Shel Silverstein (or, I was a junior high speech meet champion)

If there’s one activity the kids and I can agree on, it’s reading. We’re not always aligned on favorite books, but fortunately I can reach high shelves and they can easily be distracted, so I can usually buy a couple weeks away from Babar or any other overly long, plotless, mildly offensive or just plain boring books that find their way into our house.

Lately, though, my kids have each independently become devoted to one author: Shel Silverstein. And it’s awesome.

You probably know Shel from The Giving Tree. Maybe you, like me, also had his books of poems like Where the Sidewalk Ends or A Light in the Attic. About a year ago, Noah came across one these old books of mine. He liked it from the beginning, but lately he has become completely hooked.

For our nighttime routine, I usually read books to both Noah and Rory, and then while I put Rory down, Pat reads another couple books with Noah and puts him to bed.This used to be a long, drawn-out process of Noah dithering over what he wanted to read, interrupting his own decision-making process with an intricate story about the road he was building or questions about the next day’s activities.

But Pat’s job has become incredibly simple. Noah wants three poems out of Where the Sidewalk Ends: “Hungry Mungry,” “My Beard” and then a wildcard. I didn’t realize how into it he had become until he recited “Hungry Mungry” almost in its entirety at the dinner table Sunday night. It’s a funny, dark poem – Silverstein at his finest – and pretty darn long. He’s been reciting it each night since then, and each time he adds more hand motions and inflection. Tonight he sang the last few lines.

He also recites “My Beard,” which is shorter and completely absurd, so of course he loves it.



Rory, in the meantime, has fixated on the book Runny Babbit: A Billy Sook, which is a collection of stories about “Runny Babbit” a rabbit who lives in a place where all the letters of words are flipped (“instead of ‘purple hat,’ they say ‘hurple pat.'”)

I’ve had this book since Noah was born, but no one was that interested in it until recently. But now Rory has decided that “His Kajesty, the Ming” is the funniest thing ever, especially an illustration of a little turtle, who is laughing “Hee Tee!” When I was putting Rory to bed tonight, he kept exclaiming “hee tee!” giggling hysterically and then trying to kiss me on the lips with his wide-open mouth, like a lamprey. I couldn’t stop laughing.

The special place in my heart for Shel Silverstein goes back a long way.

When I was in grade school, every year (starting when – fifth grade?) we had a speech meet. Every student had to choose a speech from one of several categories (poems, monologue, historical, etc.). First there’d be a classroom competition. Then the kids who won the category for their grade would go on to a regional competition in Aurora or Naperville or some place equally exotic.

As a child who loved any opportunity to be the center of attention (hard to imagine, I know), the speech meet was my jam. One year, maybe 7th grade, I selected Shel Silverstein’s poem “Sick” (“‘I cannot go to school today,’ said little Peggy Ann McKay.”). Only after I competed in my classroom round did I find out that the poem was too short.

Fortunately, my teacher allowed me to move on in a category that I’m guessing no one else had competed in. I’m not sure if that was the year I ended up learning a terribly outdated, awkward one-sided conversation of a woman on a date at a French restaurant with a man named “Wilbur,” or the year I did the monologue of a little girl making a “phone call” to God. (“I’m just a little girl, God, but I’m going to call you looong distance.”)

Because this is throwback Thursday and you are my friends, here’s a picture of that ridiculous moment.


For the monologue, I used a cloying “little girl” voice that was as equally dreadful as this get-up.

Though you would not believe it from the photo above, I did pretty well in these competitions. Well enough, at least, to earn ribbons that my sister would rip off my bulletin board whenever she was mad at me.

Though in the end, success proved to be her best revenge: a few years after me, Katie went on to sweep the competition – earning the speech meet equivalent of “Best in Show” – with her own renditions of both the date with Wilbur and the little girl talking to God.

Are Noah and Rory on the road to speech meet glory? Only time will tell. For now, as long as they stick with Shel Silverstein and don’t start memorizing Babar, I’ll be happy.