Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Shel Silverstein’

12 FEBRUARY, 2015

The Missing Piece Meets the Big O: Shel Silverstein’s Sweet Allegory for the Simple Secret of Love and the Key to Nurturing Relationships

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A gentle reminder that the best relationships don’t complete us but let us grow and become more fully ourselves.

The best children’s books, as Tolkien asserted and Sendak agreed, aren’t written for children; they are enjoyed by children, but they speak to our deepest longings and fears, and thus enchant humans of all ages. But the spell only works, as legendary children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom memorably remarked, “if the dull adult isn’t too dull to admit that he doesn’t know the answers to everything.”

Few storytellers have immunized us against our adult dullness, generation after generation, more potently than Shel Silverstein, one of the many beloved authors and artists — alongside Maurice Sendak, E.B. White, Margaret Wise Brown, and dozens of others — whose genius Nordstrom cultivated under her compassionate and creatively uncompromising wing. In a letter from September of 1975, she wrote: “Shel promised me that it was in really good and almost final shape… I hope with all my heart that this is really the case.” Silverstein had gone to visit Nordstrom some weeks earlier and recited the story for her, which she found to be “very very good (in fact terrific).” “I hope he hasn’t messed it up,” she adds in the letter, “and I’m pretty sure he hasn’t.” Nordstrom’s intuition and her unflinching faith in her authors and artists was never misplaced.

In 1976, The Missing Piece Meets the Big O (public library) was published — a minimalist, maximally wonderful allegory at the heart of which is the emboldening message that true love doesn’t complete us, even though at first it might appear to do that, but lets us grow and helps us become more fully ourselves. It’s a story especially poignant for those of us who have ever suffered from Savior Syndrome or Victim Syndrome and sought a partner to either fix or be fixed by, the result of which is often disastrous, always disappointing, and never salvation or true love.

Silverstein tells the tale of a lonely little wedge that dreams of finding a big circle into which it can fit, so that together they can roll and go somewhere. Various shapes come by, but none are quite right.

In these unbefitting rolling partners, one can’t help but recognize the archetypes implicated in failed friendships and romances — there are the damaged-beyond-repair (“some had too many pieces missing”), the overly complicated (“some had too many pieces, period”) the worshipper (“one put it on a pedestal and left it there”), the self-involved narcissist (“some rolled by without noticing”).

The missing piece tries to make itself more attractive, flashier — but that scares away the shy ones and leaves it ever lonelier.

At last, one comes along that fits just right, and the two roll on by blissfully.

But then, something strange starts happening — the missing piece begins to grow.

And just like in any relationship where one partner grows and the other remains static, things end in disappointment — and then they just end. The static circle moves along, looking for a piece that won’t grow.

At last, a shape comes by that looks completely different — it has no piece missing at all — and introduces itself as the Big O.

The exchange between the missing piece and the Big O is nothing short of breathstopping:

“I think you are the one I have been waiting for,” said the missing piece. “Maybe I am your missing piece.”

“But I am not missing a piece,” said the Big O. “There is no place you would fit.”

“That is too bad,” said the missing piece. “I was hoping that perhaps I could roll with you…”

“You cannot roll with me,” said the Big O, “but perhaps you can roll by yourself.”

This notion is utterly revelatory for the missing piece, doubly so when the Big O asks if it has ever tried. “But I have sharp corners,” the missing piece offers half-incredulously, half-defensively. “I am not shaped for rolling.”

But corners, the Big O assures it, can wear off — another elegant metaphor for the self-refinement necessary in our personal growth. With that, the Big O rolls off, leaving the missing piece alone once more — but, this time, with an enlivening idea to contemplate.

The missing piece goes “liftpullflopliftpullflop” forward, over and over, until its edges begin to wear off and its shape starts to change. Gradually, it begins to bounce instead of bump and then roll instead of bounce — rolling, like it always dreamt of doing with the aid of another, only all by itself.

And here comes Silverstein’s tenderest, most invigorating magic — when the missing piece becomes its well-rounded self, the Big O emerges, silently and without explanation. In the final scene, the two are seen rolling side by side, calling to mind Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s contribution to history’s greatest definitions of love: “Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”

The Missing Piece Meets the Big O is immeasurably wonderful in a way to which neither text nor pixel does any justice. Complement it with Wednesday, another minimalist and wholly wordless allegory for friendship, and Norton Juster’s vintage masterwork of poetic geometry, The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics, then treat yourself to this animated adaptation of Silverstein’s The Giving Tree and his touching duet with Johnny Cash.

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19 MARCH, 2013

Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls: Mischievous Vintage Illustrated Verses by Shel Silverstein, A. A. Milne, Lewis Carroll & Ted Hughes

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“Moral: Never stew your sister.”

In 1963, editor William Cole and beloved children’s book illustrator Tomi Ungerer joined forces on a little gem titled A Cat-Hater’s Handbook. The following year, the two came together in a different yet equally endearing collaboration: Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls (public library) — a charming 1964 collection of “funny, absurd, and truly ridiculous rhymes” ranging from folk limericks to anonymous poems to verses both famous and little-known by literary luminaries like Ted Hughes, Lewis Carroll, Shel Silverstein, and A. A. Milne, accompanied by Ungerer’s signature irreverent drawings.

