Banned Books Awareness: Shel Silverstein

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For more than 40 years the books of Sheldon Allan “Shel” Silverstein have entertained and delighted readers as they are shared by fans and passed down to younger generations.

The Giving Tree is one of the most affectionate, oft-quoted, and beloved children’s stories of all time; A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends are many a child’s first introduction to poetry.

These books have endured because Silverstein paints a whimsical world of fantasy that teaches us valuable and philosophical lessons, while at the same time making us laugh at absolute nonsense.

Let’s face it, how many of us haven’t wondered at some point why a babysitter doesn’t sit on a baby? Well, I did, but I digress…

So what could be so evil about these tales that the American Library Association has Silverstein on its list of frequently banned books?

Some argue that it has nothing to do with the books themselves; it is simply the fact that Shel Silverstein wrote them that is the reason they should be banned because his career included having drawn cartoons for Playboy. This led to some claiming that A Light in the Attic contained “Suggestive illustrations.”

That’s all? Haven’t these people ever heard of creative diversity?

The controversy over The Giving Tree is mostly due to debate over its interpretation. Was the tree selfless or self-sacrificing? Was the boy selfish or reasonable in his demands of the tree?

Some psychologists claim the book portrays a “vicious, one-sided relationship” between the tree and the boy; with the tree as the selfless giver, and the boy as the greedy person who takes but never gives.

Talk about overanalyzing. That’s just too much thought put into a children’s book that the only thing I ever got out of was the importance of sharing; and I was a professional in the mental health field for over 10 years.

Still, the criticisms continued when, in 1985, challengers at Cunningham Elementary School in Beloit, Wisconsin, said that A Light in the Attic “encourages children to break dishes so they won’t have to dry them.”

As soon as the news of one school district banning the books was revealed, other schools across the nation quickly jumped on the bandwagon. By the end of the 20th century it was at #51 for the 100 most banned books of the 1990’s.

The poem “Little Abigail and the Beautiful Pony” led to condemnation by the Fruitland Park Elementary School in Lake County, Florida since little Abigail, whose parents refused to buy her a pony, dies at the end. The decision was later overturned by an advisory committee of parents and teachers.

Other objections included the mention of supernatural themes such as demons, devils, and ghosts in many of the poems.

Such was the case at an elementary school in Mukwonago, Wisconsin, where the charges were made that the poems “glorified Satan, suicide, and cannibalism.”

Where the Sidewalk Ends was yanked from the shelves of West Allis-West Milwaukee, Wisconsin school libraries in 1986 over fears that it “promotes drug use, the occult, suicide, death, violence, disrespect for truth, disrespect for authority, and rebellion against parents.”

Members of the Central Columbia School District in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania must have confused the year 1993 with 1393 when they objected to the poem Dreadful over the line “someone ate the baby” because they feared some of their more impressionable students might actually be encouraged to engage in cannibalism.

Sidewalk was also challenged in the Xenia, Ohio, school district in 1983; and by the public school system in Minot, North Dakota in 1986.

Silverstein’s books have sold more than 20 million copies worldwide in 20 different languages, and he is the recipient of many literary awards, including a Grammy and an Oscar for his songwriting.

Sadly, the man who brought light to so many left this world in such a dark manner.

He was found by two housekeepers at his apartment in Key West on May 10, 1999, a victim of a heart attack.

What he leaves behind are timeless classics that delight children and provide adults with a sense of heartfelt nostalgia.

The thing I find so fascinating and admirable about these works is that Silverstein figuratively sits on the floor, looking at his young readers eye to eye, and speaking to them as intellectual equals. His words tell them to enjoy being children, and to stay children for as long as possible.

What the book burners don’t get, and perhaps never will get, is that it’s okay to have a difference of opinion; that there are more options than two polar opposites. This is reflected in “Listen to the Musn’ts”:

Listen to the MUSN’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.

That seems like a fairly respectful way to go through life to me; but that’s just my opinion. I could be wrong.


Sources: American Library Association, Babble.com, Wikipedia, Amazon.com, Yahoo News, Examiner.com, USA Today, Southwest Wisconsin Association of Libraries.

© 2011 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

One comment

Katt >^-,-^< #permalink

U aren't wrong at all… I'm a woman who has grandchildren and I read Shel's books to them, just as I did their daddy when he was young. Occasionally I pick them up and read them just for my own enjoyment. I agree. Some people need to stop searching for the bad in everything and see the good that was intended.

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