Few authors would be willing to take ancient philosophical questions and translate them into a picture book for children. In some respects the concepts are too difficult and too abstract for young audiences. On the other hand, a child’s clear-cut view of the world can be refreshingly insightful. Author Jon J Muth, introduces children to stories that have been pondered by philosophers for centuries through his exquisite tales about Stillwater, a panda bear.
In the first book of the series, Zen Shorts, we meet three children – Karl, Michael and Addy on the occasion when a panda bear appears in their backyard –
“I’m sorry for arriving unannounced,” said the bear… He spoke with a slight panda accent. Michael introduced himself. Then Addy introduced Karl because Karl was shy around bears he didn’t know. And this was how Addy, Michael, and Karl met Stillwater.
Through the telling of some ordinary events in the children’s lives, three different fables are woven into the larger story – one about giving, one about luck and one about letting go of what you cannot change. In the Author’s Note at the end of Zen Shorts, Muth defines ‘Zen’, ‘Zen shorts’ (short meditations) and notes that these short meditations or ideas to puzzle over “hone our ability to act with intuition.”
Muth followed Zen Shorts with Zen Ties and most recently Zen Ghosts. Each book follows the same formula but explores new ideas. The video clip below tells a little about Muth’s inspiration for Stillwater (“…what would it have been like to grow up in middle America, in a regular neighbourhood but to live down the road from a Zen master?”)
Each Zen book features Muth’s amazingly beautiful watercolour illustrations – reason alone to have the books in your library, in my opinion! The illustrations are gentle, incredibly expressive and often funny – Stillwater in a giant pair of bathers looking at a pool full of water toys is priceless. Muth cleverly contrasts the telling of the Zen stories by changing illustrative styles and uses thick black ink line drawings instead of watercolours.
The Zen stories may be familiar to adults in one form or another – the trick is using these stories in a way that is relevant to children and there is no better introduction than Stillwater.
All three books are available from Book Depository for $19.54 each. Book Depository ships to Australia free of charge.