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.
Sheldon Allan "Shel" Silverstein (September 25, 1930 – May 10, 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", "The Unicorn" and "The Cover of Rolling Stone"), 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 while writing and drawing for the magazine. He died from a heart attack in May 1999 and was buried in a Chicago cemetery.
- Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book (1960) (alphabet book consisting of Blatant Lies and intentionally terrible advice)
- Lafcadio, The Lion Who Shot Back (1963) (children's novel)
- Don't Bump the Glump or Uncle Shelby's Zoo (1964) (poetry collection)
- The Giving Tree (1964) (picture book)
- Where the Sidewalk Ends (1974) (poetry collection)
- Different Dances (1979) (collection of wordless adult-themed cartoons)
- A Light in the Attic (1981) (poetry collection)
- Falling Up (1996) (poetry collection)
- Runny Babbit: A Billy Sook (2005) (poetry collection of spoonerisms, published posthumously)
- Every Thing On It (2011) (poetry collection, published posthumously)
- Runny Babbit Returns (2017) (poetry collection, published posthumously)
- Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? (1971), a movie for which he wrote songs
- Things Change (1988 film directed by David Mamet) — co-wrote the screenplay
Tropes appearing in his work:
- Accent Depundent: His poems have this issue sometimes, such as a joke based on the words "ant" and "aunt" sounding identical, and the poem "Fancy Dive" relying on the words "quarter" and "water" rhyming (which was likely intended to be either a forced rhyme, or pronounced in an accent with intrusive r's in the form of "quarter" and "worter"). The title of Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book also sounds a lot less strange if the Z is pronounced as "zee".
- An Aesop: Quite often, though sometimes sliding into Hard Truth 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 "That 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."
- And another, from "That Perfect High":
- Barefoot Loon: Despite remarking, "Comfortable shoes and the freedom to leave are the two most important things in life", he went barefoot for several photographs, including the one on the back of Where the Sidewalk Ends, which seems in line with the eccentric tone of his writings.
- 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."
- Black Comedy: Much of his work features dark humor. The best example is his song "You're Always Welcome At Our House", where the singer describes his family killing and hiding the body of whoever visits their home in each verse, all the while stating in each refrain that the listener is always welcome at their house.
- Daddy Had a Good Reason for Abandoning You: "A Boy Named Sue."
- Depraved Kids' Show Host: Shel's persona of "Uncle Shelby" in Subverted Kids' Show-style books like Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book is illiterate, emotionally manipulative, and likes telling "tender young minds" to do things that range from just plain ridiculous (like throwing eggs at the ceiling) to inappropriate (like asking their parents to buy them a gigolo, which he claims is a musical instrument) to extraordinarily dangerous (like telling the nice kidnapper with ice cream that their dad has lots of money). Later editions have to clarify on the cover that the book is for adults only, though Shel himself disagreed, writing for no specific demographic and believing that children should be treated no differently from anybody else.
- Died During Production: Anything from Runny Babbit onward was released posthumously after Shel died in 1999.
- Dual-Meaning Chorus: Over the course of the three choruses in "I Got Stoned And I Missed It", the titular "it" first refers to the narrator's day, then a night he spent sleeping with "the local virgin", and finally his life.
- Embarrassing First Name: "A Boy Named Sue."
- Exact Words: In "Every Thing On It", a boy asks for a hot dog with everything on it. He gets a hot dog piled with a large number of random items, including a rake, a bee, a goldfish, a flag, a fiddle, and a front porch swing.
- Gag Penis: The song "Stacy Brown's Got Two."
- Green Gators: In "The Unicorn", the refrain is a list of different kinds of animals, including "green alligators".
- He Also Did: Those who know him entirely for his children's poetry and stories may be utterly unaware of his prolificacy as a songwriter.
- I Will Wait for You: The song "In the Hills of Shiloh." Coupled with Sanity Slippage.
- Mermaid Problem: The song "The Mermaid."
- Naked Nutter: "The Ballad of Lucy Jordan" tells the story of a suburban housewife going mad, and mentions some of the "oh so many ways" Lucy Jordan can choose to spend her day: "she could clean the house for hours / or rearrange the flowers / or run naked through the shady street / screaming all the way". The subsequent verses reveal that she is really doing the latter, resulting in her being carted off to a mental asylum.
- 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.
- No Ending: A number of his poems end with the story unresolved, such as "Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout."
- Ode to Intoxication: "I Got Stoned And I Missed It."
- One-Person Birthday Party: In "Happy Birthday", nobody comes to the narrator's birthday party. He doesn't care because he gets to eat all the ice cream and tea.
- Precision F-Strike: "A Boy Named Sue" has one: "'Cause I'm the son of a bitch that named you Sue".
- Prefers Going Barefoot: Some characters in his illustrations rarely wear shoes.
- Repurposed Pop Song: The final chorus of "The Unicorn", specifically The Irish Rovers' version, has been used to promote at least one zoo.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 unicorn.
- Rock-Star 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.
- 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.
- Single Stanza Song: The song "26 Second Song."
- Spoonerism: The entire point of Runny Babbit is what would happen if they were grammaticalized.
- Super Group: He assembled the country music supergroup Old Dogs (Waylon Jennings, Bobby Bare, Jerry Reed, and Mel Tillis) in 1998 after Bare asked him to write songs about growing old.
- Unwilling Suspension: Silverstein's famous gag cartoon involves this. Two prisoners are shown shackled to the wall of a prison cell and suspended in the air as one tells the other he has a plan (presumably to escape).