The Three Questions – Perfect Picture Book Friday

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The Three Questions Based on a Story by Leo Tolstoy 

Written and illustrated by Jon J Muth

Published by Scholastic Press, 2002

Ages: 5-adult

Themes: Wisdom, compassion, life’s lessons, friendship

Genre: Fable

First Lines/Synopsis:

There once was a boy named Nikolai who sometimes felt uncertain about the right way to act. “I want to be a good person,” he told his friends. “But I don’t always know the way to do that.” Nikolai’s friends understood and they wanted to help him. “If only I could find he answers to my three questions,” Nikolai continued, ” then I would always know what to do.

Based on a short story by Tolstoy, this book tells of the search of a small boy for the answers to three questions he believes will help him live uprightly in the world.  Muth transforms Tolstoy’s philosophical Tzar story into one for children by turning the protagonist into a young boy and having all the friends as dreamy animals. His friends–a heron, a monkey, and a dog–try to help, but to no avail, so he asks Leo, the wise old turtle who lives in the mountains. The boy helps Leo with his garden and rescues an injured panda and her cub, and in so doing, finds the answers he seeks.

Leo explains “There is only one important time, and that time is now. The most important one is always the one you are with. And the most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing at your side.”

An afterword describes Tolstoy and his work.

Why I like this book:

This is clearly the sort of story that would provoke great discussion with a child in a very uncontrived way.  You come away with a really positive feeling after reading this book. Despite there being a clear moral in the story, the quest is gently shown by Muth’s own soft watercolor illustrations  and quietly humorous text, and you get no sense of any preaching of a message.

As a writer I love the use of three questions and three friends in this story.


Reading- prediction,

Writing- using a writer’s concept to create a new story,

Social skills – discussion on kindness, respect, compassion

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35 Responses to The Three Questions – Perfect Picture Book Friday

  1. Love Leo’s explanation. Beautiful book and review Joanna, it feels almost spiritual.

  2. Joanna says:

    Diane, I would fully agree that this story has a spiritual element!

  3. clarbojahn says:

    All the books on picture book crafts that I read emphasis that things work in threes and this is a superb example of it. Thanks for sharing, Joanna. 🙂

  4. This is a beautiful, wonderful book. Really, anything Jon J Muth does is amazing. I’m so glad you added it to the PPBF list, Joanna.

  5. Beautiful review, Joanna, and I love the book’s concept — and its conclusions. Good to remember at any age!

  6. Tina Cho says:

    I’ve heard of these 3 questions by Tolstoy recently, but this is great it’s in pb form! I wonder what children today would answer!

  7. Darshana says:

    Sounds like an interesting, beautiful story. Thanks for reviewing it.

  8. What a beautiful review. My kind of book with an important message that isn’t preachy but prompts kids to think. Love your choice today.

  9. Muth haben! Liked this one very much as well!

  10. Hannah Holt says:

    That red kite on the cover is gorgeous. I think I loved this book from the title.

  11. This book sounds wonderful, and Leo’s summary of what is most important is shiver-down-the-spine beautiful. Thank you.

  12. Rhythm says:

    This is a favorite book at my house. I like that the boy turns to his animal friends for help. I love the soft illustrations and I love the quest. We just recently read this with some 1st graders and had some interesting discussion.

  13. Carrie F says:

    This sounds so philosophical! I think my son would really like it. Thanks for sharing this one. I like that it is different from your typical picture book.

  14. The wisdom of simplicity. Or the simplicity of wisdom. Or both.
    We read this book as a meditation on mindfulness at an inservice at my school. And then we ate chocolate!

  15. Ellen Jellison says:

    I really like your blog, Joanna. I like the idea of previewing picture books. I’ve seen this book and was curious about it. Now I will surely check it out!

  16. Laura Renauld says:

    I read this book a long time ago. Thanks for the reminder to revisit it.

  17. Joanna says:

    You’re welcome, Laura.

  18. Wow! I love the sound of this book, Joanna. So philosophical and for younger readers. It sounds like a book that would encourage great discussion. Thanks so much for adding it to our list. I love books that have this kind of different feel to them!

  19. John J. Muth is one of my all-time favorite illustrators. One of my favorite picture books is I WILL HOLD YOU TIL YOU SLEEP, which is illustrated. I haven’t seen this one, though, so thanks Joanna!

  20. Thank you, Joanna…you’ve helped me rediscover this story by posting this picture book review. 🙂 I love it…and will get a copy so I can share it with the little ones I know.!

  21. This sounds like a book we all should read. Beautiful. Thanks, Joanna.

  22. Sounds like a beautiful story. I pinned it to my Books I Want To Read on Pinterest. Hopefully our library will have a copy.

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