Shel Silverstein, beloved poet, songwriter, children’s author, and illustrator, perfected an instantly recognizable visual and literary style that has imprinted itself on several generations. We remember the heartfelt whimsy of stories like The Giving Tree (1964) and poetry collections like Where the Sidewalk Ends (1974) and A Light in the Attic (1981) as we remember childhood best friends, first crushes, and summer camp exploits. Many of us raised on his work have gone on to have kids of our own, so we get to revisit those books we loved, with their weird, irreverent twists and turns and wild imaginative flights. Our kids get a bonus, though, thanks to the web, since they can also see several Silverstein poems and stories in animated form on Youtube. Today, we bring you six of those animations. Sate your nostalgia, share with your kids, and rediscover the utterly distinctive voice of the pre-eminent children’s poet.
We don’t get to hear Silverstein’s actual voice in the animations of “Runny’s Hind Keart”and “Runny on Rount Mushmore,” above, two of many poems made almost entirely of spoonerisms from the book and audio CD Runny Babbit: A Billy Sook, posthumously published in 2005. Instead, Silverstein sound-alike Dennis Locorriere—former lead singer of the band Dr. Hook—narrates. (Silverstein wrote a number of songs for the band.) The poems are as fun for kids to read aloud as they are to untangle. Read full text here.
Just above, we get vintage Silverstein, read/singing “Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me Too” from Where the Sidewalk Ends. Accompanied by an acoustic guitar, Silverstein turns the poem into a folk ballad, his voice rising and cracking off-key. You may know that Silverstein wrote the Johnny Cash hit “A Boy Named Sue”—you may not know that he recorded his own version and several dozen more songs besides. The video above offers a fair representation of his musical style.
Silverstein published his award-winning collection of poetry Falling Up in 1996, three years before his death and many years after my childhood, so I didn’t have the pleasure of reading poems like “The Toy Eater” as a kid. The poem is an excellent example of what Poets.org calls Silverstein’s “deft mixing of the sly and the serious, the macabre, and the just plain silly.”
Hear Silverstein above read “Backwards Bill,” a poem I remember quite well as one of my favorites from A Light in the Attic. His raspy sing-song narration turns the poem into a funny little melody kids will remember and love singing along to.
Finally, we bring you an animated excerpt from Silverstein’s beloved 1963 fable Lafcadio: The Lion Who Shot Back, Silverstein’s first book written exclusively for children. He is so well known as a writer and illustrator for kids that it’s easy to forget that Silverstein first made a career in the fifties and sixties as a cartoonist for adults, publishing most of his work in Playboy. Silverstein never formally studied poetry and hadn’t considered writing it until his editor at Harper & Row, Ursula Nordstrom, urged him to. Without her intervention, he’d surely still be remembered for his iconic visual style and songwriting, but millions of kids would have missed out on the weirdness of his warped imagination. Silverstein showed us we didn’t have to be sentimental or schmaltzy to be open-hearted, caring, and curious. His work endures because he had the unique ability to speak to children in a language they understand without condescending or dumbing things down. See several more short animations at Silverstein’s official website.