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Creator / Shel Silverstein

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Listen to the MUSTN'TS, child,
Listen to the DON'TS,
Listen to the SHOULDN'TS,
Listen to the NEVER HAVES,
Then listen close to me —
Anything can happen, child,
ANYTHING can be.

Sheldon Allan "Shel" Silverstein (September 25, 1932 – 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. He died from a heart attack in May 1999 and was buried in a Chicago cemetery.


Selected works:


Tropes appearing in his work:

  • Absurdly Long Limousine: It may or may not technically be a limousine, but "Longmobile" certainly fits the spirit of this trope.
    It's the world's longest car, I swear,
    It reaches from Beale Street to Washington Square.
    And once you get in it
    To go where you're going,
    You simply get out, 'cause you're there.
  • Abusive Parents:
    • 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 daughter golfing... and uses her as a tee.
  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: The poem "My Robot" has the narrator building a robot to do chores for them, only for the robot to demand the narrator to do work for it.
  • All Girls Like Ponies: In "Little Abigail and the Beautiful Pony," Abigail sees a pony for sale that she wants, but her parents won't buy it for her. She eventually dies of heartbreak and her parents are devastated. The poem ends with the line "This is a good story to read to your parents when they won't buy you something you want."
  • Aluminum Christmas Trees: The poem "People Zoo" concerns a kid who gets kidnapped by animals and put in display in a human zoo. People zoos have existed, although they're usually not run by talking animals.
  • 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."
  • Angry Guard Dog: "Christmas Dog". He mistakes Santa Claus for an intruder and chases him away.
  • Animal Sweet on Object: Played for Drama in "The Bagpipe Who Didn't Say No". The poem tells how a tired turtle found a bagpipe on the beach and fell in love with it. Of course, the bagpipe can't speak, so the "relationship" progresses through a long string of requests from the turtle until he tries cuddling the bagpipe and it says "aaooga". Taking this as a sign he's offended his "love", the turtle begs "her" to tell him that it's not over and "she" doesn't want him to leave, but of course the bagpipe can't speak.
    And the turtle crept off crying and he ne'er came back no more
    And he left the bagpipe lying on that smooth and sandy shore.
  • Annoying Younger Sibling: In "For Sale", a boy gets so fed up with his annoying younger sister that he tries to auction her off, but nobody will buy her.
    One sister for sale! One sister for sale! One crying and spying young sister for sale!
  • Apocalypse How: 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.
  • Autocannibalism: "Hungry Mungry" ends with Hungry Mungry eating his body, after having already eaten the rest of the universe.
  • 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."
  • Big Eater: In Where the Sidewalk Ends, there is a poem about a girl who eats an entire whale. However, she takes eighty-nine years to do it. This trope is also exaggerated in "Hungry Mungry", where a child eats the entire universe.
  • 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.
  • Bound and Gagged: The poem "Kidnapped," complete with illustration of an excessively tied and chained girl. (Granted, it is eventually revealed to be a child’s excuse for why they were late for school)
  • Bowdlerise: The poem "The Googies Are Coming" was originally titled "The Gypsies Are Coming", before being changed to the current title due to the older title coming off as rather bigoted (due to the poem being about the titular googies/gypsies coming to kidnap children and sell them).
  • Carnivore Confusion: In "Strange Restaurant," the narrator tries to order food at a restaurant only to find that every dish down to the salad requires killing some member of the staff. The waitress's a cow, the busboy's a hen, the chef is a fish, etc.
  • 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. This is from a poem in the book called "The Edge of the World," not "Where the Sidewalk Ends." The title poem is about the grassy spot between the sidewalk and the street, and it has no illustration in the book.
  • Cutting the Knot: In "Mirror, Mirror", when the evil queen's magic mirror won't tell her she's the most beautiful in the land no matter how many times she asks, she threatens to smash it until it gives her the answer she wants. It works.
  • 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: In "Pie Problem", the narrator will die if he has one more piece of pie, but will also die if he can't have one more piece of pie. Since he's going to die anyway, he chooses the pie.
