Excerpt from A RHYME
IS A CHIME
(New York Times Book Review, November 15, 1981.)
by X.L. Kennedy
In his verse for children, as in his public face, Shel Silverstein displays a certain startling quirkiness. On the dust jacket of his new collection of poems and drawings, A Light in the Attic (Harper & Row), he is depicted as a cheerily triumphant-looking Fu Manchu with bristling beard and shaven pate -- not exactly the Mister Rogers type. We have to think twice to identify this formidable figure with the author-illustrator of that delicate picture book, "The Giving Tree" and of "Where the Sidewalk Ends", that previous, immensely popular verse collection that included, besides much hilarious stuff, much that is wistful and sensitive.
There's a streak of the weird in Mr. Silverstein's fun. It turns up in a poem called "Who Ordered the Broiled Face?" and in another, "Quick Trip" in which a couple of kids are swallowed by a colossal lizard, then immediately excreted to safety. Characteristic of Mr. Silverstein, too, is a vague and dreamy religiosity ("God says to me with a kind of smile,/'Hey how would you like to be God awhile?'"). In some of his most memorable nonsense, Mr. Silverstein is playfully disruptive of parental authority. The natural joy that children take in testing their tethers to breaking point (for they don't, of course, want the tethers to snap) will be kindled and sustained in Mr. Silverstein's rhymes about Little Abigail, who dies because her parents won't buy her a pony. And about Clarence, who sends away for a new mail-order set of folks.
Like its forerunner, "Where the Sidewalk Ends," this new book is phyiscally ample. Its 175 pages supply droll black-and-white line drawings for most of its 136 poems. A Silverstein poetry book looks worth the money, as if it will last a child awhile; and, in fact, it gives excellent value. Both cartoons and verses in this new bunch seem just about as lively as those in "Sidewalk." Readers of any age may care to commit to memory the one about the sitter who sits on babies, and another about an infant bat who's afraid of the light. Personally, I'm memorizing "In Search of Cinderella," a fresh view of the familiar tale:
"From dusk to dawn,
From town to town,
Without a single clue
I seek the tender, slender foot
To fit this crystal shoe.
From dusk to dawn,
I try it on
Each damsel that I meet
And I still love her so, but oh,
I've started hating feet."
How's that for getting a mountain of meaning into a few lines?
[snip of some verse Kennedy comes up with.]
Despite such moments of banality, and there aren't many, Mr. Silverstein's work remains a must for lovers of good verse for children. Quite like nobody else, he is still a master of delectable outrage and the "proprietor" of a surprisingly finely tuned sensibility.