Shel Silverstein's UNCLE SHELBY, not exactly a kids' book

After this year's World Science Fiction Convention, I was sitting around the bar with some writers and editors and we got to talking about subversive kids' literature. Everyone had their favorites, but then George RR Martin proceeded to describe a book so incredibly twisted, funny and wonderfully wicked that I could scarce believe he wasn't putting me on. But George is the man who introduced me to Froggy the Gremlin from Andy's Gang (immortalized in his classic, page-turning rock-and-roll horror novel The Armageddon Rag) and so I figured he probably knew what he was about.

The book was the 1961 Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book by Shel Silverstein. Yes, that Shel Silverstein, author of many books of justly beloved poetry for children. But Uncle Shelby isn't quite for kids (indeed, recent editions bear the subtitle "A Primer for Adults Only"). No, not really for kids at all.

Because Uncle Shelby is here to teach the kids the alphabet (mostly -- his alphabet goes abzdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyc) with a series of nasty, laugh-out-loud funny exercises and misinformative advice that nearly cost me a keyboard, as I happened to be drinking water while reading it. Some examples:

R is for Red: The fire is red, the fire engine is red, the fireman's hat is red... Too bad the fireman only goes to places WHERE THERE IS A FIRE.

T is for TV: See the nice TV. The TV is warm... The TV loves you. Do you know that there are little elves who live inside the TV? ...If you take Daddy's hammer and break open the TV you will see the funny little elves. What will you name them?

And then there's the penultimate page: WARNING! It is not nice to burn books. It is against the law. If your Mommy or Daddy tries to burn this book, call the POLICE on them.

Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book


  1. Wow, that really brought me back. I remember Earnie who lives in the ceiling from when I was a child (yes, I read this when I was a child – I had subversive parents). I remember being so amused and entertained by it, and I think it has really shaped me as a parent. I believe that adults should try to make the lives of children as surreal as possible so that they maintain their curiosity and imagination. And even if there are a few broken eggs to clean up as a result, it’s still worth it.

  2. It’s one of my all-time favorite books, and definitely something I plan to share with my kids when they’re old enough to get the jokes.

  3. I was a little surprised that someone as well-read as Cory was unaware of Silverstein’s work for adult audiences. But better late than never, right?

  4. Did you expect anything else from the author of A Boy Named Sue, and the even better, even more politically incorrect, Father of the Boy Named Sue?

    It was Gatlinberg in mid July
    I was gettin’ drunk but gettin’ by
    Gettin’ old and going from bad to worse
    When thru the door with an awful scream
    Comes the ugliest queen I’ve ever seen
    He says my name is Sue. How do you do?
    Then he hits me with his purse.

  5. His album Freakin’ at the Freaker’s Ball is one of my favorites (I’d call it a dessert island disc, but I’ve honestly committed each song to memory, so no need to bring it ;^)

    He was a joke writer/cartoonist for Playboy, as I recall from the liner notes…

    ANd wrote the song “Boy Named Sue“, made popular by Johnny Cash…

  6. Hee. This reminds me of Grigory Oster’s Harmful Advice for Disobedient Children:

    If ever on a bicycle
    You careen along the hallway,
    And your dad all of a sudden
    Steps in your path from the loo,
    Please don’t turn into the kitchen –
    There’s a hard fridge in the kitchen.
    Better use Dad as a cushion,
    Dad is soft. He will forgive.

    (Can’t sign in for some reason, bah.)

  7. I love his writing for children but if you see him on the streets most likely you would think him a serial killer; spooky looking guy.

  8. Adults only? I recall having this read to us by the teacher of our advanced learning class in 3rd grade.

  9. I remember finding that somewhere in my house as a kid and reading it — but then, I read just about anything as a kid.

    How exactly are we defining “subversive kids’ literature?”

  10. I object to two implications of this write up and these comments. One, Shel Silverstein’s poetry, specifically written and published for kids has a very strong subversive streak. Many of his poems come right up to the Uncle Shelby’s ABZ’s level.

    The second is the idea that this isn’t for kids. I can’t imagine who would delight in this more than kids. The sticker on the front, “A Primer for Adults Only” can only add to the appeal. Genius! The only trick is figuring out when they are old enough to get the jokes (kind of like Monty Python that way. I have no doubt my boys would enjoy them at 8 and 10, but I want to maximize their joy.)

    There is a quote in a Kurt Vonnegut book about banned books. Something about how every school library allows the two most subversive books, Robin Hood and the New Testament.

  11. I hope you took that opportunity to also kick George RR Martin’s butt for taking so long to release the next volume of A Song of Ice and Fire.
    I mean really…last book 2005? And he claimed that was 1/2 of the material he had already written? A butt kicking is warranted.

  12. Was it on the Q page where it said he had pasted a brand new shiny quarter (i hope your mom doesn’t take it?)

    Or H for horsepower, so go pour some sugar in your dad’s gas tank to feed the pony?

    aaaaah, I loved that book.

