After nearly 60 years since the release of The Giving Tree, Shel Silverstein has remained one of the most beloved, respected, and enigmatic names within children’s literature. His books and collections of whimsical poems have delighted many loving fans across the world, yet despite the success and acclaim, Silverstein has also been a frequent topic of controversy in the children’s literary world. On more than one occasion, attempts have been made to ban his work from school libraries across America. Parents and scholars alike have made repeated efforts to censor Silverstein’s work and keep his books out of the hands of children whether it was due to accusations that The Giving Tree promotes sexism, that A Light in the Attic “encourages children to break dishes so they won’t have to dry them,” or that Where the Sidewalk Ends promotes “drug use, suicide, death, the occult, violence, disrespect for authority, disrespect for truth, and rebellion against parents.”
Why is Silverstein such a prime target for censorship? I would argue that it is because he played the role of an outsider throughout his life. Silverstein was never a traditional role model for children. In fact, when we look at his life, it would probably be more appropriate to describe him as a counterculture icon than a children’s author. He started his career making cartoons and travelogues for Playboy while also writing music and participating in the folk club scene of downtown New York in the 1950s and 60s. He was a rebel and a beatnik and his work reflects this heavily. Even his very first children’s book, The Giving Tree, defies many of the expectations of traditional children’s literature. The ending is not happy but instead filled with complicated emotion and ambiguity. And if we look at poems from some of his other beloved works, we see many depictions of childish rebellion against parents and school teachers which all seem to be further extensions of Silverstein’s outsider views.
Nevertheless, it is the countercultural perspective of Silverstein’s books that makes them so worthwhile. It is important for us to consider what could’ve been lost if the countless attempts to censor Silverstein’s work had succeeded. Many parents think that their responsibility as child caretakers is to sanitize their children’s world and to shelter them from it. In these sanitized worlds, there is no room for Shel Silverstein. There is no room for ambiguous endings or frivolous poems that question parental authority and make fun of the absurdities surrounding school or chores. These parents cannot trust their children to explore the world freely or to read stories that might introduce challenging perspectives of their childhood. If the parents and teachers behind the efforts to ban these books had achieved their goal, they may have succeeded in creating a more sanitary world for their children, but at the cost of their children’s intellectual freedom. Children need stories with different and varied perspectives or else they will grow into undeveloped and immature adults. By attempting to craft perfect childhoods and raise perfect, rule-following children, we do the next generation a disservice by improperly preparing them for the world to come. While some parents fail to trust their children to choose which stories they want to read, Silverstein always did and the world is all the better for it.
Shel Silverstein will always remain a glowing example of the effect one man can have on a generation of children. With his heartfelt narratives and silly poems, he succeeded in nurturing the imaginations of millions of kids around the globe. He trusted children to accept a challenging and dangerous world and invited them to question the absurdities of life. To put it simply, Silverstein’s voice is not one that we can ever afford to lose.