8 Facts About Shel Silverstein

Shel Silverstein was a multi-talented children’s author, comic artist, poet, playwright, and songwriter, and above all else, a rule-breaker. From The Giving Tree to Where the Sidewalk Ends, his titles are beloved by children and adults alike. At the time they were written, though, they defied common notions about what a "children’s" story could and should be. This isn’t all that surprising, considering that the Chicago-born author, who passed away in 1999, led a pretty unconventional life. Here are eight things you might not know about him.

1. One of Shel Silverstein's first jobs was selling hot dogs in Chicago.

Shel Silverstein didn’t always want to be a writer, or even a cartoonist or songwriter. His first love was baseball. "When I was a kid—12, 14, around there—I would much rather have been a good baseball player or a hit with the girls," he once said in an interview. "But I couldn’t play ball, I couldn’t dance. Luckily, the girls didn’t want me; not much I could do about that. So I started to draw and to write.” The closest he came to his MLB dream was when he landed a stint at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, selling hot dogs to White Sox fans.

2. Silverstein never finished college.

Silverstein was expelled from one school (the University of Illinois) and dropped out of another (the School of the Art Institute of Chicago). Finally, he managed to get through three years of the English program at Chicago's Roosevelt University, but his studies came to an abrupt end when he was drafted in 1953.

3. Silverstein was a Korean War veteran.

In the 1950s, Silverstein was drafted into the U.S. armed service. While he was stationed in Korea and Japan, he also worked as a cartoonist for the military publication Stars and Stripes. It was his first big cartooning gig. "For a guy of my age and with my limited experience to suddenly have to turn out cartoons on a day-to-day deadline deadline, the job was enormous,'' Silverstein told Stars and Stripes in a 1969 interview.

4. Silverstein worked for Playboy magazine and was Part of Hugh Hefner's inner circle.

That’s right: the lovable children’s author was on Playboy’s payroll for many years. He started drawing comics for the men’s magazine in the 1950s and ended up becoming close friends with Hugh Hefner. In fact, he often spent weeks or even months at the Playboy Mansion, where he wrote some of his books. His cartoons for the magazine proved so popular that Playboy sent him around the world to find the humor in places like London, Paris, North Africa, and Moscow during the Cold War. Perhaps his most off-color assignment, though, was visiting a nudist camp in New Jersey. These drawings were compiled in the 2007 book Playboy's Silverstein Around the World, which includes a foreword from Hefner.

5. Silverstein wrote Johnny Cash's hit song "A Boy Named Sue."

Few people know that Silverstein was a songwriter, too. One of his biggest hits was the comical tale of a boy who learned how to defend himself after being relentlessly bullied for his feminine-sounding name, Sue. The song was popularized by Johnny Cash and ended up being his top-selling single, while Silverstein was awarded a Grammy for Best Country Song. You can watch Silverstein strumming the guitar and shouting the lyrics alongside Cash on The Johnny Cash Show in the video above. Silverstein also wrote a follow-up song from the dad’s point of view, The Father of a Boy Named Sue, but it didn't take off the way the original did.

6. Silverstein is in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Three years after his death, Silverstein was inducted posthumously into this exclusive society of songwriters. He wrote more than 800 songs throughout his career, some of which were quite raunchy. But his best-known songs were performed by country legends like Loretta Lynn and Waylon Jennings. “His compositions were instantly identifiable, filled with elevated wordplay and captivating, humor-filled narratives,” the Nashville Songwriters Foundation said of Silverstein's music.

7. Silverstein wrote the first children’s book to appear on The New York Times best sellerS list.

A Light in the Attic (1981) was the first children’s book to ever make it onto the prestigious New York Times Best Sellers list. It remained there for a whopping 182 weeks, breaking all of the previous records for hardcover books at that time.

8. Silverstein wasn't a fan of happy endings.

If you couldn’t already tell by The Giving Tree’s sad conclusion, Silverstein didn’t believe in giving his stories happy endings. He felt that doing so would alienate his young readers. "The child asks why I don't have this happiness thing you're telling me about, and comes to think when his joy stops that he has failed, that it won't come back,” the author said in a 1978 interview. This turned out to be a risky move, and The Giving Tree was rejected several times for being too sad or too unconventional. Fortunately, after four years of searching for a publisher, it found a home at HarperCollins (then Harper & Row) and has gone on to become one of the best-selling—and most beloved—children's books of all time.