  13. What do you mean ‘not really for kids at all.’ It’s a children’s book. Through and through.

    The problem is super duper ultraduper safety mentality today that gets worse and worse even though we are a society that blows children to bits of scrappy flesh in other countries filled with Muslims.

    It’s a children’s book and it should be read as such. Silverstein was funny and logically assumed that parents were somehow able to prevent their children from lighting the house on fire.

    ‘A Primer For Adults Only’

    That’s a label for our times, isn’t it?

  14. I had this book as a kid and I never threw eggs at the ceiling. There were plenty of other ways to get in trouble without taking this book seriously.

  15. “Uncle Shelby’s ABZ” was my favorite as a child of 8 or 9. The book helped make me the man I am today. Which is a horrifying thought, now that I see it laid out in text.

    Totally a book for kids — though from a time when liability lawyers didn’t really hold sway. I got the jokes. Mostly. Or wanted to, which is the real power of books like this.

    Most definitely, NOT a book for “adults only” — cripes — ask my kids!

  16. I’ve loved this book for decades. G is for Gigalo, with a picture of a clarinet and instructions to the kid to go ask mom for money to buy a gigalo. D is for Daddy, with a drawing of a man sleeping on a couch and sympathetic text about how tired daddy was and how poor he was because of all the stuff he has to buy his kids, and why not help him and give him a free haircut?

    Not for wee little ones who won’t get the joke. Age of reason and appreciation for my kids was around 8 or so for most of the book. Explaining the concept of a gigalo was a little older. No way would I have read the “give daddy a free haircut while he’s napping!” stuff to my kids when they were 4 or 5, even with me saying “isn’t that SILLY?”

  17. The school library had a copy of this when I was in grade 6, and I read it over and over, laughing my ass off each time. I’m glad I discovered it at a tender age; I think it helped.

  18. I love this book, and read it as a kid.

    The set-up is all in the introduction. It’s about how uncle Shelby has thought about the children. Thought about them when they were making noise late at night, or tearing up his lawn, etc. And how he wrote the book so that the children would get everything they so richly deserved.

    Actually the G is for gigolo page sort of had the desired effect because when I didn’t get the joke, I asked my mom what a gigolo was… Good times.

    Make a circle around the number of nice little green apples you ate today:
    1 2 3 4 7 12 26 38 57 83 91 116

  19. Loooove this book. I did have it as a child, my mother bought it for myself and my sister. I must have been old enough to get the jokes, as I don’t remember ever trying any of the stunts listed.

  20. I gave mine to my seven year old… which he understands not to light the house on fire, but he did read it to my four year old…where are those matches?

  21. In fact, I want to push further with my nastiness. When you find yourself calling this book subversive kids’ literature you know you’re really in trouble. And if science fiction writers are gathering and discussing this book as being an example of ‘subversive,’ well, that’s why I put my new science fiction with the cookbooks.

    It’s a long way back to Kansas and Philip Pullman ain’t gonna get you there.

  22. Agree with all the other comments saying that this obviously is a kid’s book, and, indeed, it is no less “subversive” book than any of his other poetry books.

    I always had “A Light in the Attic” and “Where the Sidewalk Ends,” it it was filled with poems just as “subversive” as these. It tells kids to always sprinkle pepper in their hair. There’s the great one about the girl who died of a broken heart after her parents wouldn’t get her a pony (and includes the note: “This is a great poem to read to your parents when they don’t get you something they want.) And who can forget “If you have to wash the dishes”?

    If you have to wash the dishes
    Such and awful boring chore
    If you have to wash the dishes
    ‘stead of going to the store
    If you have to wash the dishes
    And you drop one on the floor…
    Maybe you won’t have to wash the dishes anymore.

    Really, the kids are brighter than you seem to think they are, and this book is no different from any of his others.

  23. I had a social studies teacher in 7th grade that had confiscated a copy of the ABZ book many years before I got into his class, thinking it was a coloring book or something.

    Once a week we got a reading from it, or from an old collection of Little Willy poems or Mommy,Mommy jokes or whatever. He was strict as hell as a teacher, for the most part, but relaxed with a lot of normal classroom rules. It was a really strange mix. Classroom dictator, awesomely fun and wierd, totally relaxed guy during the designated fun time. We even did relaxation exercises at least once. He was also afraid of birds. He’d get edgy when there were a lot out on the lawn outside the classroom window. He said that Hitchcock’s The Birds really did something to him.

    I still remember some of the poems and jokes, even though it’s been over 20 years and I only heard each of them once. I don’t know how much exposure to Ogden Nash or Shel Silverstein without him.

    i like eels
    except as meals
    and the way they feels

  24. The call letters for the college radio station at UNC are WXYC and they had a bumpersticker that read

  25. I discovered this book as an adult. My wife had to drag me out of the library before I got kicked out for laughing so hard. I loved the “ABZ” song he included, where every letter is sung with the same note except one.

    As for the “subversiveness” of this book, I rank it right up there with MAD Magazine in terms of making kids laugh and think. And yes, Uncle Shelby’s subversiveness wasn’t limited to one book. From what I can tell it permeated pretty much everything he wrote in one way or another.

