It's hard to resist the soft watercolors that are the signature of Jon J. Muth's illustrations. A few years back, I was completely taken in by the illustrations that accompanied Karen Hesse's Come On, Rain! There was so much pure joy jumping out of his brush that the paintings made me feel a part of the scene as young girls ran through the raindrops of a much-anticipated storm in a hot city.
In Muth's newest offering, Zen Shorts, siblings Michael, Karl and Addy are playing on a summer day. They meet a large panda bear named Stillwater who has floated in on the current, held up by an umbrella.
"'I am sorry for arriving unannounced,' said the bear. 'The wind carried my umbrella all the way from my backyard to your backyard. I thought I would retrieve it before it became a nuisance.' He spoke with a slight panda accent."
Needless to say, Stillwater is no ordinary giant panda. He is a storyteller. The three stories he tells in Zen Shorts are Stillwater's gift to the children and to us, the readers. Gently philosophical, the stories are actually short meditations from two Zen traditions, Zen Buddhism and Taoism. In an accompanying Author's Note, Muth explains Zen and the origins of the stories. Even the name of the bear has a root in Zen, which values meditation and being still as key routes to understanding.
The three stories-within-the-story are meant to bring enlightenment, something like the parables in the New Testament. The short tales address the existence of good and bad luck, the nature of frustration and forgiveness, and the role of material possessions. Though the stories ask the reader to slow down and think about the nature of life, these are not morality tales. There is no summary sentence at the end to help the reader figure out what the story is trying to teach. However, there is a quiet tone that invites the reader to pause and think.
In Zen Shorts, Muth has created a lovely introduction to the habit of reflection that Zen encourages. Copyright 2005 BookPage Reviews.
Horn Book Guide Reviews 2005 Fall
Three Zen stories are woven into a contemporary frame story when Stillwater, a talking panda, meets three young children. The panda narrates a story to fit each child's mood. The "shorts" are illustrated with quick black brush strokes, white forms, and pale backgrounds, while the children and Stillwater live in a tranquil watercolor world. An author's note provides background information. Copyright 2005 Horn Book Guide Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2005 February #1
Limpidly beautiful watercolors and a wry, puckish gentleness mark these three Zen stories, one for each of three children. Michael, Karl and Addy discover a giant panda in their backyard. ("He spoke with a slight panda accent.") His name is Stillwater, and he tells Addy the tale of his Uncle Ry, who gave the robber who could find nothing to steal in his house his own tattered robe. (The robber, in the black-and-white illustrations that mark the three stories, is a raccoon.) When Michael comes to visit, he climbs a tree to sit with Stillwater, who tells the story of the farmer's luck. Karl comes to visit carrying too much stuff for Stillwater's wading pool, and hears just the right story for him. The pictures are as full of peace and solace-and humor-as the text: The title page has the panda dancing in a pair of oversize shorts; the cake Addy brings for tea has a stalk of bamboo in it for Stillwater; Karl and the panda bow to each other at the end of their day. The Buddha lurks in the details here: Every word and image comes to make as perfect a picture book as can be. (author's note) (Picture book. 5-9) Copyright Kirkus 2005 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
Library Media Connection Reviews 2005 August/September
This thoughtful book is really four stories in one. A panda named Stillwater comes to fetch his umbrella from a neighboring house where Addy, Michael, and Karl live. One by one, the children go to visit Stillwater at his home. He tells each of them a story, based on Zen Buddhist literature. The stories have an easily understood moral that is put into modern perspective because it is told to the children. The pictures are in watercolor, which are colorful when telling the story of the children and b&w when relating the ancient stories. The first story is told to Addy, who brings Stillwater a cake she had made. He tells the story "Uncle Ry and the Moon." Uncle Ry had little in material possessions. A burglar (a raccoon) comes to his house and Uncle Ry catches him. Ry gives the burglar the only thing he can, his old, tattered robe. Uncle Ry goes out into the night, sits and looks at moon, wishing he could have given that. The last page, Author's Note, tells a little about Zen, meditation, and how the names in the book were chosen. As well as being read for enjoyment, the stories in this book can be read and discussed several times, forming a basis for discussions about character building and decision making. Recommended. Janet Luch, Educational Reviewer & Adjunct Professor, SUNY New Paltz, New York, and Faculty Member, University of Phoenix Online © 2005 Linworth Publishing, Inc.
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2005 February #4
Muth, who has retold traditional stories such as Stone Soup and Tolstoy's The Three Questions, and played up their spiritual elements with his elegant watercolors, here introduces three Zen stories from Japan. He frames the trio of tales within the context of a suburban household. Three siblings befriend a giant panda when his red umbrella blows into their yard. Speaking "with a slight panda accent," he introduces himself as Stillwater, and charms Addy and Michael-though Karl, the youngest, is still "shy around bears he [doesn't] know." Each day one of the children goes to visit Stillwater, revealing something of him- or herself. The panda chooses an appropriate Zen fable for each child, illustrated with rough-edged, Chinese-style brush-and-ink paintings on duotone pages, to play up the story-within-a-story structure. In the first, Stillwater tells Addy about his Uncle Ry, who disarms a robber by treating him like a guest (older readers will pick up from the closing author's note that "Uncle Ry" is shorthand for the Zen hermit Ryokan Taigu). In the next, a wise farmer demonstrates that good luck can quickly turn to bad luck and back again (a tale Ed Young also retold in The Lost Horse). In the last, a monk learns how to stop brooding and live in the present. Readers will fall easily into the rhythm of visits to Stillwater and his storytelling sessions, and many more will fall in love with the panda, whose shape and size offer the children many opportunities for cuddling. Ages 4-up. (Mar.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal Reviews 2005 February
K-Gr 4-Beautifully illustrated in two distinct styles, this book introduces readers to a Zen approach to the world, wrapped in a story about three siblings and their new neighbor, a panda. One by one, the children visit Stillwater, enjoying his company and listening to him tell a brief tale that illustrates a Zen principle. Each time, there is a link between the conversation shared by Stillwater and his visitor and the story he tells; it's somewhat tenuous in regard to the two older siblings, quite specific in the case of Karl, the youngest. The tales invite the children to consider the world and their perceptions from a different angle; for Karl, the panda's story gently but pointedly teaches the benefits of forgiveness. Richly toned and nicely detailed watercolors depict the "real world" scenes, while those accompanying the Zen lessons employ black lines and strokes on pastel pages to create an interesting blend of Western realism and more evocative Japanese naturalism. Taken simply as a picture book, Zen Shorts is interesting and visually lovely. As an introduction to Zen, it is a real treat, employing familiar imagery to prod children to approach life and its circumstances in profoundly "un-Western" ways. An author's note discusses the basic concept of Zen and details the sources of Stillwater's stories. Appealing enough for a group read-aloud, but also begging to be shared and discussed by caregiver and child, Zen Shorts is a notable achievement.-Coop Renner, Hillside Elementary, El Paso, TX Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.