A BOY NAMED SHEL: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF SHEL SILVERSTEIN, by Lisa Rogak, Thomas Dunne Books and St. Martin's Press, 239 pages, $24.95

Shel Silverstein was the bedtime staple of millions of children and their parents who enjoyed his books, drawings and comic poems for a generation. Silverstein died in 1999, and "A Boy Named Shel" is the first full-length biography of the inventive genius, who dabbled in every art form.

As portrayed by his able, breezy biographer, he was a man afflicted with wanderlust, maintaining homes on both coasts and many places between, as well as indulging in regular stays at Chicago's Playboy Mansion. He was apparently a witty and charming man who made friends everywhere he went.

Almost unknown is his authorship of such hit songs as "A Boy Named Sue" and "The Unicorn."

He drew cartoons for Stars and Stripes and wrote experimental plays, even collaborating on scripts with the famed David Mamet.

Silverstein, whose father immigrated to New York and then Chicago from Russia, was inspired to draw by cartoonist Al Capp, whose comic strip "Li'l Abner" demonstrated how to "draw well." He copied Capp.

Early on, he also developed an overwhelming love for books, which he read voraciously all his life.

Like a lot of creative people, Silverstein was bored in school, so he spent much of his time there making up stories. He came to hate any type of conformity. He was kicked out of the University of Illinois after one year and attended Roosevelt University for four years without graduating.

In 1953, he was drafted into the Army and in Japan started working on the Pacific Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper. After he helped put together the paper, he drew cartoons. Following the Korean War, he met Hugh Hefner, also a Chicago native and a cartoonist. When Hefner started Playboy magazine, he bought some of Silverstein's cartoons.

Silverstein had his doubts about Hefner, because he worked in silk pajamas, and Silverstein wondered "if I was meeting a guy who had just woken up." But Hefner's male chauvinism rubbed off on Silverstein, who tended to prefer women who behaved like teenagers.

After suffering a shattered leg in an auto accident in Europe, it took two years for Silverstein to recover. He never drove a car again. He also had a phobia against phone books. And the last time he saw a doctor was in 1959.

He soon tired of the "posturing and whining" engaged in so often by artists.

It was in 1964 that Silverstein published his first three children's books, "Uncle Shelby's Zoo," "A Giraffe and a Half" and "Who Wants a Cheap Rhinoceros?"

His biggest book that year was "The Giving Tree." Silverstein wouldn't say much about it, but fellow cartoonist Jules Feiffer called it "a little boy's fantasy of growing into manhood with the kind of love he never got and inventing it as a tree because Mom wasn't there to give it."

"Where the Sidewalk Ends" was a reworking of "Uncle Shelby's Zoo," followed by "A Light in the Attic," "Falling Up" and "The Missing Piece."

Silverstein had discovered his major professional niche, and his books remain hugely popular today.

E-mail: dennis@desnews.com