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