Shel Silverstein’s Introduction to Poetry for Children
By Autumn Hutson
I discovered my love and talent for writing when I was about 8 years old. During the years that led up to that discovery, my mom and teachers were reading me the works of the famous poet Shel Silverstein.
Silverstein’s poems quickly became a source of inspiration and joy. Every time I cracked open one of his books, I dove into his world of quirky characters and outlandish stories. I like to describe it as if Willy Wonka’s factory churned out poetry instead of chocolate.
Those poetry books were published decades before I was born, but I still loved them when I was a child. And your children will love them all the same in 2020 and beyond. The magic of Shel Silverstein’s poetry for children is timeless, and I’ll tell you why!
But first, a word from the poet himself:
“If you are a dreamer, come in,
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer…
If you’re a pretender, come sit by my fire
For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.
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Introduction to Poetry for Children
Poetry That is Just Plain Fun
A lot of people are wary of poetry because of the misconception that it’s stuffy or hard to understand. But Silverstein’s poems are not only easy to get, but also fun to read.
Silverstein tells silly stories through his poems, which can range from a few lines to a couple of pages. In these poems, strange characters exist in stranger circumstances that don’t always need to be explained. The events of each poem only abide by the laws of Silverstein’s imagination, not the real world. And children will happily follow along without any how’s or why’s.
Some of the subject matter includes: a speaker writing their poem from inside of a lion, a boy growing a mustache long enough to tie around a tree branch and swing on, a girl who takes eighty-nine years to eat a whale, and a pair of pants that dance on their own.
Simple, Silly, and Smart
Children will love Shel Silverstein’s poems because they are straightforward and uncomplicated. However, this doesn’t mean that they don’t have heart. There is thought put into every witty line, and the humor is childlike without insulting a young reader’s intelligence.
Silverstein encourages a little mischief in a poem called, “How Not to Have to Dry the Dishes”
“If you have to dry the dishes
(Such an awful, boring chore)
If you have to dry the dishes
(‘Stead of going to the store)
If you have to dry the dishes
And you drop one on the floor–
Maybe they won’t let you
Dry the dishes anymore.”
And he sweetly admits to a childish habit in the poem, “Thumbs”
“Oh the thumb-sucker’s thumb
May look wrinkled and wet
And withered, and white as snow,
But the taste of a thumb
Is the sweetest taste yet
(As only we thumb-suckers know).”
These poems are perfect examples of Silverstein’s humor combined with his wit and heart.
Poems and Art
Shel Silverstein was a multifaceted creative. Not only was he a poet, but he was also a musician and an artist. In fact, all of his poetry books include his own illustrations, each bearing the mark of his signature charm.
An illustration accompanies every poem, and in many cases, the poem on its own is hard to understand without seeing the picture it goes with.
One example is the poem “The Climbers,” which describes the speaker climbing a mountain and suddenly feeling it move and hearing it snore. The illustration shows a group of children climbing along the face of a sleeping man! This is a perfect example of how Silverstein’s illustrations are meant to accompany his poems.
Another example is the four-lined poem, “Have Fun” which goes:
“It’s safe to swim
In Pemrose Park.
There are no sharks.”
No, there aren’t any sharks in Pemrose Park. But there is a giant octopus under the water’s surface, as the illustration depicts!
Shel Silverstein shows young children that they can explore different avenues of creativity when expressing their imaginations. After reading Silverstein, not only will children want to try writing fun poems, but maybe they’ll also give illustrating a try!
Shel Silverstein Respects Your Child’s Mind
Anything designed for children can be written off as silly or unimportant compared to something designed for adult interests. And while being silly is important for children, they are also people with deep feelings and a unique understanding of the world around them. Shel Silverstein sees this, understands it, and honors it through his poetry.
Pearls of wisdom are placed between the goofy jokes and lines, and they do not go unnoticed. Some of my favorites include:
“Listen to the Mustn’ts”
“Listen to the MUSTN’TS child,
Listen to the DON’TS
Listen to the SHOULDN’TS
The IMPOSSIBLES, the WON’TS
Listen to the NEVER HAVES
Then listen close to me–
Anything can happen, child,
ANYTHING can be.”
“The Land of Happy”
“Have you ever been to The Land of Happy,
Where everyone’s happy all day,
Where they joke and they sing
Of the happiest things,
And everything’s jolly and gay?
There’s no one unhappy in Happy,
There’s laughter and smiles galore.
I have been to The Land of Happy–
What a bore!”
Don’t be fooled by the majority of Silverstein’s comical pieces. He has good lessons to share with children about what it means to be human. All it takes is a little imagination to read between the lines.
I still have four Shel Silverstein books on my bookshelf to remind me of the start of my writing journey. My introduction into the world of poetry was led by a poet who was funny, childlike in spirit, and full of heart. I couldn’t have asked for a better Willy Wonka.
Silverstein captures a world of unhindered imagination through poetry in a way that will enamor any reader. So if your child would like to accept this invitation to enter a very special world, go ahead and follow them. Don’t worry, they’ll know where to go. In the words of Shel Silverstein:
“Yes we’ll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And we’ll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
For the children, they mark, and the children, they know
The place where the sidewalk ends.”