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Showing posts with label Illustrated Spiritualism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Illustrated Spiritualism. Show all posts


On the Day You Were Born (1991)

Written and Illustrated by Debra Frasier

Text set in Goudy Old Style

Harcourt, Inc.

This is a book I feel like I've seen a hundred times, face-out at bookstores and libraries, the kind of book you would give to someone who's having a baby and be done with it, in the same way you might give a college graduate a copy of Dr. Seuss' Oh the Places You'll Go! and be done with it. This might explain why I've always glossed over it, despite the fact that I genuinely admire the cover design: the sphere of space, the sphere of Earth, the beam of birds shining out like a flashlight beam, a Keith-Haring-esque figure prostrate and off-center.

Reading through it, however, taking my time with each of its multi-layered images, I felt overwhelmed by the sense of - as Richard Dawkins would call it - the magic of reality. There's nothing pseudo-spiritual, no false promises of supernatural transcendence. In fact, I felt it matched up very well with my own sense of secular spirituality. No need to invent, the real world is amazing and magical in it own right - an insight appropriate on the occasion of someone's birth, I suppose, or as a wake-up call to anyone mired in daily life.

Within this picture book, we are introduced to such concepts as animal migration, the phases of the moon, the giant jets of fire called prominences which arch a million - a million! - miles above the surface of the sun. The tides, the train, layers of atmosphere, all of the elements of life, the elements which allow us to live, which were all present and in motion on the days of our birth.

Welcome to the Spinning World.
Welcome to the green Earth.


The Satanic Children's Big Book of Activities (2014)

The Satanic Temple

Maybe I should be a satanist.

Reading through The Satanic Temple website, I don't find anything I disagree with, and several things I find exceedingly laudable.

From their site:

"The mission of The Satanic Temple is to encourage benevolence and empathy among all people. In addition, we embrace practical common sense and justice.

"As an organized religion, we feel it is our function to actively provide outreach, to lead by example, and to participate in public affairs wheresoever the issues might benefit from rational, Satanic insights. 

"As Satanists, we all should be guided by our consciences to undertake noble pursuits guided by our individual wills. We believe that this is the hope of all mankind and the highest aspiration of humanity.

"It provides a narrative structure by which we contextualize our lives and works. It provides a body of symbolism and religious practice — a sense of identity, culture, community, and shared values."

Still, despite their laudable goals (and the fact that they don't actually worship Satan), their


I Wonder (2013)

Written by Annaka Harris

Illustrated by John Rowe

After my recent interview with Horus Gilgamesh, I suppose I've got atheism on the brain.

Annaka Harris is the wife of famed neuroscientist and philosopher, Sam Harris, himself the author of The End of Faith and The Moral Landscape (and the new, about-to-be-released Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion) and - along with Dan Dennet, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, one of the so-called four horsemen of the 'New Atheism' movement. I have often enjoyed his books and watching his debates and talks online, so I took him seriously when he wrote:


A Conversation with Horus Gilgamesh

Horus Gilgamesh
“Empty stomachs have no ears.”

That's a true bit of profundity which surely ought to be emblazoned upon bumper stickers everywhere. It was uttered to the future author of the Awkward Moments Children's Bible by a humanitarian relief worker in an impoverished African country.

At the time, he'd been following a perceived calling toward full-time ministry focusing on youth evangelism and Biblical literacy in third-world countries. "A fearless young boy approached, pleading, Chakula? Maji?- the Swahili words for 'food' and 'water,'" he writes. "Unfortunately, [I] had no food or water to offer the poor child – only Bibles."

"Horus Gilgamesh" is now his chosen psuedonym. He was raised Catholic before having his so-called "born again" experience in college. But following this encounter with the boy and with the relief worker, he began to consider things in a new light.

"[I] realized that [I] was not meeting the very real needs of the people [I] was hoping to help… The pain and suffering [I] saw first-hand led [me] to be more and more troubled by God’s apparent disregard for the children of His creation. This led [me] to years of re-studying the Bible for [my]self, away from the “rose-colored” teachings of any church or seminary."

I must admit, when I first read this biography of himself – with so much sarcasm and irony everywhere I look in the world - I was surprised from what a sincere place he seemed to be coming.