  • 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. He keeps doing this his entire life, but never actually uses his wishes for anything else, so by the time he dies he has millions.
  • 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.
  • Didn't Think This Through: In "Keep-Out House", the narrator builds a house with no windows or doors so nobody else can get in. He then realizes that he can't get in, either.
  • Died During Production: Anything from Runny Babbit onward was released posthumously after Shel died in 1999.
  • Does Not Like Shoes: Some characters in his illustrations rarely wear them. Shel himself is often seen barefoot in several photographs.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: The titular character in "Little Abigail and The Pony" dying from a broken heart sounds an awful lot like a euphemism for suicide.
  • 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: 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.
  • Duck!: The poem "Web-Foot Woe."
  • Elemental Rock–Paper–Scissors: "The Bear, the Fire, and the Snow". The bear fears the snow, the snow fears the fire, the fire fears the river, and the river fears the bear.
  • Embarrassing First Name: "A Boy Named Sue."
  • Early Installment Weirdness: "Where the Sidewalk Ends" is not only Silverstein's first collection of poems, it's also the only one where the title poem is not the first one.
  • Eats Babies: "Someone Ate The Baby." It was the narrator.
  • Empty Swimming Pool Dive: The punchline of "Fancy Dive."
  • Exact Words:
    • Invoked in the poem "Obedient", in which a disobedient student is told by his teacher to go stand in the corner until she tells him he can turn around. He complies — but she never tells him, and he is forgotten soon after. He stands there in the corner all through the weekend, which leads into summer vacation. Soon after, the school is closed down and relocated, all while this boy continues to stand there for forty years as he waits for the teacher to say, "Turn around." In conclusion...
    This might not be just what she meant,
    But me — I'm so obedient.
    • In "Have Fun", the narrator assures us that it's safe to swim in Pemrose Park because there are no sharks in it. The illustration shows an octopus in the lake instead.
    • 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.
  • Eye Scream: In "Carrots", a boy hears that carrots are good for your eyesight and stabs a carrot into each of his eyes. He asks if he's not doing it right.
  • Failed a Spot Check: In "Fancy Dive", Melissa somehow forgets to make sure that there's water in the pool before doing an extremely complex dive into it. That is, assuming someone didn't drain the pool while she was diving...
  • 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."
  • Genius Loci: "Hungry Kid Island" is about this.
  • Green Gators: In "The Unicorn", the refrain is a list of different kinds of animals, including "green alligators".
  • 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.
  • Growing Up Sucks: "I Won't Hatch!" is from the point of view of a baby chick who refuses to leave the safety of the egg because they've heard about all the horrible things in the world like war, pollution, shouting people, and roaring airplanes, despite the cackling of the hens and the begging of the roosters.
  • 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.
  • Headphones Equal Isolation: The poem "Headphone Harold."
  • Human Aliens: Downplayed. The poem "The Planet of Mars" describes the aliens on Mars as very human-like, except for the fact that they have heads on their bottoms.
  • Hurricane of Excuses: The poem "Sick."
  • I Will Wait for You: The song "In the Hills of Shiloh." Coupled with Sanity Slippage.
  • 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.
  • Know-Nothing Know-It-All: In the poem, "Smart", a father gives his "smartest" son a dollar bill, and the boy trades it with someone for two quarters (because two is more than one), then he trades those for three dimes, then four nickels, and finally, five pennies. He then shows his dad, who turns red, closes his eyes and shakes his head, and the boy concludes that his dad is so proud he's speechless.
  • Like Goes with Like: In "Long-Leg Lou and Short-Leg Sue," the two characters go out walking together, but Long-Leg Lou gets frustrated that Short-Leg Sue can't walk as fast as him and decides to go walking with someone else. Short-Leg Sue goes walking with Slow-Foot Pete.
  • Long List: The poem "No."
  • Mermaid Problem: The song "The Mermaid."
  • Minor Flaw, Major Breakup: A platonic example in "Long-Leg Lou and Short-Leg Sue," where Long-Leg Lou decides to stop walking with Short-Leg Sue because she can't walk as fast as he can.
