"All books are either dreams or swords,/You can cut, or you can drug, with words." - Amy Lowell, 'Sword Blades and Poppy Seed'

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Children's/YA: Where the Sidewalk Ends

Silverstein, Shel. Where the Sidewalk Ends: 30th Anniversary Special Edition. New York: Harper Collins, 2004. 

"Come in...for where the sidewalk ends, Shel Silverstein's world begins. You'll meet a boy who turns into a TV set, and a girl who eats a whale. The Unicorn and the Bloath live there, and so does Sarah Sylvia Cynthia Stout who will not take the garbage out. It is a place where you wash your shadow and plant diamond gardens, a place where shoes fly, sisters are auctioned off, and crocodiles go to the dentist. Shel Silverstein's masterful collection of poems and drawings is at once outrageously funny and profound."

Overall Rating: ***** (out of five)

  • Variety.  The collection offers a nicer variety of poem types.  There are particularly short ones and longer ones, as well as ones that are completely silly and ones that actually say something.  There's something in here for everyone.
  • Illustrations. Silverstein's drawings are a necessary and integrated component of the book.  In some cases, they form the punchline of the poem they accompany (such as with "The Loser" and "Jumping Rope"). They are simple and silly and whimsical, just like the poems.
  • Subject Matter. As I've increasingly discovered as I've gotten older, if you actually stop and look at what happens in children's books, it can be worrisome.  In Silverstein's book, people get eaten by animals, someone cooks himself into a stew, etc.  Yet children don't seem to ever take such things seriously, and frankly adults shouldn't either.

Shel Silverstein was a staple of my childhood, along with Beatrix Potter and, later, Roald Dahl.  I think that one of the most important things in good writing for children is that it is audience appropriate without being patronizing.  Re-reading Where the Sidewalk Ends, I found that adults can appreciate his work just as much as children, and not just in a nostalgic, I-remember-this-from-my-childhood kind of way.  His work is silly, but never stupid. Most importantly, it takes children seriously. Whether children want to sell their siblings, or build a boat without a bottom, that's perfectly fine. You're allowed to.  You're also allowed to not take out the garbage, as long as you recognize that it might then eat the country. Side note: there is a recording of Silverstein reading "Sarah Sylvia Cynthia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out" that is actually a little disturbing.

The poems are also pure fun to read.  Silverstein obviously enjoys words and how they sound and feel in the mouth. I would not be at all surprised if he counted Edward Lear among his influences (if you're unfamiliar with Lear, look up "The Owl and the Pussycat").  But the playfulness of the poetry does not detract from the sincerity behind them, or that some of them do actually have something to say to children. And the illustrations are inseparable from the text. They enhance the meaning of the poems and, I think, make the collection more attractive to children.  Not only is the book fun, but it bears re-reading, at any age.


  1. I love that book!! I remember when I was in elementary school, I probably checked it out of the school library 50 times at least. But now that I have read this review, I am going to have to go get my copy and read it again. Maybe I will read it with my daughter. :)

    I am following you. I have been looking for blogs that talk about Children's books so I can get ideas for books to read to my daughter. You can see some of what I have done and read with my daughter at http://yogi-mommy.blogspot.com/.

  2. I own this book and a Light in the Attic. I love both of those books so much! Shel Silverstein was so good at writing. I even have Uncle Shelby's ABZ's, a children's story that's not really for children. LOL.

    A master of words.