12 Perfectly Spooky Halloween Decorations Under $25

Amazon/shopDisney
Amazon/shopDisney

Halloween is right around the corner—which means it’s officially time to bring out the jack-o'-lanterns, watch scary movies, buy your costume(s), and hang up your festive decorations. Although there are thousands of decorations to choose from, you don’t have to blow your budget while decking out your house or apartment in honor of the spooky season this year. With a little guidance, you'll find plenty of ways to create the perfect ambiance at home without going for broke. (And best of all, you can put the money you saved toward extra Halloween candy to stash away.)

From giant spiders to hanging ghosts and lawn decorations, here are a few of our favorite props under $25.

1. Halloween Pillow Covers (4-Pack); $17

ZJHAI/Amazon

These adorable Halloween-themed pillowcases make the perfect accessory for any couch, sofa, or mattress. Made with thick linen fabric, these are durable, sturdy, and designed to last for seasons to come. (Tip: To prevent the zipper from breaking, fold the pillow in half before inserting.)

Buy it: Amazon

2. Black Lace Spiderweb Fireplace Mantle; $12

Aerwo/Amazon

This versatile spiderweb prop is made with 100-percent polyester, and its knit lace spiderweb pattern adds a spooky touch to any home. Display it on your doorway, across your fireplace mantel, or atop your table. (It also makes a great backdrop for Halloween photo ops.)

Buy it: Amazon

3. Statement Halloween Signs; $16

Dazonge/Amazon

These festive, statement-making banners come pre-assembled, making them incredibly easy to install. They’re also weather-resistant and washable for both outdoor and indoor use. Use tape, push-pins, or weights to prevent the signs from blowing away.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Jack Skellington and Sally Plush Dolls; $23 (Each)

Disney

Celebrate your favorite holiday with a pair of adorable Jack Skellington and Sally plush dolls from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Jack stands at 28 inches tall, while Sally is a bit shorter at 21 inches. Set them up on your sofa or against the window sill for all to see.

Buy them: Disney Shop (Jack and Sally)

5. Halloween Zombie Groundbreaker; $22

Joyin/Amazon

This spooktacular zombie lawn decoration is sure to scare all of your friends, family, and neighbors alike. Made with a combination of latex, plastic, and fabric, this durable Halloween prop is sure to last for years to come.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Hanging Ghost Decoration; $14

Moon Boat/Amazon

Drape this handmade, 14-foot-long hanging ghost decoration over your porch, doorway, or window. You can also hang it outdoors over a tree or a (very tall) bush. And, since it comes pre-assembled, you won’t have to waste time constructing it yourself.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Two-Piece Hanging Ghost Set; $17

GeeFuun/Amazon

This pair of ghosts adds a whimsical touch to any home. While they’re not “scary,” per se, they certainly are adorable. Display them in your front yard, on your porch, on a lamppost, or a tree. To hang, simply tie the ribbons and bend the wires, arms, and tails.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Pumpkin String Lights; $19

Eurus Home/Amazon

Not only are these solar-powered, 33-foot-long LED string lights good for the environment, they’re also incredibly easy to install (no long, tangly power cable chords necessary). Since they’re waterproof, you can use them both indoors and outdoors. Choose from eight different light settings, including twinkling, flashing, fading, and more.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Inflatable Ghost; $22

Joiedomi/Amazon

This adorable inflatable ghost (which dons a cute-as-can-be wizard hat!) features built-in LED lights and sandbags to help it stay sturdy. It also comes complete with a plug, extended cords, ground stakes, and fastened ropes. Simply plug it in and watch it magically inflate within just a few minutes.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Graveyard Tombstones; $17

meiguisha/Amazon

Turn your front lawn into a graveyard with this six-piece set. Each tombstone is made with foam and designed to add a touch of spookiness to your space. To install, insert one holder into the bottom of the tombstone, and one into the soil. You can use these indoors, as well.

Buy it: Amazon

11. 10-Piece Skeleton Set; $24

Fun Little Toys/Amazon

This skeleton set includes a skull, hands and arms, and legs and feet—plus five stakes to hold everything in place. Each “bone” and “joint” is flexible, allowing you to prop the skeleton into different frighteningly fun poses. Simply place the stakes into the bone socket and turn clockwise.

