Years after he made the imaginary ailments of little Peggy Ann McKay famous (“I have the measles and the mumps/ A gash, a rash and purple bumps”), another collection of Shel Silverstein’s kid-friendly poems has appeared on the market, 12 years after his death.
The newest book, “Every Thing On It,” has the same familiar black-and-white illustrations and wacky rhymes that for decades now have been winning over even the most poetry-averse of kid readers. This book is the first compilation of children's poetry by Silverstein published since his book “Falling Up” appeared in 1996.
Silverstein's career was broad and varied. Before he became known for his poetry, he got both kids and parents a little teary with his children’s book “The Giving Tree,” published in 1964, which told the bittersweet story of a tree willing to give everything it could for the little boy who loved it.
“Happy endings, magic solutions in children's books create an alienation in the child who reads them,” Silverstein once told the New York Times. “The child asks why don't I have this happiness thing you're telling me about, and comes to think when his joy stops that he has failed, that it won't come back.”
Besides his famous occupation as a children’s author, Silverstein worked as a playwright and a performer as well as a cartoonist for Playboy. He also won a Grammy award for his songwriting work on “A Boy Named Sue,” which was recorded by country superstar Johnny Cash. He later received Oscar and Golden Globe nominations in the Best Music, Original Song category for the film “Postcards from the Edge,” and the album of “A Light in the Attic” was nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best Recordings for Children category.
Silverstein’s book “Every Thing On It” has familiar themes and goofy endings, including the poem “School” – consisting only of, “Rain and hail/ Cold and snow/ Are good excuses not to go” – and “The Genie in the Flask,” in which genie legends get turned on their head. “I opened up that magic flask/ And zoof, up popped a genie… He says that I must be his slave/ And oh, he isn’t kidding,” Silverstein writes. Others contain Silverstein’s trademark dark humor, as in "Mustache Mo," whose titular character meets a bad end. “Mustache Mo of the B. & O./ His mustache grows ten feet or so,” writes Silverstein. “It got caught in the wheels below./ Now there’s no mustache/ And no mo’ Mo.”
Some readers, when perusing a book published after the author’s death, may look for a valedictory inclusion. The last poem of “Every Thing On It” seems to sound that note. “When I am gone what will you do?” begins the poem titled, “When I Am Gone.” “Who will write and draw for you?”
But the ending offers the same message of encouragement to kids that is one of the main reasons that Silverstein’s poems are still so popular in classrooms. “Someone smarter – someone new?” Silverstein’s poem continues. “Someone better – maybe YOU!”
Molly Driscoll is a Monitor correspondent.