Reviews for Zen Ghosts

Booklist Reviews 2010 September #2
Following the Caldecott Honor Book Zen Shorts (2005) and Zen Ties (2008), Muth offers another gentle, reflective story about Stillwater, the Zen Buddhist panda, and his three young friends, siblings Michael, Karl, and Addie. It's Halloween, and after the candy-collecting fun, Stillwater promises another treat: a visit from a storyteller, who looks a lot like the kids' panda friend. "Is that Stillwater?" asks Karl. "Yes . . . no! . . . I don't know!" whispers Michael. That theme of duality is at the heart of the storyteller's tale about a young woman who seemingly lives in two places at once. In an author's note, Muth discusses Zen koans, and as a whole, this title feels more like a vehicle for the meditative tale rather than a developed, integrated story. But Muth grounds the book's esoteric elements with humor, everyday details from a child's world, and extraordinary watercolor-and-ink scenes that contrast the fiery shades of autumn with silvery moonlight and utilize a ghostly, simplified palette to amplify the koan's elemental mysteries. A beautiful, contemplative offering.

BookPage Reviews 2010 October
Treats, not tricks, for little ones

On Halloween night, the streets of our small town burst with goblins and strolling parents. It’s a once-a-year party that can’t be beat. Here are four picture books guaranteed to get you in the “spirit.”

Jon J Muth continues his captivating, thought-provoking Zen series in Zen Ghosts, a unique Halloween tale. As in Zen Short and Zen Ties, the story features a giant panda, Stillwater, who pays an instructive visit to three siblings. After trick-or-treating, Stillwater “draws” the trio a mysterious story, based on a Zen koan, or parable. Muth explains in an author’s note that this great ghost story “leaves you with more questions than answers,” and he’s right. His trio of Zen books can truly be enjoyed—and contemplated—by all ages.


The Curious Little Witch, by the late Belgian author/illustrator Lieve Baeten, is a delightful book, perfect for youngsters who want some non-scary Halloween fun. Lizzy and her cat are taking a spin on Lizzy’s broomstick when they spot an unusual house, which turns out to be full of magical details and friendly witches. Upon landing, Lizzy breaks her broom, leaving her in a pickle. She explores the house room by room, from top to bottom, finding a different witch in each location. Young readers will enjoy lingering over Baeten’s intricate illustrations, including a final large cutaway floor plan. The Curious Little Witch is likely to be enjoyed all year round, not just at Halloween.


Another good no-scares book is Always Listen to Your Mother written by the mother/daughter team of Florence Parry Heide and Roxanne Heide Pierce. Ernest is a good little boy, who always “picked up his toys, ate all his vegetables, sat up straight, and listened to his mother.” When a new family moves next door, Ernest befriends young Vlapid, who loves to swing from the chandelier, write on the walls and create all sorts of havoc. This might seem a friendship destined for disaster, but the joke is that Vlapid’s mother likes life that way, and Ernest can dutifully report that Vlapid always listens to his mother. Children will love this gentle tale, made all the more fun by the whimsical illustrations of Kyle M. Stone.


For frightfully fun Halloween poems, a treat is waiting with Hallowilloween: Nefarious Silliness from Calef Brown. Brown is well known for his magical wordsmithery, as seen in his best-selling book of nonsense poems, Flamingos on the Roof. His verbal acrobatics continue here in high form, in lines like these from “Not Frankenstein”: I’m not Frankenstein, / but people say / I’m “Frankensteinesque.” / I sit at a desk / in my mountain lodge / and do decoupage. / It’s an homage you see, to the human collage—that’s me! While easily accessible, these are verbally dazzling poems, perfect for elementary students and sophisticated preschoolers. Both audiences are likely to benefit from additional explanations of some finer points of vocabulary and idiom from an adult, but the poetry is far from pedantic.


Copyright 2010 BookPage Reviews.

Horn Book Guide Reviews 2011 Spring
On Halloween, panda Stillwater (Zen Shorts, Zen Ties) goes trick-or-treating with the kids, then leads them to his house where "a panda who looked exactly like Stillwater" tells them a ghost story based on a Zen koan. Though the text is stilted and hard to follow, Muth's accomplished watercolor and ink illustrations are effectively mysterious and eerie. Copyright 2010 Horn Book Guide Reviews.

Publishers Weekly Reviews 2010 August #3

In the third of Muth's contemplative series, Stillwater the panda comes dressed as a ghost to join Addy, Michael, and Karl on Halloween. After trick or treating, they travel through the misty night to Stillwater's house. There, another panda (which one is Stillwater?) shares a ghost story, painted in black ink and based on a Zen koan, which questions the nature of identity. Haunting in multiple senses of the word, this tale should captivate thoughtful readers, as Muth's watercolors convey a world of infinite possibility and gentle enchantment. All ages. (Sept.)

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School Library Journal Reviews 2010 November

Gr 1-6--It's Halloween, and the three siblings introduced in Muth's Zen Shorts (2005) and Zen Ties (2008, Scholastic) are working on their costumes when Stillwater appears at their door. The panda invites Addy, Michael, and Karl to meet him after trick-or-treating to hear a ghost story. The walk through the forest is filled with mystery. Stillwater himself--who said he would be a ghost this Halloween--is at times almost transparent, and his round, white bamboo lantern mimics the full moon. Inside his house is another panda who looks exactly like Stillwater. His story, which is told in words and brush-and-ink drawings, is based on an old Zen koan, or puzzle, about a young woman who is with her husband in a faraway land and yet very ill and at home with her parents. It invites listeners to consider duality, or perception vs. reality, and is at the same time a wonderfully haunting tale that's perfect for Halloween. When the story ends and the illustrations return to the earlier complex, evocative watercolors, it isn't clear whether Stillwater and the storyteller are two entities or one. The children and readers are left to consider this and other mysteries as both tales come to a close. Muth's artistic gifts are so breathtaking that they will draw in even those whose attention spans are not at first up to the demands of the text. The book functions on many levels, from seasonal Halloween story to ghost yarn to deep philosophy, and succeeds spectacularly on all of them.--Susan Weitz, formerly at Spencer-Van Etten School District, Spencer, NY

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