Book review: ‘A Boy Named Shel’ |

Book review: ‘A Boy Named Shel’

Andrew FerschVail CO, Colorado
Special to the Daily

As a child, a sad majority of my heroes were athletes who, in retrospect, maybe didnt deserve all that much admiration (anyone else remember looking up to Mark McGuire? yup, its embarrassing). Its amazing to really sit down though and look at who positively influenced my life, who really made me different than I otherwise would have been. There arent that many people I can credit outside my family, but one of those few is Shel Silverstein. For all the other children out there (and parents alike) who had insatiable appetites for his poetry and short stories, there was nothing I thought I had missed from Shel as a child. Of course, over time, I discovered some of his more adult material, his music (yeah, he did write A Boy Named Sue, and released an album entitled F@$& Em) and his playboy years (a travelogue with no real rhyme or reason per se) most notably. Even getting to experience these I always considered his childrens work his true genius, and since his unfortunate passing in 1999, I continued to hold out hope that someone would write his biography and give some insight into the only human being to ever convince me that poetry doesnt have to suck.

Much to my, and fans worldwide, delight, biographer Lisa Rogak (who has written the most absurd selection of books known to man just look her up on or check out her website at decided to undertake said endeavor, unfortunately Rogak created more of a time line of his life than a window to his mind. Shel was apparently very interested in maintaining his privacy and cherished his personal life to such an extent that Rogak, even years later, had trouble making any real head way with his friends and family in order to really make this a true biography.As a child, Shel had the stereotypical young artists life. The son of a bakery-owning immigrant, all Shel wanted to do as a young boy was draw, and in story book fashion, all his father did was berate him about the uselessness of that and the need for him to continue with the family business. Of course, he also had a fairly timid mother who quietly supported his decision to follow his dreams. As with seemingly every young boy who feels he has disappointed an unreasonable father, Shel proceeded to spend the rest of his life trying to prove his dad wrong, to little avail (no matter how successful he eventually became).Rogak rushes through this potentially interesting hardship and unless Shel truly ran into very little trouble on his road to success, she makes it sound as if he was a pretty talented guy who had some pretty great breaks. Apparently, it should be believed that after only a couple years of honing his craft, he happened upon a new mens magazine by the name of Playboy and the rest was history. As an artist, Shel was given free reign on about 90 percent of the projects that he involved himself in during his life time and its clear that this obsessive desire for personal freedom didnt just affect his professional life, it was something he expected in nearly every facet of his personal life as well. His life was wrought with an inability to settle down and a monumental fear of commitment, which Rogak directly credits to his watching his parents disastrous marriage and his fear that the same would happen to him if he were to follow in their footsteps.With much of the book though, very little proof is given to substantiate Rogaks claim, yet she weakly threads together quotes of ex-colleagues and acquaintances (and an occasional Playmate) and comes to major conclusions about Shels reasoning, without ever being able to say its fact. While it is certainly a fact that Shel owned several houses, came and went nearly entirely as he pleased, and made as few commitments as possible, what Rogak uses as reasoning and to come to conclusions, really isnt strong enough to say that it could reasonably be considered fact. Several interesting facts are brought up and substantiated using quotes of the late Silverstein that he made before his passing. For instance, Shel never intended to write books for children and thought they were too simple for him. He also loathed the idea of people analyzing his books, as he considered it useless. For him, his success with these childrens books merely allowed him to live his life in exactly the manner he wished and, in addition, create whatever else he desired artistically. The other interesting fact was that Shel had two children, one who is alive and living on Marthas Vineyard, and the other who passed young, and whose death, according to his close friends, changed him into a much more serious person.Unfortunately, other than some really interesting trivia on what Shel created, accomplished, and adored (namely the ladies), Rogak merely spun together a poorly written biography based primarily on hearsay from folks who probably thought they were closer to Shel than they really were. It reads as a time line of the various creations of an amazingly versatile and creative mans life, nothing more. Its his own work that really illuminates the light in his attic, and its his work that changed my, and many others lives.

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