Cole himself sets the tone with an opening rhyme:

Here in this book, collected for you,
Are hundreds of things that you never should do,
Like stewing your sister, scarring your brother,
Or disobeying your father or mother.

What follows falls somewhere between Edward Gorey’s delightfully dark alphabet and Mark Twain’s playful Advice to Little Girls.

NOTHING TO DO?
Shelley Silverstein

Nothing to do?
Nothing to do?
Put some mustard in your shoe,
Fill your pockets full of soot,
Drive a nail into your foot,
Put some sugar in your hair,
Place your toys upon the stair,
Smear some jelly on the latch,
Eat some mud and strike a match,
Draw a picture on the wall,
Roll some marbles down the hall,
Pour some ink in daddy’s cap —
Now go upstairs and take a nap.

MY BROTHER BERT
Ted Hughes

Pets are the hobby of my brother Bert.
He used to go to school with a mouse in his shirt.

His hobby it grew, as some hobbies will,
and grew, and GREW and GREW until —

Oh don’t breathe a word, pretend you haven’t heard.
A simply appalling thing has occurred —

The very thought makes me iller and iller:
Bert’s brought home a gigantic Gorilla!

If you think that’s really not such a scare,
What if it quarrels with his Grizzly Bear?

You still think you could keep your head?
What if the Lion from under the bed

And the four Ostriches that deposit
Their football eggs in his bedroom closet

And the Aardvark out of his bottom drawer
All danced out and joined in the Roar?

What if the Pangolins were to caper
Out of their nests behind the wallpaper?

With the fifty sorts of Bats
That hang on his hatstand like old hats,

And out of a shoebox the excitable Platypus
Along with the Ocelot or Jungle-Cattypus?

The Wombat, the Dingo, the Gecko, the Grampus —
How they would shake the house with their Rumpus!

Not to forget the Bandicoot
Who would certainly peer from his battered old boot.

Why it could be a dreadful day,
And what Oh what would the neighbors say!

THE GOOD LITTLE GIRL
A. A. Milne

It’s funny how often they say to me, “Jane?”
“Have you been a good girl?”
“Have you been a good girl?”
And when they have said it they say it again,
“Have you been a good girl?”
“Have you been a good girl?”

I go to a party, I go out to tea,
I go to an aunt for a week at the sea
I come back from school or from playing a game;
Wherever I come from, it’s always the same:
“Well?
Have you been a good girl, Jane?”

It’s always the end of the loveliest day:
“Have you been a good girl?”
“Have you been a good girl?”
I went to the Zoo, and they waited to say:
“Have you been a good girl?”
“Have you been a good girl?”

Well, what did they think that I went there to do?
And why should I want to be bad at the Zoo?
And should I be likely to say if I had?
So that’s why it’s funny of Mummy and Dad,
This asking and asking in case I was bad,
“Well?
Have you been a good girl, Jane?”

SARAH CYNTHIA SYLVIA STOUT
Shelley Silverstein

Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout
would not take the garbage out!
She’d boil the water
and open the cans
and scrub the pots
and scour the pans
and grate the cheese
and shell the peas
and mash the yams
and spice the hams,
and make the jams.
But though her daddy
would scream and shout,
she would not take the garbage out.
And so it piled up to the ceilings:
Coffee grounds, potato peelings,
mouldy bread and withered greens,
olive pits and soggy beans,
cracker boxes, chicken bones,
clamshells, eggshells, stale scones,
sour milk and mashy plums,
crumbly cake and cookie crumbs.
At last the garbage piled so high
that finally it reached the sky.
And none of her friends would come to play.
And all the neighbours moved away.
And finally Sarah Cynthia Stout
said, ‘I’ll take the garbage out!’
But then, of course, it was too late.
The garbage reached beyond the state,
from Memphis to the Golden Gate.
And Sarah met an awful fate,
which I cannot right now relate
because the hour is much too late.
But, children, think of Sarah Stout
and always take the garbage out!

RICE PUDDING
A. A. Milne

What is the matter with Mary Jane?
She’s crying with all her might and main,
And she won’t eat her dinner—rice pudding again—
What is the matter with Mary Jane?
 
What is the matter with Mary Jane?
I’ve promised her dolls and a daisy-chain,
And a book about animals—all in vain—
What is the matter with Mary Jane?

 
What is the matter with Mary Jane?
She’?s perfectly well, and she hasn’?t a pain;
But, look at her, now she’?s beginning again!
What is the matter with Mary Jane?
 
What is the matter with Mary Jane?
I’ve promised her sweets and a ride in the train,
And I’?ve begged her to stop for a bit and explain—
What is the matter with Mary Jane?
 
What is the matter with Mary Jane?
She’s perfectly well, and she hasn’?t a pain,
And it’?s lovely rice pudding for dinner again!—
What is the matter with Mary Jane?