Buy it: Amazon

12. Outdoor Spider Web; $18

amenon/Amazon

This giant, ultra-stretchy spider web spans a whopping 23 feet. It also includes a 30-inch black spider, 20 pieces of fake spiders, one hook, and one nail. Its thick polyester rope—combined with the sturdy stakes—allows the spider web to stay in place all season long. Place the hook on a wall or tree, and expand the web using the stakes.

Buy it: Amazon

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

8 Frightening Facts about Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw

John La Farge's title illustration for The Turn of the Screw in Collier's Weekly, 1898.
John La Farge's title illustration for The Turn of the Screw in Collier's Weekly, 1898.
Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1898, Henry James published The Turn of the Screw, a bone-chilling novella about a governess, two seemingly saintly children, and a couple of wicked ghosts who may or may not actually be there. James wanted his terrifying tale to “scare the whole world,” and more than a century later, it’s still doing just that. The story has inspired countless adaptations in every format, the most recent being Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor—a follow-up to 2018's The Haunting of Hill House (which was based on Shirley Jackson's classic 1959 novel). Prepare to be unnerved all over again with these facts about the classic novella.

1. The Archbishop of Canterbury planted the seed that inspired The Turn of the Screw.

The godly archbishop who inspired quite a devilish story.E.F. Benson, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

One afternoon in January 1895, Henry James and his cohorts were gathered around the fire at the country house of Edward White Benson, the Archbishop of Canterbury. While discussing how ghost stories had diminished in both quality and quantity, the esteemed church leader recounted a worthy one that a woman had told him years before. The story, James later wrote in his journal, involved “wicked and depraved” servants who “corrupt and deprave the children” in their charge and come back to haunt them after dying under mysterious circumstances. James also jotted down that the story should be told “by an outside spectator.” Not only does the story itself follow the basic plot of The Turn of the Screw, but James’s own fireside experience mirrors the opening frame of his novella, in which a man tells a ghost story that he first heard from a woman.

Benson died a couple of years before James got around to writing the story, and Benson's sons couldn’t recall their father ever having shared an anecdote that echoed it. But it seems probable that James spun his own story based on just a sentence or two; in his preface to the novella, he wrote that their host only remembered a “shadow of a shadow” of the story, likening it to a “precious pinch … extracted from an old silver snuff-box and held between finger and thumb.”

2. Henry James's main reason for writing The Turn of the Screw was because he needed money.

The royalties for James’s early novels were beginning to dry up by the 1890s, which prompted him to briefly pivot to playwriting. While most of his plays remained on paper only, Guy Domville did open in London in 1895. It was a disaster. “I’m the last, my lord, of the Domvilles!” the titular character exclaimed at the end, to which one disgruntled theatergoer allegedly very audibly responded, “It’s a bloody good thing y’are!”

James, humiliated and short on cash, quit theater and soon moved to New York. There, he resigned himself to work he despised: Writing serials for magazines. One of these was The Turn of the Screw, published in Collier’s Weekly between January and April 1898. "I have succumbed, in that matter, purely to the pecuniary argument … It means £40 a month, which I simply couldn’t afford not to accept,” James told fellow novelist William Dean Howells in a letter, confessing that he “will do it again & again, too, even for the same scant fee: it’s only a question of a chance!”

3. Henry James didn’t originally think much of The Turn of the Screw.

Henry James, failed playwright, painted by John Singer Sargent in 1913.National Portrait Gallery, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

James seemed to have a tough time separating his serialized work from the begrudging financial motivation behind it. He referred to it sardonically as “Literature drivel,” and considered The Turn of the Screw in particular “the most abject, down-on-all-fours pot-boiler, pure & simple, that a proud man brought low ever perpetrated.” Potboiler, a derogatory term for art or literature created for money, appears throughout his correspondence. In a letter to the poet F.W.H. Myers from December 1898, James called The Turn of the Screw "a very mechanical matter … an inferior, a merely pictorial, subject and rather a shameless pot-boiler.”

“I could easily say worse of [The Turn of the Screw] ... than the worst any one else could manage,” James wrote to H.G. Wells earlier that month. “The thing is essentially a pot-boiler and a jeu d’esprit.”

