I was a huge fan of Shel Silverstein growing up — to the point where I can still, 20 years later, recite (most of) my favorite poem, “Sick,” from the collection “Where the Sidewalk Ends.” The beloved author (and stealth lyricist of Johnny Cash’s hit song, “A Boy Named Sue”) died in 1999, more than 30 years after “The Giving Tree” hit bookshelves. Now a new collection, “Every Thing On It” — compiled from Silverstein’s personal archives — has been published for the first time. As a kid, I learned simple yet important lessons about the real world from his silly and often darkly humored rhymes. Even though I’m a certified grownup, I can’t wait to see what new knowledge this new batch of poems from the man behind “The Missing Piece” will bring.
Lesson #1: Be cool with rejection
Take it from the Pac-Man-like character from “The Missing Piece.” Whether it’s for a job or a date, getting shot down totally stings. Luckily, the book’s main focus is the self-realization that you don’t need someone else to complete you (sorry, Jerry Maguire) — and that some pieces, although they seem perfect, aren’t meant to fit.
From “The Missing Piece”
I am not your missing piece
I am nobody’s piece.
I am my own piece.
And even if I was somebody’s missing piece
I don’t think I’d be yours!
Lesson #2: Every so often, it’s good to purge
Before A&E made packrats a national fascination, Silverstein introduced us to Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout, who wouldn’t take the garbage out. The description of all of the yucky things in her rotting trash is gross, but it’s the social implications that really strike a chord. And that’s why you’ll never see me on “Hoarders.”
From “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out” in “Where the Sidewalk Ends”
At last the garbage reached so high
That it finally touched the sky.
And all the neighbors moved away,
And none of her friends would come to play.
Lesson #3: Don’t be afraid to jump right in
It may be prudent to calculate risks before you make decisions, but sometimes it’s better to skip the gut check and take a giant leap. Otherwise you might get stuck on the diving board, too scared to jump in.
From “Diving Board” in “Falling Up”
You’ve made sure that the spring is tight.
You’ve made sure that the cloth won’t slip.
You’ve made sure that it bounces right,
And that your toes can get a grip—
And you’ve been up there since half past five
Doin’ everything… but dive.
Lesson #4: But know when to look before you leap
Sure, there are some things you should really think about before you do them. Like getting married, wearing a fanny pack or cutting your own bangs. And thanks to Silverstein, I will always check for water in a pool before I jump.
From “Fancy Dive” in “A Light in the Attic”
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.
Lesson #5: A true friend will always offer you a place to sit
Over the years, I’ve heard plenty of debate over Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree.” In the story, a boy and a tree strike up a friendship. Over the years, the tree offers the boy different parts of itself (apples, branches, etc.) until all that is left is a stump. Some say the boy was selfish, others say the tree was selfless. Some people have told me it’s a story about greed while others think it neatly encapsulates the parent-child relationship. Here’s what I know — this story taught me that a good friend is like this tree: constant, supportive and a willing companion, no matter what.
From “The Giving Tree”
‘I don’t need very much now,’
said the boy,
‘Just a quiet place to sit and rest.
I am very tired.’
‘Well,’ said the tree, straightening herself up
as much as she could,
‘Well, an old stump is good for sitting and resting.
Come, Boy, sit down.
Sit down and rest.’
And the boy did.
And the tree was happy.
Lesson #6: Don’t stick your nose where it doesn’t belong
Thanks to Silverstein’s latest collection, “Every Thing On It,” kids (and some nosy adults) will understand the repercussions of being meddlesome. Take it from the poet, whose character Professor Shore decides to do some up close and personal research on how an elephant’s tail works — only to be unpleasantly surprised by the pungent realities of standing beneath an elephant’s bottom.
From “Investigating” in “Every Thing On It”
Something happened, so nauseating
And so disgusting that I fear it
Just might make you sick to hear it.
So let’s just say Professor Shore
Doesn’t investigate tails no more.