Stillwater, the giant panda who taught Zen parables to siblings Karl, Addy and Michael in Zen Shorts, continues to combine his slow-moving grace with genuine spiritual tranquility. This time, Michael faces a daunting spelling bee, and Stillwater, first seen wearing a necktie, introduces the three to Miss Whitaker, an elderly neighbor whose crabby outbursts have frightened them. Stillwater's inward eye sees through her anger to her fear and loneliness. She turns out to be a marvelous spelling coach ("Just like plants, words have roots," she tells Michael. "Roots of words can teach you to spell"), and when Michael wins a red ribbon, the pictures show the whole group sharing his victory with their own red ribbons--the "Zen ties" of the title. (Zentai is Japanese for "the whole" or "the entire," as in "all of us together.") A subplot featuring Koo, Stillwater's nephew, drifts a bit; he's a cute little panda who punctuates the action with Zen-influenced haiku (and allows Muth another pun: "Hi, Koo!"). Muth's brush is as sure as ever; Stillwater's big, blunt paws and hunched-over listening posture are irresistible, and Miss Whitaker's delicate face and snow-white hair beautifully counterpoint the vignettes of youthful play. From a religious tradition that makes no theological demands and that will be unfamiliar to most readers, Stillwater offers a model of pure saintliness, and children will instantly respond to him. All ages. (Feb.)[Page 55]. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
Gr 1-5-- Giant panda Stillwater introduces Addy, Michael, and Karl, first encountered in Zen Shorts (Scholastic, 2005), to his young nephew, Koo. After playing together, he suggests that they make soup for ailing Miss Whitaker. The children initially protest because she shouts at them whenever they pass her house, but they comply. Even when they deliver the soup, tidy her house, and draw her pictures, the old woman doesn't soften substantially. Stillwater, who is insightful enough to recognize harshness as a sign of Miss Whitaker's loneliness and fear, encourages Michael to approach her for help preparing for a spelling bee. It turns out she was a talented English teacher and when he follows her advice, he wins a ribbon. Much more is going on here than Stillwater's quiet message that there is more to people than outward appearances. Koo speaks in loosely structured haiku, and as explained in his author's note, this affords Muth an opportunity to engage in wordplay. Miss Whitaker's change of heart is foreshadowed in a close-up of her examining Karl's painting after she had previously dismissed the children's efforts. All of the characters are "tied" together in the Zen wisdom they have attained and symbolically in the red ties they wear to celebrate Michael's spelling success. From the lovely large watercolor illustrations that include Stillwater and Koo doing Tai Chi on the endpapers, to the lesson presented without sentimentality, this is a rich and wonderful offering.--Marianne Saccardi, formerly at Norwalk Community College, CT[Page 117]. Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.