The 30 Best Shel Silverstein Poems That'll Remind You Of Childhood

Shel Silverstein poems
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Remember these gems? Let's take a look at them again.

Shel Silverstein was one of the most talented poets of the last century. If you were a kid who grew up in America, you grew up with his songs, poems, and maybe one or two cartoons that he made, too. Known lovingly as “Uncle Shelby,” he had a way of bringing a smile to everyone’s face regardless of your age.

His poetry has become a slice of Americana and a great way to conjure up that comforting feeling that you get when you’re knee-deep in nostalgia. Do you feel like taking a trip down memory lane? Take a look at some of these classic Shel Silverstein poems.

1. "The Giving Tree"

Memorable lines:

“'Cut down my trunk

and make a boat,' said the tree.

'Then you can sail away...

and be happy.'

And so the boy cut down her trunk

and made a boat and sailed away.

And the tree was happy

...but not really.”

Make no mistake about it, "The Giving Tree" was Silverstein at his deepest. Though the book/poem was meant for kids, there were powerful messages afoot. The biggest one that people missed was the allegory of the Giving Tree being a parent. The tree gave everything it had until it was unable to give any more. As the boy grew, the tree was happy to see the child stick around, just like a parent would be.

It’s crazy thinking that we all read this as kids, isn’t it? Nostalgic as this poem may be, when you read it as an adult, it’s hard not to be impressed by Shel Silverstein’s incredibly poignant poem once more.


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2. "Woulda-Coulda-Shoulda"

Memorable lines:

“All the Woulda-Coulda-Shouldas

Layin' in the sun,

Talkin' 'bout the things

They woulda coulda shoulda done...

But those Woulda-Coulda-Shouldas

All ran away and hid

From one little Did.”

This poem is pretty straightforward, and if you’re like a lot of kids, you had teachers who also ranted about kids saying they “woulda, coulda, shoulda” do something. Leave it to Uncle Shelby to remind us not to turn our dreams into pipe dreams, right?

3. "Won’t You?"

Memorable lines:

“Carol hates me. So does May.

Abigail will not be mine.

Nancy lives too far away...

Won't you be my Valentine?”

If any poem encapsulated that feeling of having your first elementary school crush and trying to get them to talk to you, it’s this one right here. There’s a little hemming and hawing, a little playfulness, and of course, the classic way kids would ask others to be “in like.”

4. "Hug O’ War"

Memorable lines:

“I will not play at tug o' war. 

I'd rather play at hug o' war, 

Where everyone hugs 

Instead of tugs, 

Where everyone giggles 

And rolls on the rug”

Before the phrase “hugs not drugs” was a thing, Shel Silverstein came up with the nicest way to have fun. This was one of those poems that was short, sweet, and pointed out that being a winner doesn’t have to mean that there are losers. It’s a nice idea, and one that we really should think about more often than we do as adults.

5. "A Light in the Attic"

Memorable lines:

“There's a light on in the attic. 

Thought the house is dark and shuttered, 

I can see a flickerin' flutter, 

And I know what it's about.”

Like many of the other Shel Silverstein poems we grew up with, “A Light in the Attic” is one of those gems that means a lot more when you grow older. When you’re a kid, you read this and think about the nice imagery. (Or at least I did; I wasn’t very bright when it came to metaphors back then.)

When you read it again, it becomes clear that the light is more about meeting a kindred spirit than anything else. It’s that “I’m hiding the same secret you are” vibe that is hard to explain to kids, but incredibly common among people of all ages.

6. "Smart"

Memorable lines:

“My dad gave me one dollar bill

'Cause I'm his smartest son,

And I swapped it for two shiny quarters

'Cause two is more then one!”

Have you ever met someone who was dumb as a brick but really thought he was the smartest person since Albert Einstein? Yup. That’s what “Smart” is all about, and boy did Shel ever rip into people who had that issue! You don’t have to be eight years old to chuckle at this one. It’s still golden.

7. "Boa Constrictor"

Memorable lines:

“I'm being eaten by a boa constrictor,

And I don't like it — one bit.

Well, what do you know?

It's nibblin' my toe.”

