Muth and Zen

John J Muth is an author/illustrator whom I appreciate very much for the accessible, philosophical content in many of his picture books, and his belief in not dumming down material for children. I personally think he writes children’s books for adults and children.   “Children are completely capable of intuiting wisdom as readily as adults are… they just may not have the ability to put it into words … [but] they get this stuff very quickly. Even the kids who come to the book (Zen Shorts) because it has this giant panda tend to come back because there’s some itch that’s set off — in their minds or in their hearts — to re-examine what’s going on.”

I already reviewed “The Three Questions” here, and today we head East, for Muth has had a life long interest in Asian culture, including tai chi chuan, sumi ink drawing and chado, “the way of tea”.

Zen Shorts – a Caldecott Honor book, published in 2005 for children from 4-9.

This story introduces us to a Zen view on life through the eyes of three siblings and their new friend and “teacher”, a very large Panda Bear, with the peaceful name of Stillwater. Independently each child visits Stillwater and he tells each a story from a Zen world view to help them find a different perspective on their own lives. The artwork is divided into two distinct styles: The encounters with the children are in expansive watercolor and then each Zen story is in ink drawings, to set them apart.

Stillwater himself, though giant, is such a serene, calm figure and a very endearing enlightener.  Addy, the girl, visits Stillwater with a gift and to her is gifted the story of Stillwater’s Uncle Ry and his compassion towards a robber. Michael, the eldest boy, visits Stillwater the next day atop a splendid tree. Their discussion leads to the second story; The Farmer’s luck –  a parable on the interwoven nature of good and bad luck. Karl, the youngest visits on the third day in a decidedly grumpy, victim mood. Having played joyfully with Karl, Stillwater’s story for him has the most blatant message of the three. This parable of monks speaks of forgiveness and letting g of burdens.

These stories can be delved into on many different levels, depending upon the age, perception and interest of each child. I found the wisdom contained here left me in a very tranquil place. Muth takes a full page at the end of the book to explain a little about the Japanese word Zen, meaning meditation.

Zen Ties was published in 2008.

Stillwater, the giant Panda, is visited by his little nephew, Koo. Muth’s sweeping watercolors sweep you right inside the illustrations…. The pictures are vivid and the text so simple and kind, yet compelling. Stillwater takes the children and Koo to visit grumpy old Miss Whitaker and Stillwater, through some wonderful “showing not telling”, demonstrate to them all how interconnected we are and the blessing of sharing our gifts and our knowledge. The text is also interspersed with some awesome wordplay “Hi koo” and haiku (of little Koo’s making).

“Summer fading

new friend’s faces

lighten the way home, “ said Koo.

Once again the book ends with a page of author’s notes of his personal experience of this poetry form and wordplay. “ A well written haiku encompasses a universal feeling, and will call one’s attention to the natural world.”

I suspect the readers will have as much pleasure as the listeners in sharing these two books.

Books # 55 & 56 in the There’s a Book Read to Me Picture Book Challenge.

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10 Responses to Muth and Zen

  1. As soon as I saw the delicate illustration of cherry blossoms at the top of the cover of Zen Shorts, I was captivated. Stillwater sounds like my kind of creature! I will be reading these books (surprise, surprise, our public library has them!)

    Thank you, Joanna.

    • Joanna says:

      Yuppii for the local library actually having what you want. I know you will like Stillwater, Beth. Every kid should have a Stillwater in their lives. These sort of books are not market focussed and yet very successful – that encourages me!

  2. Diane says:

    I have seen these books in our local library, they are beautifully written and have such beautiful artwork that I love. At the time I was looking for something else so didn’t take them with me. Off to the library today so will definiately check them out again. What beautiful messages they convey to us all… indeed. Thankyou Joanna.

    • Joanna says:

      Reading so many books for this Review Challenge is really reminding me how there are stories for all tastes. In a decent library ‘I can’t find a book I like.’ should not be a possible refrain. Glad you liked these, Diane.

  3. Patricia Tilton says:

    My kind of books! Even more amazing to me is that due to the spiritual nature, Zen’s Shorts won a Caldecott Honor. These are the kinds of books we should be reading to children to help them find peace within. In the second book I like the emphasis on our interconnectedness. We are all life. What beautiful and calming books. Loved being introduced to them. Thank you, I want to read them!

    • Joanna says:

      I haven’t read these two to kids, Pat, but I would so like to see and hear their responses. I am sure I would learn a thing or two. You are right, I love it when books that are definitely written more for a niche market, win such prstigious awards.

  4. Oh!! What a treat! And I am soo happy, we have both books in our community library here! I would most definitely review this for GatheringBooks. We need more of these books – just reading your review has reminded me of my Sivananda Yoga which I haven’t gone to for the past month now (woe is me). I shall borrow the books and let you know what I think.

  5. Gina says:

    I am so happy to see these reviews. My son brought Zen Shorts home from school on Friday, and we simply fell in love. Yesterday at the bookstore, we read Zen Ties. These books are very unique and, like you said, left us both feeling calm after our reading of them. I would love to see others like it, by Muth or other authors. I do believe in a child’s capacity to understand philosophical thought. We often do not give them enough credit. Great reviews on your site. Thank you!

    • Joanna says:

      Gina, I love Muth’s approach and work. There seems a bit of a trend away from more contemplative picture books at the moment, yet I see a continued need for them!

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