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by Corey Dahl
I have maybe the best dental hygienist in the world. Not only is she great at cleaning teeth, she’s also just an enjoyable person—and I really enjoy enjoyable people. A few months ago, though, she told me this story, and every time I think about it, I can’t help but get angry.
What happened was, my dental hygienist was taking this writing class at a university, and all of the students were asked to bring in a poem they enjoyed. She picked out a piece by Shel Silverstein, read it in front of the class, and when she finished, everyone laughed. Not in a good way, she told me. “You did it wrong,” they all said. “That’s not a real poem.” And my dental hygienist went home completely embarrassed.
Isn’t that the most deplorable thing you’ve ever heard? I mean, of course it isn’t, really. There are wars going on. Migrant plight. Etc. But in terms of general awfulness, it’s pretty high up there. “I love Shel Silverstein!” I shouted through the floss she was yanking around my gums. Where the Sidewalk Ends! A Light in the Attic! “The Giving Tree!” I said through a mouthful of that chalky stuff they grind onto each of your teeth.
Oh, the power of The Giving Tree. Before I read it, I’d spent several years suffering through children’s books that involved animals who wore clothing. Or stories where puppies were implausibly lost (It’s called a leash, kid!) and even more implausibly found (Oh, he was inside the picnic basket the entire time? Sure. Cool. Right.). Or worse, do-your-chores parables thinly disguised as literature, usually called something like Gertrude Helps Mommy.
The Giving Tree blew all those losers out of the water. It made me laugh and cry. That stupid, greedy kid made me a little angry. That lovely, kind tree made me think about the way I wanted to be. Most importantly, The Giving Tree made me realize that a book—one book!—could make a person feel all of those things.
I got my first real library card a year later, and I hunted the Shel Silverstein shelf down first. If the Colorado Springs library district keeps records, I’m confident they’ll show a period of at least two years in which I borrowed and re-borrowed his books almost exclusively. (Give or take the occasional Goosebumps. For variety.)
Unlike other children’s authors, Silverstein didn’t try to sweep important things—death, sadness, nostalgia, pain—under the rug. Puppies stayed lost; hearts got broken. And he never, ever tried to convince you that vacuuming with your mom was cool.
Shel Silverstein kept it real, you guys. And not unlike, say, George Saunders or Flannery O’Connor or Amy Hempel, he did it with humor, heart, and a healthy appreciation for the absurd.
That doesn’t make him a real writer? Sure fooled me.
This post is part of our annual Lit Matters series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts—the mission of Lighthouse Writers Workshop— is important to them. If you agree, consider supporting Lighthouse on Colorado Gives Day. Mark your calendar for December 8 or schedule your gift now. Thank you!
Corey Dahl is the communications coordinator with Lighthouse Writers Workshop and a member of the Book Project. One day, she’ll finish the short story collection she’s working on. Today is not that day.