Literacy, Living, parenting, Poetry

Lessons Learned from Shel Silverstein

I am a late convert to the school of Shel Silverstein.  While my peers cut their literary teeth on his silly and sentimental poems, I had never read them.  My mother hit all the other required lending from the library – Dr. Seuss, Sesame Street, Richard Scarry – but I had never cracked the spine of Where the Sidewalk Ends.

Until my first grader came home singing its praises.  Her teacher had read it aloud to her class and she was hooked.  A week or so later when we signed her up for the summer reading program at our local library, she went straight to that book as the first she’d ever check out with her own library card.  Her nose stayed in that book like a bloodhound to a trail – except when she’d call me over to read a particularly silly poem or look at a contorted pen and ink drawing that she found equally funny.  And from there, she guffawed through Runny Babbit, onto A Light in the Attic, and Falling Up.

It blows my mind to be here at the exact moment when my child becomes an obsessive, voracious reader.  I know I’m one, but I can’t even say that I remember exactly when it happened (though it was most likely on my mother’s lap at bedtime).  Where the Sidewalk Ends is her gateway drug.

Harry Potter hit at the outset of my teaching career.  Then and many times since, I’ve heard people disparage its literary quality (which I don’t necessarily agree with), but applaud its ability to get kids hooked on reading.  I am not drawing parallels that bring Mr. Silverstein’s work into question, but having never been privy to the mania surrounding his work myself as a kid, I can’t say I understand it.  But, hey, it has lit that part of my child’s brain that makes her interested in an author, a genre, amassing a body of knowledge – it’s literary gold as far as I’m concerned.

And tonight, I mined for gold even further when I held up two books for she and her sister to choose from for bedtime reading, one of which was The Giving Tree, knowing full well which one they would choose (her sister is also becoming enamored with the idea of Shel Silverstein just by hearing big sis talk about it all the time).  The Giving Tree is actually the only Silverstein book I’m familiar with, having received it as a gift for the girls (no doubt by one of my contemporaries who has fond childhood memories of biting into it) when they were smaller.  I remember reading it in a hormone-induced haze and choking through my words at the end of it.  Man, it got me.

But the simplicity of it got me even more tonight.  And the message that it has for all readers – young and old alike.

I was reading it with a different eye, tuned into the words in light of the poetry my daughter has been reading.  Spread across multiple pages, the beginning is actually an extended stanza.  I could see the line breaks and hear the cadence across the creases.  But then the boy grows older.  And things get more complex.  There is an up-tick in language.  A problem.  Discussion.  Back and forth.  A one-sided decision.  And the tone of the story remains at this elevated level until the boy returns as an old man, weary of the world and its ways, and ready to embrace what he already knew as a young person.

So, tonight, as a thirty-three and seven-eighths year-old woman, I learned a lesson from reading Shel Silverstein; one that I couldn’t possibly have learned had I encountered him for the first time in first grade.  By keeping things simple – our language, our needs, our desires, our interactions with others – life is more enjoyable for everyone.  It is only when we want more, we expect more, we demand more, that things gets muddled and more difficult, especially when we look for those things in inappropriate places.  Being totally appreciative of what we have and honoring those who help us get it is a place to start.  And perhaps we wouldn’t be so very tired at the end of it all if we remembered these things.

Who would’ve thought that I would’ve learned such a profound lesson by reading a bedtime story to my children?  Certainly not I.  So a big shout out to Shel Silverstein tonight, wherever you are – for opening my daughter’s eyes to the wonders of reading and giving me new eyes to see.