Classic Shel Silverstein. ‘Nuff said. Can anyone else still remember the cartoon that he drew of himself getting eaten by the snake when they read those lines?

8. "If The World Was Crazy"

Memorable lines:

“If the world was crazy, you know what I'd eat?

A big slice of soup and a whole quart of meat,

A lemonade sandwich, and then I might try

Some roasted ice cream or a bicycle pie”

If there was one thing that Shel Silverstein’s poems were great at, it was using his totally wild imagination to come up with crazy imagery. Whimsy was a strong point of his, and to a point, that’s what made him such a legendary children’s poet. Fans of the “What If?” types of questions and imaginative story lines will love re-reading this.

9. "Ations"

Memorable lines:

“If we argue, scream and fight,

That's an altercation.

If later we apologize, 

That's reconciliation.

If we help each other home,

That's a cooperation.

And all these actions added up 

Make Civilization.”

“Ations” is a poem that really shows Shel’s love for humanity as well as his love of teaching kids why it’s important to understand each other. This simple little poem boils humanity’s greatest invention, civilization, into something simple and yet totally true. That takes talent, don’t you think?

10. "Sarah Cynthia Stout Would Not Take The Garbage Out!"

Memorable lines:

“And finally Sarah Cynthia Slylvia Stout said,

'Ok, I'll take the garbage out!'

But then, of course, it was too late...

The garbage reached across the state,

From New York to the Golden Gate.”

This classic poem was a favorite at school back when I was a kid, and it was so fun to read. Just imagining the garbage piling higher and higher made this poem worthy of a read. When you read it as an older adult, you can’t help but understand why so many teachers may have wanted to read this. It was doing parents a solid.

11. "Dreadful"

Memorable lines:

“Someone ate the baby

Though she wasn't very sweet.

It was a heartless thing to do.

The policemen haven't got a clue.

I simply can't imagine who

Would go and (burp) eat the baby.”

Though a lot of Silverstein’s poems were upbeat and silly, some had a certain tinge of sadness or wistfulness to them. (Looking at you, "Giving Tree.") Once in a while, you’ll see that Shel has a certain dark humor that somehow managed to still be appropriate for kids.

If you listen to some stuffy parents, baby-eating poems might not seem totally cool for kids today, but let’s be real. Kids love morbid stuff, especially if it’s hilariously written. Shel knew who he was writing for.

12. "Sick"

Memorable lines:

“My temperature is one-o-eight.

My brain is shrunk, I cannot hear,

There is 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 going out to play!"

Every kid, at one point or another, has tried to fake sick as a way to get out of school. Whether it’s due to just wanting to play the latest round of League of Legends, or because they’re being bullied doesn’t matter.

What matters is the feeling that if you just fake something hard enough, maybe mom will have mercy on your soul and you will be able to skip the day. This poem brings back that vibe so well, doesn’t it?

13. "Hector the Collector"

Memorable lines:

“Three-legged chairs and cups with cracks.

Hector the Collector

Loved these things with all his soul —

Loved them more then shining diamonds,

Loved them more then glistenin' gold.

Hector called to all the people,

'Come and share my treasure trunk!'

And all the silly sightless people

Came and looked... and called it junk.”

“Hector the Collector” is a poem about a kid who collected things that were broken, busted, or otherwise seen as worthless. He was proud of doing it in the way that only a kid would be. The way he saw his stuff, versus the way that others saw it, says volumes about how jaded others can be to the world. One man’s trash really is another man’s treasure.

14. "The Land of Happy"

Memorable lines:

“There's laughter and smiles galore. 

I have been to The Land of Happy- 

What a bore!”

Everyone loves being happy, right? Happiness is a great thing and is what makes life worth living. But when you’re too happy, it gets a bit dull. Shel Silverstein pointed it out in this short poem, which is really a celebration of both the ups and downs that life throws at us.

15. "Whatif"

Memorable lines:

“Whatif they start a war?

Whatif my parents get divorced?

Whatif the bus is late?

Whatif my teeth don't grow in straight?

Whatif I tear my pants?

Whatif I never learn to dance?

Everything seems well, and then

the nighttime Whatifs strike again!”

