07 November 2010

Reviewing Uncle Shelby

I have always had pleasant memories of Shel Silverstein's verse. On a recent reread, I have to admit I gained a little perspective as well. 

I knew, of course, that these were not your average Disney-ized children's poetry. Shel dispensed some pretty radical stuff, like the babysitter who sat upon the baby, and Sarah Cynthia Silvia Stout who (we are led to believe) was buried under her accumulated garbage, etc. Nevertheless, with some light editing, I read these to my children. One daughter can recite the fable of Peggy Ann McKay for you; another has the Falling Up child tattooed on her shoulder. We read lots of things together, but my children remember Shel warmly. 

Once, I was verbally attacked by an irritated bookstore patron who thought Shel was teaching immoral ideas to her young offspring. I shrugged her off as a kook at the time. Her problem: the Giving Tree seemed to her to suggest that one is not virtuous or caring until one has been totally depleted. I guess at the time I assumed it was a wealthy suburbanite feeling a little defensive about her dough. 

Recently, I reread The Giving Tree and The Missing Piece, and I'm afraid I am starting to see her point. The Giving Tree can be construed to condone the selfish and grasping little boy who takes and takes and never gives. It could be  read to illustrate how some people sacrifice much with little appreciation. Granted, it can also be thought of as a story of ultimate redemption and unconditional love. It does seem to suggest a certain passive willingness to be abused. 

And I had contemplated giving The Missing Piece to a newlywed couple as a sort of sweet token of finding that one right person. I think perhaps I read it wrong; at the very least I scrapped the idea of the story as romantic. The dot, sans piece, goes on a pilgrimage to find the part to make itself complete. Upon finding said part, it decides it was less free and less content: it decides that the extra weight of the piece was cramping its rolling-stone style, and casts it away. Oh, sure, it says all this with gentler and more self-affirming speech. But I do wonder if the not-so-subtle message is that we are better single and that wholeness has little to do with accommodating a spouse and family. 

I still love Shel of course. He teaches us that childhood doesn't have to be all baby-talk, and gives us access to the practical-radical (read: socially aware) idea. When you enjoy Silverstein remember: there is always a point to be made, and the protagonist doesn't always have to win. It is generally in the consequence that we find the charm. And if we are not always charmed by the message, we can find the perspective refreshingly frank. After all, the fun begins in the extraordinary place where the sidewalk ends. 

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