“If you were only one inch tall, you’d ride a worm to school…” From the beginning of One Inch Tall, by Shel Silverstein, it’s simple to understand that this method of writing is not formal or official. Silverstein does not require an academic background to comprehend his composition. Instead, he utilizes the creative style to capture his audience’s attention, drawing his readers into a world of literary genius. And what’s even more impressive about Silverstein’s vision – he’s writing for children.
One Inch Tall, though it may comprise a tiny three stanzas of poetry, packs a powerful punch behind its short phrases. Rhetorical elements such as amplification, parallelism, and alliteration draw out the meaning of the poem into a finely-crafted blend of whimsy and rhetorical exhibition. One may argue that Silverstein’s poem is simply that, a poem. However, as the poem’s structure is broken apart and analyzed, it becomes evident that Silverstein cleverly wove an English lesson into the piece.
Examining the readability score for One Inch Tall reveals that Silverstein was definitely writing for kids. The Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease sits predictably high, at 91.7 points. Also unsurprisingly accurate is the average grade level of 5.6, at which point children could easily understand the content of the poem. The sentences are short, with an average of only nineteen words per sentence and 3.7 characters per word. With short sentences and simplistic word choice, elementary-aged kids can read and comprehend One Inch Tall without too much hassle. Silverstein purposely uses short words to appeal to his young audience, and proves himself a master of crafting poetry that children would find interesting.
To begin revealing Silverstein’s motives for writing One Inch Tall, his background and that of his audience must be examined. Shel Silverstein, who unfortunately passed away in 1999, generated an incredible legacy as a children’s author, singer-songwriter, poet, and cartoonist. Some of his most notable achievements include such gems as The Giving Tree and Where the Sidewalk Ends, along with the Johnny Cash song “A Boy Named Sue.” Silverstein discovered his love for writing as a child and fostered that creativity into an illustrious career. As for his audience, Silverstein did not initially focus on children’s literature. He actually worked for Playboy magazine for a while, writing a series of articles about his travels. Later, he decided to start writing for children, which ended up spawning his greatest successes and establishing him as a cherished author.
One Inch Tall originally appeared in Silverstein’s poetry collection Where the Sidewalk Ends along with many other children’s poems. Each of these poems appeals broadly to kids, with silly titles like The Crocodile’s Toothache and Peanut Butter Sandwich. Young readers, mostly early elementary-aged, find the poems hilarious because of their ridiculous content. Silverstein’s poetry is not meant to inspire deep conversation or make children think too hard in search of the poem’s meaning. Much of this poetry is read in schools, where teachers use it to demonstrate rhyme schemes or basic poem structure. The presentation of Silverstein’s poetry in schools introduces an additional factor to the activity system surrounding One Inch Tall, specifically the teachers working with the children. A teacher’s motive is to instruct and guide students, and for elementary-aged youths, this means helping children develop their understanding of the English language. Basic poetry has been examined in schools for decades as a tool to explore important literary elements, and choosing fun poems makes this educational requirement more bearable for children with fleeting attention spans.
The fact that Silverstein’s poetry, including One Inch Tall, has been used extensively in schools lends itself to an interesting hypothesis. What if Silverstein knowingly inserted specific rhetorical elements in an effort to teach youngsters under the radar? This postulation garners support when Silverstein’s writing is scrutinized more in depth. Entertaining young readers while slipping in important literary lessons seems brilliant, perhaps something only a celebrated, qualified writer could dare to do.
Parallelism as a rhetorical strategy plays a huge role in One Inch Tall. This is an example of scheme in the poem, specifically in the area of sequencing ideas. Over and over, Silverstein introduces similar sentence structure, which adds backbone and rhythm to the poem. For example, Silverstein uses the contraction “you’d” multiple times throughout One Inch Tall. Two standout lines read “you’d ride a worm to school” and “you’d walk beneath a door.” Both phrases are sure to inspire laughter in a young audience. Riding a worm and walking under a door provide just enough absurdity to capture children’s attention while still employing a significant rhetorical element. By concealing learning through joking poems, Silverstein masterfully weaves literary lessons into something more than the mundane school lecture.
Amplification also appears in One Inch Tall consistently, with the main theme of the poem summed up in a single phrase: “if you were one inch tall.” This phrase then continues on to describe various activities that would occur if someone happened to be only one inch tall. The act of repeating this key idea makes it clear that this is the ultimate topic of the poem by using the scheme of elaborating ideas. Thankfully, this phrase is not left by itself repetitively, or the poem would be a boring reiteration of “if you were one inch tall.” Instead, the idea is elucidated more each time, amplifying its effect on the reader. Children especially would enjoy this part of the poem, because it is simple to remember and repeated enough to stick in their minds. For example, if this poem were being read aloud in a classroom, one might picture the teacher reading a phrase and then cuing the students to repeat “if you were one inch tall.” Amplification works to draw attention to the most important theme of a poem, which is evident through this simple phrase.
Silverstein proves his expertise at crafting lines full of alliteration. Phrases such as “crumb of cake” and “feet in fright” make the poem more fun to read, and highlight the creative element of rhythm. Many of Silverstein’s poems are laden with alliteration, which is common to use when writing for children. The sound of a repeated consonant at the beginning of a word gives voice to the piece. More importantly, alliteration works to capture the reader’s interest in catchy, usually short, idea expressions. This scheme, specifically of using repeating sounds, transforms mediocre writing into something creative and vocal. If Silverstein decided to write “small piece of cake” instead of “crumb of cake,” the poem would have a completely different voice.
Each rhetorical strategy, parallelism, amplification, and alliteration, accomplishes something unique in Silverstein’s poem One Inch Tall. Though Silverstein writes for children, he cleverly slips in important literary lessons about using these strategies to improve and enhance one’s writing. The creative style relies on these schemes to bring certain elements of voice and flair into writing, though it chooses not to follow conventional rules. Through poetry like One Inch Tall, Silverstein demonstrates that rhetoric can be made approachable and fun for readers of all ages, contributing to the idea that perhaps English does not have to be a dreaded subject for students. Wouldn’t you rather ride a worm to school instead of a boring bus?
By D.M. Cook