Is there any person alive who hasn’t spent time awake at night, wondering what to do if something happens? With kids, it’s often something about school or social stuff. Even when you feel like everything should be fine, it’s hard not to ignore the urge to think about what could happen.

16. "How Many How Much"

Memorable lines:

“How many slams in an old screen door? 

Depends how loud you shut it. 

How many slices in a bread? 

Depends how thin you cut it. 

How much good inside a day? 

Depends how good you live 'em. 

How much love inside a friend? 

Depends how much you give 'em.”

Leave it to Uncle Shelby to tell people some really nice advice on how to help friendships grow. Showing a lot of love and care to your friends is typically a great way to make the friendship improve and blossom into a lifelong relationship. Poignant? Yes. And at the same time, it’s at a level that even a child could understand.

17. "Rock N’ Roll Band"

Memorable lines:

“With homemade guitars and pails and jars

And drums of potato chip cans. 

Just seven kids in the sand. 

Talk'n and waven' our hands. 

And dreamin' and thinkin' oh wouldn't it be grand, 

If we were a rock 'n' roll band.”

There’s not a single person alive who hasn’t daydreamed about being a rock star or a singer, especially during childhood. Every kid has at least talked about starting a band with friends on the playground or in school.

That kind of daydreaming is just human nature, right? That’s what makes this poem still relevant, even though it’s been around for decades.


RELATED: 20 Times Children's Poet Shel Silverstein Basically Explained Life


18. "The Dragon of Grindly Grun"

Memorable lines:

“I'm the Dragon of Grindly Grun, 

But my lunches aren't very much fun, 

For I like my damsels medium rare, 

and they always come out well done. ”

Fire-breathing dragons have problems, too! It’s not all about getting gold or fighting knights. Imagine what it must be like to eat, if you always breathe fire. After a while, BBQ probably gets old.

That’s why you gotta love this poem. It’s the type of whimsy that Shel was so well known for, and remains likable when you’re an adult.

19. "Warning"

Memorable lines:

“Inside everybody's nose

There lives a shar-toothed snail.

So if you stick your finger in,

He may bite off your nail.

Stick it farther up inside,

And he may bite your ring off.

Stick it all the way, and he

May bite the whole darn thing off!”

Just about everyone picks their noses, even if it’s not particularly sanitary to do so. Yeah, it’s gross. When you’re super-young, you may have even had parents tell you to stop picking your nose in public.

Surreal as it is, this is Uncle Shelby’s way of helping parents subtly dissuade their kids from shoving their fingers up there. After all, no one wants a damned snail biting a finger off!

20. "No Thank You"

Memorable lines:

“If you brought some walking bacon,

Leave him, here, I'll treat him kind.

I have room for mice and gerbils,

I have beds for boars and bats,

But please, please take away that kitten —

Quick — 'fore it becomes a cat.

Well... it is kind of cute at that.”

I swear, if this poem were released today, I think it would break the internet. Rejecting a kitten? I mean, come on now. Even so, Shel quickly warms up to it by the end of the poem. You’re alright, Shel. Even if you weren’t cool with kittens for a bit in this poem, we still love you.

21. "Helping"

Memorable lines:

“And some kind of help is the kind of help

That helping's all about

And some kind of help is the kind of help

We all can do without ”

Most of us have met a person who insists that they can help, only to have a situation turn for the worse. This poem has a little bit of that in there, but also has great examples of how helping can enrich a relationship and make chores easier. What’s not to love?

22. "Recipe for a Hippopotamus Sandwich"

Memorable lines:

“One onion ring,

One hippopotamus

One piece of string,

A dash of pepper 

That ought to do it.

And now comes the problem...

Biting into it! ”

You can’t help but love the way that Shel Silverstein seems to come up with poem ideas. It’s so imaginative. I mean, who else would come up with the idea of a hippo sandwich? The illustration for this was probably just as epic as anything else in the books, too.

23. "Channels"

Memorable lines:

“Channel 7 and Channel 8 —

Just old movies, not so great. 

Channel 9's a waste of time. 

Channel 10 is off, my child. 

Wouldn't you like to talk a while?”

