Zen Shorts, by Jon J. Muth is one of my favourite picture books ever. I think it is completely genius – the illustrations, the cleverness of the text, the 3 Zen tales nestled in the middle of the story. It delights me every time I read it. Of course I could not resist the newest offering from Jon J. Muth, complete with the giant panda Zen Master, Stillwater. And I was prepared to be delighted. I didn’t even open the book at the store. I just bought it. I never do that.
In this follow up story, Stillwater’s panda nephew, Koo, comes to visit his uncle for the summer. The coolest thing about Koo (and the cutest too, I suppose), is that he speaks only in Haiku. A mini-panda haiku poet… can you say, enchanting? Stillwater and Koo spend most of the time hanging out with Stillwater’s kid-friends, Addy, Michael and Karl. Stillwater encourages Koo and the children to join him in regular visits to a grumpy and needy elderly neighbour, and after some initial resistance, the children learn a bit about how people are interconnected in unexpected ways.
This is a quiet story. Part of what pleased me so much in Zen Shorts was the way that the text and illustration played off each other to create many humorous moments. This book is more subdued. It makes you smile, but in a contemplative sort of way. As in the first book, the illustrations are completely compelling, and inspire lingering.
I like that this book suggests that sometimes, when we do things that we don’t really want to do, we can learn about ourselves and others along the way, and can even be surprised by the pleasure that we find through these experiences. I wish more kids could be encouraged to learn this lesson.
Some possible discussion points with the littl’uns: facing something difficult with courage, reaching out to others, finding the good in hard situations, appreciating the small moments in life. While not as dazzling as Zen Shorts (which was pretty much perfect in every way), Zen Ties is a worthy, quieter successor.