Customer Reviews: Zen Shorts (Caldecott Honor Book)
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If at first you don't create the world's most philosophically sound picture book, try try again. When illustrator and sometime graphic novelist (though you wouldn't know it from his bookflaps) Jon J. Muth turned a Tolstoy short story into the picture book, "The Three Questions", response from professional journals was mixed. People liked the IDEA of making Tolstoy accessible to children but "The Three Questions" just didn't seem to cut it. When the book didn't get much in the way of attention, Muth could've abandoned the whole idea of bringing larger ideas to very young people. Instead, he came right back with a heaping plateful of Zen with panda. "Zen Shorts" is the result and remains perhaps the most beautiful picture to be published in the year of 2005. To call it classy doesn't even begin to cover it.

A panda appears in the backyard of three children. He is holding a large red umbrella (one that he holds over the three children as they talk) and is extraordinarily polite. The book notes that he, "spoke with a slight panda accent". With this initial meeting, the children slowly befriend their new neighbor, Stillwater. When Addy comes to his home with a housewarming gift, Stillwater returns the favor with the gift of a small story about his Uncle Ry. Michael visits the panda at the top of a tall tree. There they discuss, with the help of another story, what luck is and how a person can never really know what is going to happen to them next. Karl, the youngest of the three, brings too many toys to swim with in Stillwater's wading pool. At the end of the day, the two have had a good time, but Karl has wasted much of it by being mad at his older brother. On the way home, Stillwater tells a tale of letting go of what you cannot change. The final image is of Karl perched triumphantly on Stillwater's paw as Addy and Michael look on bemusedly. An Author's Note follows, wherein Mr. Muth defines "Zen" and explains that this book is a grouping of "Zen shorts". These stories are intended to, "hone our ability to act with intuition". Darn tooting.

I'm a praise lavisher by nature. I'm all too eager to say that this or that book is the best in its category. Last year I decided that Jeannie Baker's, "Home" was the most beautiful picture book of 2004. "Zen Shorts", by extension, is the most beautiful picture book of 2005. When I say this, though, I don't want my statement taken lightly. Jon J. Muth has balanced jaw-droppingly beautiful watercolors with a story that speaks with both humor and serenity. Had Mr. Muth preferred to create a book that talked about Zen principles for the preschool-set, he could have done so quite easily without bothering with visual or verbal humor. "Zen" in general is a pretty heady subject, eh? The kind of concept that many an American adult still scratches their head in wonder at. How much more impressive then that Stillwater becomes such an adorable and amusing friend. After telling Addy the story of his uncle, the two are next seen painting pictures of one another in ink, hands gripping their paintbrushes in the correct position. When the two move on to cake, Addy spears a piece for herself while Stillwater's pink tongue reaches out to the bamboo garnish. I especially enjoyed the moment where Karl and Stillwater fill his kiddie pool up with too many toys. Stillwater stands in his bathing suit, his face impassive. Heck, he doesn't even have distinguishable mouth or eyes in the shot! Next to him, Karl has crossed his arms in a huff of anger at his own mistake. These illustrations seem to be perfectly balanced between what is true and what you wish was true. I would love to lie on the stomach of a friendly and wise panda like Michael does. Many a child will feel the same way.

Muth's small zen shorts act as little stories within a story and compliment the larger action perfectly. The shorts are illustrated differently than the rest of the book so that, instead of watercolors, they are lined in thick black ink. Without drawing undue attention to himself, Muth is showing us that he can draw in completely different styles without so much as breaking a sweat. The stories themselves may be familiar to some adults. I particularly remembered "The Farmer's Luck", and love the final amusing image Muth chooses to close out this tale. Kids reading this book may be confused by the selflessness displayed in both the first and the third story towards the undeserving. Intelligent adults will find a way to use such parables towards furthering their kids' understanding of the wider world. The final tale ("A Heavy Load") may require some explanations to children when it comes to the (for lack of a better word) punchline. Otherwise, they are instantly understandable to young readers.

