“Oh I'm lookin' for my missin' piece I'm lookin' for my missin' piece Hi-dee-ho, here I go, Lookin' for my missin' piece”
I open the book, and the pages smell like Mondays at my grandmother's tutoring center, where I was taught how to read. Published in 1976, I was not introduced to this book until late 1998 when I was four years old, just starting to figure out what the world was and what was in it for me. I was instantly drawn to this book for its simplistic drawings and the oversized text which I thought mimicked my own handwriting.
Not knowing much about its content, I thought it told the story of an almost full circle that wanted anything to be whole. I thought it was silly; the circle couldn’t find anything that fit right and just kept on rolling, hopeful even at the end.
For weeks, I would spend hours staring at the pages consuming McDonald's french fries while being cheered on by my grandma for sounding out the words correctly. "Mis...missin...missing peeece" I would sound everything out slowly while looking up at my grandma to make sure I was doing it right. "YES! Good job, here's a Fruit Roll-Up!" Reading tasted sweet and learning with this book and my grandmother by my side made it all the sweeter.
There was something so meaningful about Shel Silverstein's work that I was instantly drawn to. It was easy and I always thought I knew what he meant. I would flip his simple pages and would feel like he was talking directly to me. There is something so magical about learning how to read. Thinking back on this, I can see myself on a movie screen smiling and crying every time I would realize that the piece would never find what it was looking for.
The mix of the circle never being fulfilled and the book being over always hurt.
Shel Silverstein was something of a missing piece himself, spending a good portion of his life in seclusion, publishing his cherished children's books while going in and out of sanity. I did not find this out until my sophomore year of college when I did a project about his selected poems, only to be stopped by my professor midway through my presentation for being too passionate about his life. She said I was too ecstatic about someone I didn’t know. I couldn’t help it, I had to explain to my peers exactly who I thought he was and who he wasn’t.
Some of his magic was lost to me as I discovered that he was a rather ‘creepy’ man, being obsessed with writing children's books and having numerous affairs after his books started gaining recognition. For some of his life he let his penis do his writing.
What a lot of people don't know about him is that he began his career as an illustrator for Playboy, keeping sketchbooks hidden away filled with ideas and drawings for children's stories he would someday publish.
He was not a handsome man, but some of his fellow cartoonists at Playboy recall him to have some sort of twinkle in his eye, as if he knew something that other people didn't. Coworker Skip Williamson, who had been known for doing exploitative interviews about Silverstein, recalled once how he and the illustrator would to walk down the street, telling women that they worked for Playboy, and ask if they would like to be Playmates. Supposedly, Silverstein would carry around measuring tape to use in case anyone he encountered was interested.
How upsetting it is to find out that the first book that made me smile was written by a sex-driven pervert who knew that by writing his books women would flock to him? Reading The Missing Piece again, I get strange hints of his life and how I wasn't looking deeply enough into it.
What a smart man Shel was, having written children's books he knew would grab their short attentions when they really had deeper meanings to them. The book gives little details of this, with a page about how the missing piece would occasionally stop to smell a flower or find pieces that seemed like they fit, but eventually didn't. When we’re young, we don't know. Or at least I didn't. You think that because these pages are so simple they couldn't have any hidden meaning to them.
When I was young and read the book I thought the Missing Piece was a symbol for a man that couldn’t find love, reading the book now, I sometimes think the same thing, but other times the Missing Piece represents a part of us that we are always searching for, whether it being within a relationship or within ourselves.
Whatever assessments we want to make about our favorite authors, we should realize that they have lives too, and not always ones that we like. Shel Silverstein is adored by millions with his poetry books selling millions of copies, receiving lifetime achievement awards and bringing smiles to toddlers everywhere. I still get a kick out of discovering that The Missing Piece will never find what it's looking for, and how it keeps on rolling hoping that someday it might, just like Shel and occasionally just like me.