Nostalgia can convince us that our bits of molded plastic were better than any created since, or that a twenty-minute toy commercial had qualities beyond its ability to sell the aforementioned petroleum by-product. The literature of our youth, likewise, is warped by the innocent and imaginative lens through which we first experienced it, making the task of casting an adult and critical eye on those works difficult at best and heresy at worst. Nobody wants to hear that the passages that shaped our budding love for the written word – poetry cooed in the hushed story-whisper of a doting parent – are lacking in some technical merit that grown-ups conceived to determine which story is “better” than another. The reviewer is as affected by this phenomenon as anyone else. Still, the task is tackled just the same, because there are few critical endeavors that provide a surprise as pleasant as finding that a beloved childhood book stands strong beneath an adult’s cynical and unflinching gaze. Shel Silverstein’s A Light in the Attic is, beyond a doubt, one such work.
Readers who have not looked at Attic since their own childhood may only remember the silly, sometimes bawdy nature of the poems that make up the work. A grin may creep across their lips upon learning that Silverstein wrote and drew for Playboy, the adult throwing a trans-dimensional wink at their child self for having gotten away with something naughty right under Mom and Dad’s noses.
Certainly, much of Attic’s content feels like what a child would consider subversive. “Spelling Bee’s” illustration of a backside tattooed by words in bee-sting has no doubt sparked an infinite amount of muffled giggles, and the message of “Little Abigail and the Beautiful Pony” (in which a girl passes away because her parents refused to buy her the eponymous steed) almost certainly inspired a bevy of solemn threats from children dragged along on shopping trips. These poems (and Attic’s numerous other works of immature insurgency) provide a rebellious thrill for the child – but it is elsewhere in the collection that the reader can find the craft and care that still inspires adult admiration thirty-four years on.
While “Spelling Bee” provides an amusing example of Attic’s relationship between its poems and its illustrations (the bottom-tattooed passage cheekily completes the composition), several of the collection’s other synergistic works showcase explorations of form and structure that inspire more than mere giggles. Consider “Have Fun,” which, at four brief lines, is worth reproducing here in its entirety.
It’s safe to swim
In Pemrose Park.
There are no sharks.
As ambiguous and infinitesimal works go, it’s not exactly “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” That is, however, due to the fact that the format of the review (in fact, of any format other than Silverstein’s), does not allow for the reproduction of the simple, two-page illustration, in which on one side strokes an oblivious swimmer and in the depths of the other lurks a prowling octopus. A slightly more crude application of this technique can be seen in “Something Missing,” in which the speaker, while detailing the care he took in getting dressed for a dance, worries that he might have forgotten something in his preparation. The text itself leaves that forgotten something to the imagination, but the accompanying illustration – in which a dapper, pants-less gentleman is shown in a state of attempted recollection – does not.
These are but two of the works that not only demonstrate the success Attic enjoys in toying with form and structure, but also Silverstein’s understanding of the value of visual elements in storytelling. Such elements include not only the illustrations that accompany nearly every poem, but also the way the poems themselves are structured, the often playful shapes Silverstein lends to his words in order to make them more evocative than mere ink on paper. If one needs evidence of the author’s emphasis on the message over the word, he need only look at “Importnt?”, a poem that may very well have been created to inspire a child’s first thoughts on the relationship between text and meaning. Its message (that, essentially, of “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”) is conveyed through the numerous works within the collection that seek to communicate theme through unconventional means.
The most sly example of this can be seen in “Union for Children’s Rights,” a work that at first appears to be merely an illustration until you read closely what’s written on the signs of the boys and girls marching for longer weekends/shorter school hours/higher allowances/less baths and showers. The poem that emerges is, in itself, unremarkable, but the format in which it is presented – the slow realization of rhyme and meter – lends the work a brilliance and playfulness that makes it unique even within a collection as exceptional as Attic. One almost wishes that Silverstein had made use of the technique more often within the collection; his talent as a cartoonist may have been what was necessary to breathe life into the works that remain middling even with an accompanying illustration.
An effusive review, after all, does not necessarily translate to an endorsement of every work within the collection. “The Meehoo With An Exactlywatt,” a tribute of sorts to the escalating confusion of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s On First?", grows tiresome as quickly as a preschooler who has learned their first knock-knock joke. Poems like “If” and “Shadow Race” just sort of sit there on the page, lacking the humor or daring that make Attic, on the whole, such a timeless and cherished work. These misfires, however, are rare, and in some cases can be attributed to Silverstein looking to appeal to his target audience with the sorts of silliness and simplicity that unfortunately only appeal to kids.
Attic is, on the whole, worthy of adult admiration, though that distinction falls well short in describing the true worth of the work. Its legacy lives not in analysis and critique but in a million shared bedtime-story smiles, in sparked imaginations, and in the infinite creativity to which A Light in the Attic and Shel Silverstein have given birth. No more meaningful definition of “classic” exists.
Devin Reany is a graduate of Kent State and a current student in the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts program. His work has been featured in Luna Negra, The Storyteller, and Down in the Dirt. When he's not writing, he can be found hiking, playing Dungeons & Dragons, and getting indignant at videogames.
A former resident of New York, Columbus, Philadelphia, and Chicago, Devin now makes his home in north Akron. Devin does not necessarily consider this a downgrade.