Shel Silverstein is known to many as the author of the popular children’s poetry books, Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic. In addition to poetry, however, Silverstein used his creative talents to make artistic contributions in a variety of ways.
Shel Silverstein was born in 1930 in Chicago and spent his childhood and early adult years growing up in this area. Feeling that he wasn’t quite good enough at playing sports and impressing girls, Silverstein started to write and draw as a teenager. These interests continued while he studied at The Art Institute of Chicago and Roosevelt University before joining the military. His first regularly published cartoon drawings appeared in the military magazine Stars and Stripes. Once he returned to Chicago, Silverstein began submitting his cartoons to magazines with regular work being done for publications such as Playboy.
Since Silverstein was a man of many interests and talents in the arts, he also made contributions to the music world by writing song lyrics for artists during the 1960s and 1970s. Many of these songs were later re-recorded by other musicians. Silverstein’s lyrics have been performed by artists like Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, and Emmylou Harris.
Silverstein began writing for children after being persuaded by an editor that he would be talented writing this kind of poetry. He later published one of his classic books, The Giving Tree, in 1964. The beloved poetry books Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic were published much later in 1974 and 1981. Since Silverstein had made a career out of drawing cartoons, it was only fitting that his illustrated drawings appeared alongside the poems.
The following is Shel Silverstein’s poem, “Where the Sidewalk Ends”, which comes from his book of the same title.
There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright,
And there the moon-bird rests from his flight
To cool in the peppermint wind.
Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
And the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And watch where the chalk-white arrows go
To the place where the sidewalk ends.
Yes we’ll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And we’ll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
For the children, they mark, and the children, they know
The place where the sidewalk ends.
This poem can have different layers of interpretation depending on the reader. What seems clear is that Silverstein is describing a place that leaves behind the constraining city life of smoke, dark streets, and asphalt. Where the sidewalk ends is somewhere more open and brighter because “there the sun burns crimson bright” (line 4). Outside of the city, anyone venturing past the end of the sidewalk can imagine stepping into nature by reference to the phrases, “there the grass grows soft and white” and “the moon-bird rests from his flight” (lines 3, 5). The moon-bird could possibly be a reference to an owl and how it can “cool in the peppermint wind” (line 6).
Silverstein’s lines about “a walk that is measured and slow” gives the depiction of slowing down from the hurried stride of people in the city. In addition to the comparison between city life and the natural world outside it, Silverstein is also drawing comparisons between adults and children. Adults are more hurried and fast paced, whereas children are more carefree and know how to take their time. The “chalk-white arrows” gives the imagery of chalk drawings made by children that lead someone down the sidewalk and toward its end. Children, in a sense, are leading adults to another place and an escape from their familiar busy lives.
Silverstein’s poetry continues to be enjoyed by new generations of children in addition to the adults who read his books while they were young. Even though Silverstein passed away in 1999 at the age of 68, his artistic and poetic contributions will have a lasting legacy for years to come.
Silverstein, Shel. “Where the Sidewalk Ends.” Where the Sidewalk Ends. HarperCollins, 1974.