  26. When she was a small child, I gave my daughter “The Missing Piece”. Had I known about this book, she would have owned it, as well, and laughed at every page. Yes, she was (and is) THAT kind of a child. I just told her about this book and she is demanding I acquire it for her now.

  27. I was introduced to this book at the age of 8 by the drummer in my mom’s Christian rock band. The band was on tour at the time & I tagged along for part of the trip. We had a great time reading this book on the tour bus & laughing until we cried.

  28. oops forgot to sign in.

    Reminds me of Edmund Gorey’s work – The Gashlycrumb Tinies in particular.

    Not for, but exactly for, children.

  29. I love this book so much.

    My favorite entry is “O”, about the magical land of OZ and all the cool, fabulous things that happen there.

    Except that Oz doesn’t exist.

    Maybe, someday, you can go to Detroit.

  30. This book is a precious jewel . . . . for example:

    B is for Baby

    See the baby
    The baby is fat
    The baby is pink
    The baby can cry
    The baby can laugh
    See the baby play

    Play, baby, play.

    Pretty, pretty, baby.

    Mommy loves the baby
    More than she loves you.

  31. “The Giving Tree”, by Shel Silverstein, was considered quite subversive for its eco-mystic themes when it was published in 1964.

    This story appears to be the influence for the MGMT song “Kids”.

  32. Almost got water on your keyboard while you were reading it, huh?

    Does this ever actually happen? To read the internets you’d think there was an epidemic of Diet Coke/Pepsi-ruined keyboards from all the ROTFLMAOing.

    And why were you reading it at your computer anyway? It’s a book! You shouldn’t download stuff illegally! You should support deserving authors (or authors’ families in this case I suppose).

    P.S. Got a link?

  33. I recall one of Gory’s books… A is for Amy, who fell down the stairs; B is for Becky, who was eaten by bears.

    I agree, these ARE children’s books. Adult coddle their kids way too much.

    “An Impolite Interview with Shel Silverstein” from The Realist, August 1961

    Q. Is your “Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book” for children or adults or both?

    A. It’s not for children. In fact, children really shouldn’t see it at all. It’s strictly for adults. It’d be nice if kids liked it, too, but there’s really rotten information in it for kids. Things to really mess them up.

    Q. Like, for instances?

    A. Like “B is for Baby. Picture the baby. The baby is fat. The baby is pretty, the baby can laugh. The baby can play. Play, baby, play. Pretty, pretty baby. Mommy loves the baby more than she loves you.” But that’s the only one of those I’m gonna do. The other children’s books after that will be really straight children’s books.

    (Linked on Metafilter just yesterday, in fact.)

  35. Coincidentally I’m currently reading ‘A Boy Named Shel: The Life and Times of Shel Silverstein’. My kids (who are almost seven) have a growing collection of Shel’s work. We started with the three poetry books and have added ‘The Giving Tree’, ‘Runny Babbit’, ‘Don’t Bump the Glump’, ‘A Giraffe and a Half’, and ‘Lafcadio: The Lion Who Shot Back’. ‘Uncle Shelby’s ABZs’ will be coming soon I’m sure. :)

    Interesting thing about him I had not realized: I knew he had done work for Playboy, I had not realized he was there pretty much from the beginning and was a major contributor. Playboy gave him his start. Also since Shel refused to settle down anywhere Playboy also provided him a home. He lived at the Mansion whenever he was Chicago and a lot of his children’s material was written there.

    If you’re interested in Shel I do recommend ‘A Boy Named Shel’. He had a fascinating life and as a parent I’m grateful for the books, poems and music to help keep my kids challenged.

  36. I found a copy of the book at my piano teacher’s house when I was about 11 or 12 and she let me borrow it. I loved it.

    I don’t think I let my parents see it.

    I bought my own copy years later and it sits proudly on my humor shelf.

  37. I remember the ABZ book from a Playboy magazine feature.

    “G is for Gigolo”

    Definitely not a children’s book.


  38. OMG What’ll Cory discover for us next??? Seriously, though, this is a classic book. Teaches innocent children everything they need to know about the world.

  39. I’m going to say this one more time:
    Where The Hell Is My Shel Silverstein BIO-PIC?!?!?

    The world has lasted long enough without one.

  40. Uncle Shelby also provided us with a Boy Scout manual that was just as twisted and subversive. It was published in Playboy Magazine in June of 1964, and can be found here:

    Years ago, I found a long out of print collection of Shel Silverstein’s cartoons for Esquire at a thrift store. The introduction was written by Jean Shepherd (“In God We Trust; All Others Pay Cash”) and began with the assertion that Shel Silverstein was definitely not for kids. I gave it to my uncle, who treasures it. had a copy of his “Great Conch Train Robbery” album, but it seems to have vanished. Drat.

  41. Add me to the list of people who grew up with this as a child and loved it throughout. I definitely remember reading it when I was young enough to believe that there really had been a quarter stuck in the book. My favourite letter was “H” (for hole…. what else can you bury in the hole?). That may say something about the sibling relationships in my family, though.

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