food for her rabbit, so when she goes to pull him out of her hat one night, he pulls her into the hat and eats her.
- Long List: The poem "No."
- Mermaid Problem: The song "The Mermaid."
- Multiple Endings: The poem "Hippo's Hope" concerns a hippopotamus who attempts to fly off a mountain and has three different endings: Happy (the hippo succeeds and soars off into the clouds); Unhappy (the hippo fails and plummets down the mountain breaking all his bones); and Chicken (the hippo turns around and goes home to have cookies and tea).
- Multiple Head Case: The poem "Us."
- Naked People Are Funny: A number of his poems deal with states of undress, as well as the fact that some illustrations in his works feature images of characters being naked for apparently no reason.
- Neat Freak: The poem "Clean Gene."
- Nice Hat: Averted with this short rhyme: "Teddy said it was a hat; so I put it on. Now Dad is saying, 'Where the heck's the toilet plunger gone?!'"
- No Ending: A number of his poems end with the story unresolved, such as "Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout." This trope was the whole point of his poem "Suspense," where a Damsel in Distress is Chained to a Railway by one villain, while The Hero is being held prisoner by another. And then a fifth character shows up, and it's unclear whether he's a hero or villain...
And a crash and a cry,
And I'm sorry but I
Have forgotten the rest of the story.
- Not a Mask: The poem "Best Mask?" is a rare example where the maskless person is the narrator.
- Nothing Is Scarier: Sarah's demise at the end of "Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout (Would Not Take the Garbage Out)", letting the reader's imagination run wild.
And there, in the garbage she did hate,
Poor Sarah met an awful fate,
That I cannot now relate
Because the hour is much too late.
- Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep: Parodied in "Prayer of the Selfish Child."
Now I lay me down to sleep;
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my toys to break,
So none of the other kids can use 'em...
- Phony Psychic: In the poem "Crystal Ball," the psychic accurately predicts everything her customer ate for lunch, then admits that she only figured it out by looking at her dress.
- The Pig Pen: The poem "The Dirtiest Man In The World."
- Playground Song: "Boa Constrictor" has turned into one.
- Playing Sick: "Sick."
- Posthumous Narration: The poem "True Story," played for laughs.
- Prayer of Malice: "Prayer of the Selfish Child."
- Pun: In the poem "The Monkey," several words are replaced with numbers. Many replacements are painfully forced.
- Pyrrhic Victory: Played for laughs in "Big Eating Contest".
- Reptiles Are Abhorrent: "Boa Constrictor."
- Rockstar Song: "The Cover of the Rolling Stone," as performed most famously by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, is a parody of this trope; the narrators complain that, despite living the rockstar lifestyle and making money hand over fist, they're not famous enough yet.
- Sanity Slippage: The song "A Front Row Seat to Hear Ole Johnny Sing," where he goes to increasingly absurd lengths to get Johnny Cash tickets... and his delivery gets increasingly less sane throughout the song, to the point that he's practically screaming at the end.
- Also a common interpretation of "The Ballad of Lucy Jordan". Marianne Faithfull, who recorded the definitive and most famous version, believed it ended with Lucy being taken to a mental hospital.
- Scare 'Em Straight: "Little Abigail and the Beautiful Pony" ends with Abigail dead since she didn't get the beautiful pony. A note at the end suggests children should read it to their parents if they refuse to buy something for them.
- Single Stanza Song: The song "26 Second Song."
- Spoonerism: The entire point of Runny Babbit is what would happen if they were grammaticalized.
- Stripped to the Bone: A rare self-induced example in "It's Hot." It's an unpleasantly warm day, so the character removes his shoes to cool off. He's still hot, so he takes off all his clothes. When this doesn't help either, he takes off his skin and sits around in his bones. Then he despairingly exclaims, "It's still hot!"
- Tempting Fate: In the poem "Cookwitch Sandwich," the kid tells the witch cook to make him a sandwich. Insert predictable punchline here.
- Trademark Favorite Food: Peanut butter sandwiches for the king in "Peanut Butter Sandwich," almost to the point of addiction.
- Trash of the Titans: The poem "Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout (Would Not Take The Garbage Out)."
- Turtle Island: "Hungry Kid Island."
- Unintentional Period Piece: Many of his poems could be in any time period, but in a poem about a boy who watched so much television he turned into one, two knobs labeled "vert" (vertical) and "horiz" (horizontal) grow out of him - those picture control knobs haven't been standard on sets for many, many years.
- When I Was Your Age: Amply demonstrated in the poem of the same name.
- Who's on First?: The poem "The Meehoo with an Exactlywatt."