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Zen Shorts
by Jon J. Muth
Scholastic Press, 2005

Zen Shorts may turn out to be the most beautifully illustrated book of the year--in fact, its delicate watercolors and striking, Chinese-style brush work are so extraordinary one wonders how the text could possibly measure up. It does.

This is an unusual picture book, one that tells a story that has genuine appeal for adults as well as kids and works on several different levels at once.

Three children--eldest Michael, tiny Karl, and middle sister Addy--are surprised to find a giant panda with an even bigger red umbrella sitting in their backyard. He introduces himself with consummate politeness as their neighbor, Stillwater. The children take this in stride, each spending a day with their gentle new friend. Addy visits first, bringing a cake, and as a reciprocal gift Stillwater tells her a story about his "Uncle Ry" and a robber raccoon. The next day Michael visits and climbs with Stillwater atop a tree; their conversation spurs another of the bear's stories, this one illustrating that "luck"--good or bad--isn't all it seems. The last visit is by the youngest, Karl who arrives full of a typical 4-year-old's resentment towards his big brother, which again prompts a succinct story from Stillwater. By the finish Karl has grasped that it might not be a good idea to hold onto his anger, and the day ends with the huge bear's paw returning the little boy back to the room where the story started.

Muth employs two distinct styles, each perfect for their respective uses: the present-day world of the children and bear are rendered realistically, with a simple, delicate palette, its warmth filling the scenes with the feel of late afternoon. Each time Stillwater narrates a story, the watercolors are replaced by a sumi-e (Japanese for "black ink painting") style, and the animals that populate the fables are spare and caricatured, with a marvelous, truthful subtlety of expression and pose. The backgrounds are a solid color, defined only by a sweep of black ink for a window or a running line for a doorway. The feeling of temporarily listening to a story-within-a-story is realized brilliantly through this technique.

The accompanying text couldn't be more spare, befitting the underlying philosophy of zen; Stillwater certainly has all the attributes of a zen teacher although the term "zen" is never used within the actual story itself, but explained in an afterword. Muth wants to illustrate not only the three short fables, but tie them into the lives of the three children, giving them meaning--and he succeeds. Philosophies aside, it also works beautifully as a charming, warmhearted story, with myriad details on every page that underline and enhance the minimal text. While the panda and Addy are talking a bit about his fable, they're shown painting--the careful reader will see that the panda is painting the girl, while she is painting him; the cake she brings him as a housewarming gift is topped by a single, elegant stalk of bamboo. At the end of Karl's day, he and Stillwater are shown exchanging a formal bow. No redundancies of picture and words here. Muth's mastery of form, design and composition make this a rare treasure of a book, one in which all ages can find ample room for delight and contemplation. -JL
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