Back before the invention of the smartphone, parents were mostly concerned with kids being exposed to too much TV time. (Screentime was always a concern, I guess.) Even though the amount of channels we can now watch has exploded, there still never seems to be too much good stuff on television.

Now, I’m not going to say that wasn’t a valid concern, but I will say that it shows that some things never really change. Timeless.

24. "Bituminous?"

Memorable lines:

“Octagons — no hexagons —

No, heptagons have seven sides.

And don't spray fruit with pesticides —

Or do I mean insecticides?

If I can see right through a thing,

Is it transparent — or translucent?

These are just some of the things

I find confusing... or confuscent.”

As a writer, I can honestly say that I have plenty of moments where I can’t remember the correct word for the thing I’m trying to describe. Heck, we all have those moments, don’t we? When you’re a kid, you often will have teachers correct you and remind you of the fact that you keep getting words confused.

Learning and relearning words isn’t easy — and this poem’s all about the nuances that you have to consider. The large words that are involved in this would bring any 90s kid back to the days when they had to study vocabulary words for the SATs.

25. "Anteater"

Memorable lines:

“'A genuine anteater,' 

The pet man told my dad. 

Turned out, it was an aunt eater, 

And now my uncle's mad!”

Short, sweet, and funny as all-get out was a style that Shel Silverstein mastered — and “Anteater” is proof in the pudding. In school, you probably heard this poem while your teacher was telling you about homophones. (You know, words that sound the same but have different meanings.) Poor uncle.

26. "In Search of Cinderella"

Memorable lines:

“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. ”

Disney has a knack for romanticizing everything and making relationships built on shaky ground sound like they’d last forever. However, if you really think about the kind of stuff that those stories entail, the actual things that the couples have to go through are pretty impressively awful.

Silverstein points this out with the way that the prince had to seek out Cinderella. Imagine having to try to fit a shoe on 500 different peoples’ feet. That would make anyone wonder if Cinderella was *really* worth it.

27. "Tryin’ On Clothes"

Memorable lines:

“I tried on the summer sun, 

Felt good. 

Nice and warm — knew it would.”

If you’re like most people, you had a point in your childhood where clothing just felt awful. Maybe it was the pants that your mom kept buying that were super itchy. Or, perhaps you had the misfortune of having parents that bought you clothes that looked perennially awkward.

Either way, being naked tends to feel better no matter what age you’re at. We approve, Shel. We approve.

28. "I’ve Been Working So Hard"

Memorable lines:

“Keeping an eye out for floods and tornadoes.

I've been supervising the work of the ants

And thinking of pruning the cantaloupe plants,

Calling the fish to swim into my nets,

And I've taken twelve thousand and forty-one breaths,

And I'm TIRED!”

One thing that slackers learn sooner rather than later is the art of making a lot of little “nothings” sound like backbreaking work. That’s what “I’ve Been Working So Hard” is mocking.

If you look at all the tasks that he’s complaining about doing, they actually aren’t really chores at all. You’d almost feel sorry for all the work he’s doing, until you realize that he’s not doing anything.

29. "Homemade Boat"

Memorable lines:

“This boat that we just built is just fine —

And don't try to tell us it's not.

The sides and the back are divine —

It's the bottom I guess we forgot...”

“Homemade Boat” is about as classic Shel Silverstein as you can get. It’s got his trademark quirk, his unique sense of humor, and a punchline that you kinda could see coming while still remaining pretty hilarious. That kind of buildup was what made him a genius in his time. You just don’t see that these days!

30. "Friendship"

Memorable lines:

“I've discovered a way to stay friends forever —

There's really nothing to it. 

I simply tell you what to do 

And you do it!!”

“Friends forever” isn’t always true, especially when you realize that the friends you have are more or less just there to boss you around. It’s a lesson that most of us learn in elementary school, which is why this is one poem that has become really popular with just about every school out there.

Childlike in his way of describing the issue, Silverstein just has a lighthearted way of pointing out human nature. That’s why he’s a legend.


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Ossiana Tepfenhart is a Jack-of-all-trades writer based out of Red Bank, New Jersey. When she's not writing, she's drinking red wine and chilling with some cool cats. You can follow her @bluntandwitty on Twitter.

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