The joke does, of course, wear thin, but Silverstein's poems are smarter and more robust to rely entirely on this gimmick.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of Silverstein's birth, so the arrival of a previously unpublished work has to be put into proper context. When the noted renaissance man -- he was, whenever he wanted to be, a singer, songwriter, cartoonist, playwright, Playboy staple, children's author or all of the above - died in 1999 of a heart attack, he was in the middle of several projects and extremely active. In other words, to quote Bela Bartok, he died "with still so much to say," and it looked as if there would be no more opportunity for Silverstein to do so. Over time, some of those projects were completed, including an album of children's songs co-written with Pat Dailey and two productions of short plays, but only silence on the children's book front.
But fate, family wishes and judicious editing had other ideas. A seed germinated way back in 1972 when Silverstein mentioned to his then-editor, Joan Robins, that he was toying with writing a book for kids that features poems written bass-ackwards (so to speak) came to fruition with the publication last month of Runny Babbit, and the result is both expected and unexpected: the former because it has all the usual tropes of Silverstein's voice, and the latter because it's perhaps the best book for children he wrote since 1981's A Light in the Attic.
The principal joke is simple enough: invert the first letter of each of a two-word string so that "Bunny Rabbit" becomes "runny babbit" and so on and so forth, as clearly set out in the opening poem:
Instead of sayin' "purple hat,"
They all say "hurple pat."
Instead of sayin' 'feed the cat,"
They just say 'ceed the fat."
So if you say, "Let's bead a rook
That's as billy as can see,"
You're talkin' Runny Babbit talk,
Just like mim and he."
It's difficult not to chuckle at reversals like "sinned and graid" or "sea poup" or "ficken charmer" or "ficked his pood up with his ears," and think of how these would sound to a child on the verge of helpless laughter. Unlike Spoonerisms, which require the inverted words to be real ones as well, Silverstein's more interested in creating novel sounds and finding new ways to add to the toilet humor canon.
The joke does, of course, wear thin, but Silverstein's poems are smarter and more robust to rely entirely on this gimmick. In fact, in reading through each piece, the mind instinctively puts the letters back in their proper place, so that the poems read perfectly well on their own, showcasing Silverstein's trademark playfulness, humor, and his innate ability to capture the thought patterns and rhythms inherent to young children.
Many of Silverstein's usual themes are present here as well: his fascination with old-time ditties like "Yankee Doodle" and historical figures such as George Washington, the cheerful complaining about household chores and parental orders and the not-so-subtle subversion of authority and championing of independence. Also in full force is his total command of rhyme scheme and rhythm, which in an age of free verse and cloudy imagery, is extremely refreshing.
As with Silverstein's earlier works, Runny Babbit isn't solely about the poems. Silverstein's illustrations depict the intention while adding an extra zinger or punchline. Take "Runny's Hew Nobby" where a "swat and heater" are knitted, but unfortunately, the end result is "one slong leeve" that covers a good chunk of the poem's page, leaving poor Runny to look at his knitting needles with utter confusion as to how he mucked it up. Or "Runny's Rittle Leminders" which takes the notion of notes to hilarious heights by sticking them together in an inverted mishmash. Major props must go to his longtime designer Kim Llewellyn, whose efforts merge Silverstein's poems and drawings into their identifiable look.
As of this writing, Runny Babbit tops several children's bestseller lists and looks to do so for some time, which begs an important question: Is this truly the last we've heard from Shel Silverstein? My own dearest wish (and the basis for my own longstanding research into Silverstein's life and work) is that the answer be yes, especially as pertaining to his more adult-themed output. Comments made several years ago by his nephew, Mitch Myers, suggest that archives of unpublished work may be made available to researchers for future use (and potential publication) but it's worth noting that Silverstein himself had serious reservations about releasing unpublished work as stated in a 1963 interview:
There's a great myth about cartoonists, writers and people that are on TV. People are always giving you credit for really wanting to say more than you said. People say, "Boy, when you were on TV, I bet you really could have said a lot if they'd have let you," or "Gee, I'd like to see the cartoons that the magazine doesn't print." This is bullshit. What you've got to say, you say. It's always a nice feeling, having people think that you feel things much deeper than you're allowed to say, but this isn't true. If you want to find out what a writer or a cartoonist really feels, look at his work. That's enough.
And by doing so, one sees yet again a man who was an expert craftsman and sharp humorist, but above all, a splendid entertainer. Even if Runny Babbit turns out to be the last scrap of Shel Silverstein's work to be made public, it's worth the time and the wait -- and the hope that maybe, just maybe, he still has much more left to say.