Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends related to poetry and poets and whether they are true or false.
POETRY URBAN LEGEND: Some of Shel Silverstein’s poems for Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic originally appeared in the pages of Playboy.
Reader Jeff asked:
I know that Shel Silverstein, now most famous for his illustrated books of poems for kids, was a songwriter and contributor for Playboy as well. I think I heard a rumor that some of the poems from Where the Sidewalk Ends or A Light in the Attic started out in Playboy, as odd place for a children’s classic to sprout from. Any truth to that?
As Jeff notes, Silverstein did, indeed, get his start in the entertainment industry working for Playboy.
While he did not start with the company, he got involved very early on, in 1956, to be precise, when the magazine was not even two years old.
A cartoonist, Silverstein first contributed cartoons to the magazine before gradually adding more material, including a popular travelogue series.
Soon, Silverstein was the second-most popular feature of the magazine – trailing only, well, you know, the naked ladies.
Eventually, he expanded his work into books.
His first Playboy-influenced work was 1961’s Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book, an “adult primer.”
It was basically a satire of children’s book from an adult perspective.
Silverstein clearly was not thinking about children’s work at this point in time. Heck, later that year he released the more explicit A Playboy’s Teevee Jeebies oh la la.
However, his editor at Harper & Row, Ursula Nordstrom, felt that Silverstein’s sensibilities would work well with stories for children.
So she convinced Silverstein to try to do children’s books.
Silverstein wrote a few books, including 1964’s The Giving Tree…
All the while he was doing these works, Silverstein had been working on some poetry that he never got around to publishing.
Nordstrom suggested that he try to pursue writing poems for children, as his poetry sensibilities seemed to lend itself to that style of poetry.
So in 1964, his first collection of poetry was released as Uncle Shelby’s Zoo (nowadays it is called Don’t Bump the Glump!)…
This book consisted of poems along with cartoons, almost ALL of which came from the pages of Playboy originally.
This is likely where the confusion comes in – the cartoons in this children’s work DID come from Playboy, and that IS pretty funny (and I’m sure Silverstein got a kick out of having the cartoons in his children’s book coming from an adult’s only magazine).
Uncle Shelby’s Zoo was a moderate success, but Silverstein found greater success in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a songwriter, so it was not until 1974 that he put out a follow-up to Uncle Shelby’s Zoo (by which time the first book had already gone out of print).
The follow-up, Where the Sidewalk Ends, was a major critical and commercial success and was quickly followed up with another book of poetry in 1976.
In 1981, Silverstein would put out his second-most famous book of children’s poetry, A Light in the Attic.
But no, none of the works in these two books originally appeared in the pages of Playboy (Silverstein would remain great friends with Hugh Hefner, though, for the rest of his life – Silverstein passed away in 1999).
The legend is…
STATUS: False (with some relation to the Truth)
Thanks to Jeff for the question!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.