Zen Shorts, Zen Ties, and Zen Ghosts by Jon J MuthScholastic Press, 2005, 2008, and 2010

I hadn’t heard that Jon J Muth had a new “Zen ___” book out, but then last month I read the first installment of the Book-Scout Autumn Reading List, and immediately put Zen Shorts, Zen Ties, and Zen Ghosts on hold at the library.

Zen Shorts Cover ImageZen Ties Cover ImageZen Ghosts Cover Image

Zen Shorts, which came out in 2005, was a Caldecott Honor Book in 2006, and I probably first read it sometime around then. The story is straightforward and fanciful all at once: a giant panda named Stillwater moves in next door to three siblings, and becomes friends with all of them, telling them stories and teaching them how they might think about things differently. (Stillwater isn’t totally didactic, though: he asks questions, and listens, and I like how meets the children where they are, and how there’s no expectation of moral perfection.) The pictures are a mix of watercolors (for the scenes where Stillwater’s interacting with Addy, Michael, and Karl) and black-and-white ink drawings (for the stories Stillwater tells). They’re all lovely, but I especially like the watercolors, which are soft and warm, full of gentle pastel colors without being too twee. Even the endpapers, which are enlarged purple and blue versions of the part of the cover showing the cherry blossoms and Stillwater’s umbrella, are perfect. The text, meanwhile, is simple without being too simple, with funny little pieces that made me smile (like when we learn that Stillwater speaks “with a slight panda accent,” or when Addy introduces her youngest brother to their new neighbor “because Karl was shy around bears he didn’t know”). There are lots of great visual moments, too: Stillwater licking the bamboo cake-topper Addy’s brought him, while she eats a slice of the cake she’s made; Stillwater wearing swim trunks and looking only a little dismayed at a swimming pool too full of toys to swim in, and Stillwater and Karl barreling down a hill, swim-toys piled on Stillwater’s back, in Karl’s little red wagon. The stories Stillwater tells come from Zen Buddhism and Taoism, and you may have heard a least one of them before: it’s pleasing to see them illustrated with Muth’s drawings, which casts animals as the protagonists (so, for example, in the story about the monk who carries a woman across the river, the monks and the woman are all mice).

In Zen Ties, it’s summer and Stillwater’s nephew, Koo (who speaks in haiku!) has come to visit him. Stillwater takes Koo and Michael, Addy, and Karl to visit a neighbor, Miss Whitaker, who has thus far just been that-mean-old-lady-down-the-street, as far as the children are concerned. With Stillwater’s loving-kindness-style help, the children and Miss Whitaker realize that they all have things to offer each other, and to learn from each other. It’s a sweet story without being saccharine, though the plot doesn’t entirely make sense to me: if it’s summer, why does Michael have a spelling bee to study for? I guess maybe it’s late summer and he’s starting early, or maybe he’s in a special summer program, but still, a little weird. That minor quibble aside, I enjoyed this book, though not quite as much as Zen Shorts. The text is a little less playful, but the watercolors are still wonderful, full of grin-inducing details. The endpapers feature Koo and Stillwater doing tai chi/awesome partner acrobatics (Stillwater in a handstand with Koo on his feet! Koo in a handstand on Stillwater’s head!), and I love how, when Stillwater meets Koo at the train station, Stillwater’s wearing a red necktie and Koo’s wearing a red bowtie. I love the picture of Koo getting lifted into the air by the welcome balloons his uncle gives him, and how, in the next spread, when they’re having tea at the park, each balloon is tied to a rock to keep it from floating away. And the picture Karl draws of an angry Miss Whitaker is hilarious, as is the page where Stillwater’s wearing an apron in the kitchen and Karl’s eating whipped cream straight from the can.

Zen Ghosts, the latest in the series, is a Halloween-night book, and as such the color palette is darker than the others, lovely deep blues and inky blacks and purple-greys, though there’s also autumnal red and yellow and orange, with occasional flashes of grass-green. Stillwater, already dressed as a ghost, visits his neighbors just before Halloween to tell them to meet up with him after trick-or-treating because he knows someone who will tell them a ghost story. Addy, Karl, and Michael comply, and are surprised to see that the storyteller is a panda who looks just like Stillwater, though Stillwater’s also sitting next to them, listening. The story itself, which comes from a Buddhist koan, is about duality: if we have two selves, which is the true one? Can you even say we have more than one self, or is it just one self? If it’s just one, why do we act different in different social circles/contexts? This being a koan, the story doesn’t give an answer: you just have to turn it over in your mind. As in Zen Shorts, Muth uses a mix of watercolors and ink for the art in this book, and the combination works really well— I especially love the richness of the watercolors. The text of this book, since it’s a ghost story, is mostly pretty solemn, but it’s not without its funny/sweet moments, like Karl saving a bamboo-flavored candy bar for Stillwater. I also love that when Michael can’t decide whether to be an owl or a pirate for Halloween, Stillwater suggests that he could be an Owl-Pirate, which horrifies Karl, who says Michael has to choose to be one or the other. (More duality! And I love that Michael takes Stillwater’s suggestion.)






2 responses to “Zen Shorts, Zen Ties, and Zen Ghosts by Jon J MuthScholastic Press, 2005, 2008, and 2010”

  1. Danya Avatar

    Good descriptions you’ve given – these sound lovely!

  2. Heather Avatar

    Thanks – and yes, these are really great. I’d forgotten how satisfying picture books can be!

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