I remember my brother bringing this book home from our school library and he said, “Shan! you have to read this. It’s so funny.” I took a peek at the white dust cover. “Where the Sidewalk Ends,” read it aloud and thought to myself: where does the sidewalk end? I’ve never seen it. I opened the book and made my way through a few of the poems. Suddenly, I was shaking with laughter. So much so that I almost felt like I should hide it from my parents. I wasn’t used to funny books and it seemed like they shouldn’t be allowed for some reason.
Rediscovering this book as an adult, I found myself drawn to the very poems I knew were worn out on our copy of the book. (Turns out my parents were fine with a book that made us laugh and we got our own copy.)
Shel Silverstein was such a prolific artist. When I think of him, I remember these books, but he was a writer, a poet, a cartoonist, a songwriter, and a playwright. He got his start writing for Playboy (back when people actually did read it for the articles) and his editor talked him into writing a book for children. I’m so glad she did. His first children’s book was, The Giving Tree (1964) so I guess for a debut, it wasn’t too bad.
All those years doing cartoons made Silverstein the perfect author/illustrator. His black and white drawings look like something from a sketchbook, but they’re iconic when placed beside his wonderful poems.
Silverstein’s poetry books, which also include A Light in the Attic (1981) and Falling Up (1996) are lumped together in my mind because they feel like installments of the same book. I still remember discovering A Light in the Attic and the excitement of another book to pour over.
Unlike a novel, a collection of poetry like this has something for everyone. Not all of the poems are my favorite, and if you polled 100 people they’d probably all have different poems that stood out to them. I love that, thanks to Silverstein, I was falling in love with poetry just as I was learning how to read.
As an English teacher, the poetry unit was met with all kinds of emotions from my class. Some were excited. Perhaps they had been introduced to poetry by Shel too. However, some had already written poetry off as boring or unattainable. To me, that’s like saying, “I don’t like soup.” There are simply too many types of soup to write them all off without tasting every one. I remember asking my students, “Do you have a favorite song?” Almost all of them did. “What do you like about that song?” Some credited the beat or the sound of the instruments, but most connected with the lyrics. I said, “If you love the lyrics to your favorite song, you like poetry.” You could hear a pin drop. Then I introduced them to a buffet of soup, so to speak, and let them decide which ones they liked.
The poems in Where the Sidewalk Ends fall into a few categories (in my mind): Imagination Stretchers, Humor, Lessons, and Connections.
These poems take preconceived notions and and turn them on their heads a little. That little bit of “could be real” mixed with the absurd that just stretches imaginations. Take this poem:
A piece of sky
Broke off and fell
through the crack in the ceiling
Right into my soup,
I really must state
That I usually hate
Lentil soup, but I ate
(A bit like plaster),
But so delicious, goodness sake--
I could have eaten a lentil-soup lake.
It's amazing the difference
A bit of sky can make.
Let’s be honest, it’s the humor in these poems that pulls us in. Some of that humor is kind of gross in a way that delights kids. (He really knew his audience) And some is just plain funny. One of my favorites is “Sick”. Where the speaker has two pages of symptoms each more ghastly than the last. It all culminates in this wonderful ending:
I think my hair is falling out
My elbow's bent, my spine ain't straight
My temperature is 108
My brain is shrunk, I cannot hear
There's a hole inside my ear
I have a hangnail, and my heart is... what?
What's that? What's that you say?
You say today is…Saturday?
G'bye, I'm goin' out to play!
Just like hiding vegetables in spaghetti sauce, there are some lessons in these pages. The lesson poems are infrequent and still funny, but they pack a punch. Like Jimmy Jet and his TV Set, where Jimmy is so enamored with TV, he turns into a TV set. Another is “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out.” Hidden in all the alliteration and the list of gross garbage is a lesson about doing things we don’t want to do. Poor Cynthia “met an awful fate” in the end of the poem. The reader is left to imagine what it was.
Some of my favorite poems are the ones that feel like they reach out from the page and whisper to the kids, “You’re okay.” Take this one:
AFRAID OF THE DARK
I'm Reginald Clark, I'm afraid of the dark
So I always insist on the light on,
And my teddy to hug,
And my blanket to rub,
And my thumby to suck or to bite on.
And three bedtime stories,
Two trips to the toilet,
Two prayers, and five hugs from my mommy,
I'm Reginald Clark, I'm afraid of the dark
So please do not close this book on me.
It’s still funny, but it makes that connection for the reader. You may have fears, but you’re not alone. Also, don’t shut the book.
This is definitely a book that made me. More than I even realized until I cracked it open again. Reading the poems aloud felt so natural, like spending time with an old friend. If you haven’t read this poems since you were a kid (or you never did), run to the library and check out any of these poetry books. Read them to your kids or grandkids or just read them for the fun of picking up a book that makes you belly laugh. It’s good for the soul.