You would not expect to use the names Jon Bon Jovi and Shel Silverstein in the same context, much less the same sentence. And here they are anyway, as two men who lost the Best Original Song Oscar to Stephen Sondheim in 1990. It’s not the best-known of his songs—I’ll admit I couldn’t identify “I’m Checkin’ Out” on a bet and now have the Simpsons “I’m Checkin’ In” stuck in my head instead. Still, there he is, along with Bon Jovi and John Williams and Carmine Coppola. I’ll admit I am not writing about him because of his film credentials, but it’s worth mentioning that they’re there all the same.
If you’re like me, mostly you know him from the poetry. Or maybe reading The Giving Tree as a small child. I have fond memories of coming back from the CAT testing in the cafeteria when I was in first grade and having our teacher read us his poetry until lunch. Poetry which I then turned around and shared with my own five-year-old at the time when he was doing a readathon for school. These are for the most part incredibly wholesome memories, despite the mild subversion of most of the poems. They’re charming and the kind of subversiveness that I think is good for kids.
I will not similarly be exposing them, you’ll pardon the expression, to the cartoons he drew for Playboy. Because it turns out there’s a lot more to Silverstein than A Light in the Attic. Now, I haven’t read the comics myself, so I don’t know how explicit they are, but I’m quite sure the jokes in them are over the kids’ heads. Grown-up jokes are not necessarily wrong for them to read, but that doesn’t mean they’re right, either, and it’s something you need to review before sharing with your kids.
Honestly, I’m not sure he’d disapprove of the sentiment. After all, he did have a couple of kids of his own; his eleven-year-old daughter died of a cerebral aneurysm in 1982; A Light in the Attic is dedicated to her. He had a son about two years later. He hadn’t married either child’s mother; he never married but apparently was not ever exactly hurting for partners. I don’t know how the kids fit into his lifestyle; his daughter had been living with her aunt and uncle in the years between her mother’s death and her own. But he does seem to have known enough about parenting to get that you keep an eye on your kids’ reading.
But, yes, I’m sure there are also a lot of people who know about his music. Maybe not “I’m Checkin’ Out,” but certainly “A Boy Named Sue.” His work writing for Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show. Assorted writing for assorted films, including the 1970 Ned Kelly. You could be familiar with his career without knowing about his books of poetry, though it would be kind of odd. He’s another one of those people whose careers contain layers, and that’s the kind of people I try to get to around here as often as possible.