  • Morton's Fork: In "Pie Problem", the narrator is so bloated that he'll die if he eats one more piece of pie, but if he doesn't have one more piece of pie, he'll also die. Since he's going to die anyway, he decides he might as well have one more piece of pie.
  • 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."
    • In the poem "Mr. Smeds and Mr. Spats", Mr. Smeds has 21 heads and only one hat. He sells his hat to Mr. Spats, who has 21 hats and only one head.
    • This poem from Where the Sidewalk Ends:
    Chester come to school and said:
    "Durn, I growed another head!"
    Teacher said: "It's time you knowed
    The word is 'grew' instead of 'growed'."
  • 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.
  • Neat Freak: The poem "Clean Gene."
  • 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...
    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.
  • A Noun Referred to as X: "A Boy Named Sue"
  • 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...
  • Ode to Intoxication: "I Got Stoned And I Missed It."
  • Oh, Crap!: The illustration that accompanies "Fancy Dive".
    She did thirty-four jackknives, backflipped and spun,
    Quadruple gainered, and reached for the sun,
    And then somersaulted nine times and a quarter—
    And looked down and saw that the pool had no water.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Powered by a Forsaken Child: The poem "The Homework Machine" is about a machine that does homework, but it is run by a small child who does some basic math problems wrong.
  • Prayer of Malice: "Prayer of the Selfish Child."
  • Precision F-Strike: "A Boy Named Sue" has one: "'Cause I'm the son of a bitch that named you Sue".
  • 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."
  • 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.
  • Roguish Romani: "The Gypsies Are Coming", from Where The Sidewalk Ends, is all about how the titular people are coming to "buy little children and take them away". Later editions censor it to replace "gypsies" with the nonsense word "googies". The poem's illustration, which depicts a stereotypical "gypsy" carrying off children in a sack, was kept, however.
  • 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.
  • 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."
  • Somebody Named "Nobody": The poem "Nobody" in Where the Sidewalk Ends.
    Nobody loves me, nobody cares,
    Nobody picks me peaches and pears.
    Nobody offers me candy and Cokes,
    Nobody listens and laughs at my jokes. ...
    So, if you ask me who's my best friend, in a whiz,
    I'll stand up and tell you NOBODY is!
  • 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!"
  • 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.
  • Take That, Audience!: "Rotten Convention" describes a whole host of gruesome and gross people. It ends with:
    And everybody there kept askin'...
    Where were you?
  • 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," practically to the point of addiction.
  • Training from Hell: The poem "The Runners". The illustration shows the track team being chased by the coach, who is a lion, over a spiked pit trap.
  • Trash of the Titans: The poem "Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout (Would Not Take The Garbage Out)."
  • Turtle Island: "Hungry Kid Island."
  • 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).
  • Villains Out Shopping: The narrator in "Monsters I've Met" seems a bit disappointed that the monsters he meets never seem to want to kill him, but only to ask him for small favors.
  • Was It Really Worth It?: Played for laughs in "Big Eating Contest". The narrator has to pay $2 for the entrance fee, $20 for the burgers and fries, and then $110 for the resulting hospital bill. He wins first prize...which is $5.
  • "What's Inside?" Plot: "What's in the Sack?" From Where the Sidewalk Ends.
  • When I Was Your Age...: Amply demonstrated in the poem of the same name. Parodied when the narrator says he's nine and a half, and his uncle scoffs, "When I was your age, I was ten."
  • Who's on First?: The poem "The Meehoo with an Exactlywatt." Silverstein directly acknowledges the Trope Namer as the main inspiration.
  • Wishing for More Wishes: In "Lester", the eponymous character encounters a goblin that grants him one wish. The boy wishes for two wishes, which he gets, surprisingly enough. So with each wish, he wishes for two more wishes, giving him four wishes. And with each of those wishes, he wishes for two more, giving him eight. This goes on for some time, until the boy dies, presumably from old age. All that's left of him is a humongous pile of unused wishes. The narrator of the story then invites the reader to take a few, and warns the reader not to "waste your wishes on wishing."