Banned Books Week: Shel Silverstein Scares Adults

This year for Banned Books Week, it seems that the week starts with celebrating Shel Silverstein’s birthday. The man was a celebrated poet, songwriter, and cartoonist from what I hear. Parents and school board administrators apparently didn’t approve of him either. RIP since apparently, he was a lot of fun, and the Muppet Show performed one of his more horrifying and catchy songs. That’s available on YouTube, thanks to the joys of people that loved that bit. 

Shel Silverstein wrote many books for children, mainly poetry. Most of us know him for The Giving Tree, a story about an ungrateful boy that keeps cutting off bits of the title character to be “happy”. The boy grows into an old man that can’t do more than sit on the stump of his former friend. It’s not really a happy tale if you’ve grown up in a world where we see people giving more than they have, and the recipient being unable to appreciate a sacrifice. 

When I was a teen and college student, the libraries where I would check out books had displayed on Shel Silverstein. They explained that he was censored as well. It surprised me since I had heard of him in passing and never would have pegged children’s poetry for being flagged. I did read a little of Where The Sidewalk Ends, and it bounced off me. The scares only hit later when I was an adult, having time to sit down and look at the poems. It’s really Falling Up that is horrifying. 

Silverstein knows how to scare adults. While a person can’t put their finger on what about Silverstein is scary, they can certainly make educated guesses. It could be that Silverstein touches on some primal fears and the ways that kids may think. Sometimes there are kids that may think about eating their little siblings and lie about it. Or in other cases, they make all sorts of excuses to stay in bed, until they learn that it’s Saturday. We want to be scared sometimes, but it feels like Silverstein pulls out unconventional ideas that make us scared of our own minds. If he is capable of those ideas, that means we are. The monsters are there, just lurking. 

Some of the poems are quite silly, as the thought that too much peanut butter would glue up your mouth. Others are more unsettling, as the idea of monsters stealing your skin and pretending to be you. “Hungry Kid Island” for me is the scariest Shel Silverstein poem, collected within Falling Up. While the verse itself is pretty innocent, the illustration accompanying it isn’t. I had to look at the page a few times to register what I was seeing. Then I couldn’t turn my eyes away. My goal is to see if the library has it to confirm that the image is real. 

I maintain that kids’ horror and literature are actually scarier than what you would find in adult works. Precisely because you can’t have blood and gore, which is more likely to gross out a reader rather than terrify them, an author for primary readers, middle-grade or young adult has to put in a little more legwork. They rely on people’s imagination to fill in the blanks, and often that makes for a work that forces us to add colors to the black and white or connects dots in a zigzag rather than a swirl. 

Authors like Shel showed that our minds can be scary. For that reason, we need to keep reading him.