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8.27.2011

Zen Shorts (2005)

Written and Illustrated by Jon J. Muth

Watercolor and ink

Text set in 17-point Monotype Fournier

Scholastic Press

Ah, after having spent so much time with sundry plots to kill the Jews and traitors swinging from gallows and all that good stuff which comprises the story of Esther and Purim, how nice to instead take brief residence with a more Eastern ways of looking at things, with the Giant Panda Stillwater, as beautifully rendered by Jon J. Muth.

I was familiar with Muth from his work on the comic book series Moonshadow, and was pleased to see that he had made the transition to picture books. Zen Shorts is clearly a labor of intense love. Muth is not just telling us a story. He has something to say.

It was a happy coincidence that I found this one. Arlo and I had been at the Glenside Farmer's Market just a few weeks ago and listened to a telling of Zen Ties, the next book in this series. Everything about its simple narrative structure and the voice of Stillwater appealed to me, so I knew I had to find this initial volume.

In Zen Shorts, we are introduced to Stillwater, holding aloft a large, red umbrella in the backyard of three children: Addy, Michael and Karl.

"I'm sorry for arriving unannounced," he says. "The wind carried my umbrella all the way from my backyard to your backyard. I thought I would retrieve it before it became a nuisance." He speaks - the text tells us - with a slight panda accent.

It should also be mentioned that we're in the midst of what looks like classic white-picket American suburbia. All of the children are Caucasian. The fact that he is a large, anthropomorphic panda is not called into question.

It is these meetings which form the framing device for which the true meat of the story can be told, the so-called zen "shorts," stories within stories, told by Stillwater as teaching moments with the children.

In "Uncle Ry and the Moon," a robber (raccoon) breaks into an elder Panda's home. The Panda gives all he has to the bewildered robber, then later laments that he could not have given him also "the wonderful moon."

In "The Farmer's Luck," two rabbit farmers examine the meaning of luck, as good fortune brings bad fortune, which in turn brings forth good fortune compounded by more bad fortune.

"A Heavy Load," tells the story of two mice monks as they encounter a very haughty woman resting in a sedan chair, and how they deal with her insults.

"Zen Shorts are short meditations," Muth writes at the end. "Ideas to puzzle over - tools which home our ability to act with intuition. They have no goal, but they often challenge us to re-examine our habits, desires, concepts and fears."

Each story comes from Zen Buddhist and Taoist literature going back many centuries. Muth has repackaged them for a younger audience. I have to say though, for me, these stories are not the highlight of the book. I really enjoy the framing moments more, the watercolor images of the Giant Panda interacting with the children. I noticed he seems to grow and shrink picture to picture. When he first meets the children, he hardly seems imposing, yet when young Karl plays with Stillwater, he becomes large enough to allow the boy to jump and bounce and leap, being a silent listener to Karl's diatribe.

"Your uncle sounds nice," says Addy, after hearing the story of Uncle Ry and the Moon. "I don't think I could have given away my only robe."

"I know how that is," answers Stillwater. "But there's always the moon."

For more books on Zen Buddhism, click here!

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