4. Henry James eventually came to appreciate The Turn of the Screw.

Despite its author’s private slights, The Turn of the Screw proved popular among readers and reviewers alike. The New York Tribune dubbed it “one of the most thrilling stories we have ever read,” and The American Monthly Review of Reviews described it as “a beautiful pearl: something perfect, rounded, calm, unforgettable.” Even critics with much less glowing remarks at least acknowledged its shock value. The Independent, for example, called it “the most hopelessly evil story that we could have read in any literature.”

In 1908, James published the novella in the 12th volume of The Novels and Tales of Henry James, New York Edition—a 24-volume collection of his selected works—and his preface suggested a change of heart toward the potboiler. He called it “a piece of ingenuity pure and simple, of cold artistic calculation, an amusette to catch those not easily caught” and pontificates about the mechanics of writing it.

“Indeed if the artistic value of such an experiment be measured by the intellectual echoes it may again, long after, set in motion, the case would make in favor of this little firm fantasy—which I seem to see draw behind it a train of associations,” he writes. “I ought doubtless to blush for thus confessing them so numerous that I can but pick among them for reference.”

5. Henry James made around 500 edits to The Turn of the Screw after its initial publication.

The governess sees a specter (or does she?) in Eric Pape's illustration for Collier's Weekly.Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

While the success of The Turn of the Screw may have contributed to James’s newfound fondness, it’s also likely that he was much happier with the 1908 version of the tale. It wasn’t published piecemeal, and it didn’t have the illustrations that Collier’s had printed with the serialized edition. James also made more than 500 edits to the text itself. These alterations don’t really impact the story, but it’s clear that James carefully tinkered with each sentence to find what he considered the perfect word or phrase. In a few places, for example, he changes stellar references to lunar ones—"bare to the constellations" became "uncovered to the moonlight," and "a great glitter of starlight" became "a great still moon"—and Flora’s "furious wail" goes from being "produced" to being "launched."

6. Critics can’t agree on whether or not the governess imagined the ghosts in The Turn of the Screw.

Even though the edits seem stylistic on the surface, critics have still used them to try to prove certain theories about the story. Perhaps the most highly contested one involves the reliability of the governess. Some scholars believe that she’s suffering from psychosis or another mental illness that’s causing her to hallucinate the ghosts, since we only ever hear her personal account of them (and the idea that the children can also see them is also solely based on her perception). Others, meanwhile, think The Turn of the Screw is a good, old-fashioned ghost story with good, old-fashioned ghosts. Proponents of the former theory cite James’s shift in verbiage as an indication that he wants us to distrust the governess—on many occasions in the 1908 edition, he changed phrasing to make her experiences seem more subjective. “I became sure” was changed to “I felt sure”; “I perceived” became “I felt”; “I found myself” became “I knew”; and so on. Skeptics argue that this shift isn’t consistent and there are still plenty of strong, objective verbs to make the point moot.

7. The Turn of the Screw scared almost everyone—including its author.

Eager listeners gather for a ghost story in another illustration by Eric Pape.Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Rife with sinister uncertainty and culminating in a horrific cliffhanger, The Turn of the Screw is widely regarded as one of the best scary stories in American literature. So scary, in fact, that even James was spooked by it. “I had to correct the proofs of my ghost story last night,” he told poet Edmund Gosse, “and when I had finished them I was so frightened that I was afraid to go upstairs to bed!”

One person, however, remained completely unperturbed: James’s stenographer, William MacAlpine. James was ill while writing the story, so he decided to dictate it to MacAlpine. He also hoped seeing MacAlpine’s reaction to the tale might help him predict how other readers would receive it.

“Judge of my dismay when from first to last page this iron Scot betrayed not the slightest shade of feeling!” James said. “I dictated to him sentences that I thought would make him leap from his chair; he short-handed them as though they had been geometry, and whenever I paused to see him collapse, he would enquire in a dry voice, ‘What next?’”

8. Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor is based on The Turn of the Screw.

More than 120 years after its initial publication, The Turn of the Screw continues to inspire adaptations of every kind (and caliber). Floria Sigismondi's poorly received film The Turning, which was released in January, is a contemporary spin on the story, and horror fans have high hopes for another modern take: Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor, which premieres on October 9. It’s the second season of an anthology series called The Haunting of Hill House, whose first season is based on Shirley Jackson’s 1959 horror novel of the same name. Jackson's novel, incidentally, is often compared to The Turn of the Screw.