THE DUCHESS’ LULLABY
Lewis Carroll

Speak roughly to your little boy,
And beat him when he sneezes:
He only does it to annoy,
Because he knows it teases.

THINK OF EIGHT NUMBERS
Shelley Silverstein

Think of eight numbers from one to nine —
That’s fine.
Now pick up the phone and dial them all —
That’s making a call.
Now wait till somebody answers,
Then shout ‘Yickety-yick!’ and hang up quick.
And sit for a while,
And have a smile,
And start all over again.

BROTHER AND SISTER
Lewis Carroll

Sister, sister, go to bed!
Go and rest your weary head.”
Thus the prudent brother said.

“Do you want a battered hide,
Or scratches to your face applied?”
Thus his sister calm replied.

“Sister, do not raise my wrath.
I’d make you into mutton broth
As easily as kill a moth”

The sister raised her beaming eye
And looked on him indignantly
And sternly answered, “Only try!”

Off to the cook he quickly ran.
“Dear Cook, please lend a frying-pan
To me as quickly as you can.”

And wherefore should I lend it you?”
“The reason, Cook, is plain to view.
I wish to make an Irish stew.”

“What meat is in that stew to go?”
“My sister’ll be the contents!”
“Oh”
“You’ll lend the pan to me, Cook?”
“No!”

Moral: Never stew your sister.

Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls is an absolute treat from cover to cover.

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21 FEBRUARY, 2013

A Cat-Hater’s Handbook: Irreverent Vintage Gem Illustrated by Tomi Ungerer

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An ailurophobe’s delight circa 1982.

“If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work,” Muriel Spark advised, “you should acquire a cat.” But while felines may have found their way into Joyce’s children’s books, Indian folk art, and Hemingway’s heart, their cultural status is quite different from that of dogs, which are in turn celebrated as literary muses, scientific heroes, philosophical stimuli, cartographic data points, and unabashed geniuses. In fact, there might even be a thriving subculture of militant anti-felinists — or so suggests A Cat-Hater’s Handbook (public library), a vintage gem by William Cole and beloved children’s book illustrator Tomi Ungerer, originally conceived in 1963, but not published until 1982. The back cover boasts:

What’s so cute about an animal that loves absolutely nothing, makes your house smell terrible, and has a brain the size of an under-developed kidney bean? At last, a book that dares to answer these and other feline questions with the sane and sensible answer:

Not a damned thing!

Also included is a selection of “scathing anti-feline poetry and prose” from the likes of William Faulkner, Mark Twain, and Shel Silverstein.

Cole writes in the introductory pages:

Ailurophobia is, dictionarily speaking, a fear of cats. But words have a way of gradually sliding their meanings into something else, and ailurophobia is now accepted as meaning a strong dislike of the animals. Ailurophobes abound. Quiet cat-haters are everywhere. Often, a casual remark that I was doing anti-cat research would bring sparkle to the eyes of strangers. Firm bonds of friendship were immediately established. Mute lips were unsealed, and a delightful flow of long-repressed invective transpired. It was heart warming to find that what I thought would be a lonely crusade is truly a great popular cause.

What you’ll find, of course, is that underpinning Ungerer’s delightfully irreverent illustrations and Cole’s subversive writing is self-derision rather than cat-derision as this cat-hater’s handbook reveals itself as a cat-lover’s self-conscious and defiant love letter to the messy, unruly, all-consuming, but ultimately deeply fulfilling relationship with one’s loyal feline friend.

The intelligence of cats is a subject that arouses the cat-lover to fever pitch. Of course, there are all kinds of intelligences; the intelligence of a dolphin, for example, is particularly dolphinesque — it is suited to his surroundings and must be equated in those terms. Scientists balk at making comparative statements about animal intelligence. I spoke to one at the American Museum of Natural History who said that ‘ a general judgement, from the literature, would put the intelligence of cats below dogs and above rats.’ (Which is the right place for them, anyway.)

On average, each suburban or country cat will kill 10 to 50 birds a year.

A Cat-Hater’s Handbook is, sadly, out of print, but used copies still abound online and are possibly available at your local public library.

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28 OCTOBER, 2011

Shel Silverstein Duets with Johnny Cash, 1970

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A meditation on fatherhood from Uncle Shelby.

Few know that beloved children’s book author Shel Silverstein, of The Giving Tree fame, was also a prolific songwriter whose songs were recently — and beautifully — covered by contemporary indie icons.

On April 1, 1970, Silverstein brought his musical talents to The Johnny Cash Show. After a quick and playful duet with Cash on his song “Boy Named Sue,” Silverstein does a charming solo performance of a children’s song he wrote called “Daddy, What If,” prefaced by a moving aside about his relationship with his own father. Enjoy.

I’m really proud of the relationship I have with my dad, I really love him a lot.” ~ Shel Silverstein

Complement with Silverstein’s fantastic posthumous anthology of 137 never-before-seen poems and drawings and his impossibly wonderful The Missing Piece and the Big O.

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