You would be wise to pair this book with Jack Prelutsky's, "If Not For the Cat" if you wanted a storytime tinged with East Asian influences. If you yourself are an adult and you are impressed by his visual style, you may wish to seek out his work on "Moonshadow", or other graphic novels that bear his hand. I, personally, would be amiss if I didn't also talk up his fabulous, "Gershon's Monster" by Eric Kimmel. To my mind, "Zen Shorts" is Muth's best picture book work thus far. This is possibly because it was written with his own words. If we can expect more books of this nature to come out with Muth's voice accompanying them, we can count ourselves lucky indeed. Again, I say that there is little doubt that this is the most beautiful picture book of 2005.
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on June 6, 2005
I read this to my children last evening. It resulted in a lengthy discussion about anger, giving, forgiving, wealth, and life. A wonderful book with a structure that is conducive to discussion. Divided into three parts with stories that Stillwater tells to visiting siblings, each story is an opportunity to stop and discuss.
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on March 19, 2005
I picked this up on a whim because of the title and the gorgeous illustrations. I got a real treasure! My five year old son loves to have it read to him, and I love reading it.
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on October 20, 2005
There is something about the quiet way in which this book unfolds that is appealing to adults and, apparently, to young children as well -- my four-year-old leafs through the pages on his own every day since the day I bought it, and sleeps with it, too. There is gentle wisdom here that is sure to foster thoughtful discussion about how we should treat ourselves and others.
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on June 21, 2005
This is a singularly wonderful book for children and adults. The illustrations are beautifully rendered - I particularly love the contrast between the "real time" pictures of Stillwater and his new friends and the more traditionally "Japanese" style pen and ink drawings of the Zen tales themselves. Stillwater himself is cute and appealing for young children, but the stories themselves are just as appropriate for adults and older children. While these are unquestionably tales that teach children valuable life lessons such as sharing and the dangers of anger, etc., they are just as thought provoking for adults and older kids. What I love most is that the stories in this book are not the bland, didactic morality tales that we hear endlessly as children but begin to question as we grow older. There are no obvious, simplistic answers to trite moral situations. Instead we are asked to think. In true Zen form, Stillwater (and, therefore, Muth) is neither preachy nor direct; instead, he allows the children (and the readers) to quietly consider the story and its implications. I am sure that we can all benefit from not hanging on to anger and from adopting a broader view of what we consider to be good or bad luck. Muth as given his readers accessible retelling of famous Zen parables packages in a beautifully appealing format.
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on August 14, 2006
I first overheard my wife reading this book to our children; then I realized what I was listening to and became captivated; Zen stories made accessible to all as they are related by a panda to his neighbors. Then I saw the pictures; the illustrations are of a world you'll long to inhabit--and you may be jealous of the children that they have a neighbor like Stillwater. Tears of joy and satisfaction welled up as I read it, and I realized that I had in my hands a truly wonderful book. The stories that Muth tells through Stillwater (the perfect name for the Zen panda) speak to all of us--I am sure I get something different from their telling than my eight-year-old and four-year-old, but the stories spoke to all of us. There is also tremendous subtlety in the relationship between the story that the children are in, and the ones that they hear from Stillwater. That subtlety was not ultimately lost on me nor my eight-year old, as we shared the wonderful experience of reading this book together.

Every so often, when I discover a book, a movie or a CD, I have the impulse to go out and buy as many copies as I can get my hands on, and share it with everyone I know; that impulse hasn't driven me more than a handful of times. Zen Shorts is one of those books. If I don't know you though, you'll have to buy your own copy--but you won't regret it.
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on October 13, 2015
I really love the idea of this book, and I understand what it is aiming to do. But I cannot get past the fact that about half way through the book, the author is telling very concrete thinkers that it might be a good thing to jump out of a tree, fall, and break something.

"But what if we fell?" Said Michael
"If we fell, we might break something," said Stillwater
"That would be bad," said Michael
"Maybe," said Stillwater
"Maybe?" Asked Michael.

Then the author goes on to tell a lovely zen story.

I wish the author would have used a different example to illustrate this point. Something less dangerous. I don't have any problem at all with the zen story that follows, I just don't want to tell my little boys that it might be ok to go climb a tree and try to fly.
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on April 26, 2006
Zen Shorts is a book about three siblings in a happy white upper middle class suburb who meet a Buddhist Master in the form of a Panda named Stillwater. Through their friendships with Stillwater, he imparts wise and concise lessons derived from historical figures and common tales in Zen Buddhism. In each case, one of the children approaches Stillwater and eventually he tells them a story. Addy and Stillwater share cake and a story about giving and sharing, as well as the beauty of nature in the world that we all share. Stillwater teaches the middle child Michel that everything has a purpose and that change is constant and not always bad. And the youngest Karl learns that no one can hurt you without your permission and to let the little things go because resentment wastes time.

Stylistically, the art on this book is gorgeous. Muth illustrates most of the plot in brilliantly colored but complex watercolors. The use of texture for grass and clouds gives them a three-dimensional feel, particularly when Michael and Stillwater look at the clouds in an expansive two-page illustration. There is a sharp contrast between these beautiful mellow watercolors and the sharp thick black ink brush drawings that illustrate the particular little stories. These drawings are far simpler and focus mostly on the main animal characters themselves, and this serves to highlight the profound simplicity of the lessons they teach.

Muth says in his afterward that he wanted to "challenge us to examine our habits, desires, concepts, and fears" and in this task he clearly succeeds.
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on December 29, 2005
"Zen Shorts" by Jon J. Muth contains stories within a story. Stillwater the giant panda lives up the hill from three children. As each child pays a visit to the panda, he offers them a story. These tales are zen shorts (short meditations) that offer ideas to ponder. If you're not familiar with zen, let me assure you it's not a religion -- it's a philosophy based on meditation or "thinking without thinking." The stories are thought-provoking, all right, even at a child's level.

My young friends like the big, friendly panda and the beautiful watercolor illustrations of Stillwater and the children. These pictures are simple, quiet and peaceful. When the three stories are told, the illustrations become brush-and-ink sketches that reveal movement and emotion. The stories are ancient conundrums people have puzzled over for centuries, and I recommend them for children over about the age of 5, as they are a tad over the heads of the younger children. But I do think it's good to introduce thought-provoking ideas to children early, to get them to practice thinking!
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on September 10, 2005
This is an extraordinary and special children's book that is beautifully illustrated and just as beautifully written. My children ages 3 and 5 love it and I love reading it to them.
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