I still love to read picture books to my third-grade twin daughters, and Zen Ties is one of the best we've encountered lately, a real gem. It's simple enough for younger children, but offers depth to readers of all agesóa feat accomplished by few books. This is a story with a variety of subtle lessons, worthy of rereading and discussing.
Zen Ties is a follow-up to Jon J. Muth's Caldecott Honor book, Zen Shorts. Both feature a giant panda named Stillwater who befriends three siblings: Addy, Michael and Karl. In their latest adventure, Stillwater's nephew Koo comes to visit, and he always addresses his uncle in haiku verse. ("Hi, Koo!" Stillwater says when he meets his nephew at the train station, and Muth begins a later author's note by explaining his love of wordplay.)
Young Michael is nervous about an upcoming spelling bee. Meanwhile, Stillwater takes the crew to visit an elderly woman named Miss Whitaker, who is depressed and doesn't feel well. The children aren't happy about the visit, because Miss Whitaker always shouts at them from her window and scares them. "Miss Whitaker is a good friend. You will see," Stillwater reassures them.
The children visit not once, but several times, and come to like her during a series of exchanges. Finally, Koo's visit comes to an end, framing the book in a simple, yet deft way.
Not only is the story superb, the artwork is equally exquisite. I was hooked from the introductory spread featuring Stillwater and Koo in a series of yoga-like poses. On each page Stillwater is a lovable, huggable teacher, while Miss Whitaker's expressions range from deep sadness to kindness in soft-hued watercolor-and-ink illustrations.
Muth sums up his own book well in that author's note. His story and pictures are a "gentle reminder that we are all connected and interdependent whether we recognize our neighbor's face or not."
My girls and I will no doubt enjoy this book many times, and read Muth's other books as well. Aren't we all in need of Zen Ties?
Alice Cary is a writer in Groton, Massachusetts. Copyright 2008 BookPage Reviews.
Horn Book Guide Reviews 2008 Fall
In this companion to Zen Shorts, giant panda Stillwater, his haiku-spouting nephew Koo, and some neighborhood children help a crabby elderly neighbor, who, in turn, helps one of the kids cram for a spelling bee. Tranquil watercolors cover lots of logistical and emotional ground. The do-goodism is heavy-handed, but repeated readings reveal a complexity to the book. Copyright 2008 Horn Book Guide Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2008 February #1
In this companion to Muth's Caldecott Honor-winning Zen Shorts (2006), the wise and gentle Giant Panda Stillwater and his young friends are joined by Stillwater's young nephew Koo. This time, the friends tackle two problems: Michael's nervousness over an impending spelling bee and an irascible elderly neighbor, Miss Whitaker. The plot is predictable: With some friendly attention from Stillwater and the children, Miss Whitaker will turn out to be more vulnerable than nasty and, as a former English teacher, will help Michael overcome his spelling anxiety. The pleasure, as always, is with Muth's irresistible storytelling, both visual and textual. In most of the delicate, finely detailed watercolor paintings the towering figure of Stillwater dominates. In others, the frail figure of Miss Whitaker dressed in red and purple with a magnificent fluff of white hair carries the most visual weight. The story's theme of intergenerational kindness is tender, and the text is infused with bits of haiku, wordplay and small lessons that charmingly avoid didacticism. A welcome return. (author's note) (Picture book. 4-8) Copyright Kirkus 2008 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2007 November #3
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.