I first discovered the Awkward Moment's Children's Bible when pages of it began to appear on my facebook wall last year. They immediately struck a chord, as I'm sure they did for many others. So sick and tired of Noah's ark being portrayed as nothing more than a fun, pleasant animal cruise, it was satisfying to finally see the waters filled with corpses, as they surely must have been.

Awkward Moments Children's Bible

He hasn't done too many interviews, so I was happy that he agreed to speak with me. One of the only other interviews he gave was for ChristianPost.com, a site which advertises itself as "a member of the Evangelical Press Association, a member of the National Association of Evangelicals, and a global partner of the World Evangelical Alliance."

I was sure this book would be just the sort of thing they would take extreme umbrage at, but I found the tone of the interview to be very fair and generous to Horus' perspective. The comments by ChristianPost readers following the interview were likewise encouraging. Could it be that we are witnessing a burgeoning new weltanschauung in regard to how Bible stories are viewed, that even mainstream evangelicals are growing weary of how their Holy Book is being watered down, and that we are all now in a place to look plainly at what it actually states?

The Jesus Storybook Bible

First of all, is there any one particular children's picture book edition of the bible that you find especially egregious in terms of making God seem like the nicest fellow you'd ever want to know?

This might seem funny to the many parents I gave the book to over the years, but I now think that Zondervan's Jesus Storybook Bible is particularly bad.

Don't get me wrong, I like the illustrations and I like that they cover much more of the Bible than any other children's book I've seen. However, the book seems to go to great lengths to alter the scriptures enough to paint the Old Testament God as loving and compassionate and justified in all of His murder and mayhem. Then it goes on to paint a pretty unrealistic picture of Jesus by harmonizing the conflicting accounts of the four Gospels to make up a whole new Bible where Jesus is just... perfect. In short, I think the book is full of heresy for the sake of indoctrination and a great example of why so many modern Christians grow up to be completely ignorant to what the Bible really says.

I was surprised - pleasantly - to read the Christian Post article and see that it had a positive tone to it. It seemed to me that they really 'got it.'

Have you been surprised as well by the reaction that you've gotten from different sources?

The book has been very well received on both sides of the pulpit. In short, I think this is because of our approach - using the Bible itself to comment on the historical and cultural effects of Christianity. Christians love us because we aren't afraid to ask the same questions that have been on their minds all along, while atheists love us because we are able to bridge a gap to start conversations between believers and non-believers.

Don't get me wrong - we do get a fair bit of hate mail and one-star reviews from Christians who simply don't think we have the right to question anything about the inerrant Good Book. So far none of them have actually read our book and seem to follow the trend in the U.S. where 56% of Christians can't even name the four Gospels of the New Testament.

Awkward Moment's Children's Bible

Do you think Bible stories have value, whitewashed or not?

For myself, I often feel torn in figuring out how to approach the Bible stories which I review on this site. There are certain authors and illustrators whom I admire more than others, like Leonard Everett Fisher, who do not hold back on the brutality which is a part of it all. But at the same time I have to wonder, even if an author is true to the source material, are these even worthwhile stories to tell in the first place?

This is a question that I struggle with as well. For most Christians, many Bible stories are very much worth telling because they hold the keys to their faith - creation, free will, salvation, redemption, eternal life, and so on... Yet, the church now leaves out so much that is no longer convenient to their causes.

People tend to forget that the slavery and the stoning of children for disobedience was prescribed by the Bible and carried out regularly just a couple of centuries ago. People now ignore that the Bible clearly instructs that women aren't allowed to speak in church, let alone be leaders of a church. So, is it worthwhile to tell these stories? And we wonder why Biblical literacy is so appalling among Christians in the U.S.

Study after study has shown that people don't read their Bibles anymore. They get the bullet points from watered down children's stories when they are young and grow up with completely watered down understandings of just a few "feel good" scriptures.

That's where we come in, I guess.

Awkward Moments Children's Bible

Do you have a favorite Bible story?

Lately I've just been mesmerized by the story of Jesus with the leper found in Mark 1:40-44. What is fascinating to me is that the original text of this passage is found in the footnotes of most modern Bibles. Most modern Bibles say that Jesus was filled with "compassion" for the leper and healed him. However, the original Greek 'orgistheis' clearly states that Jesus was "angry" (in fact, some translations say "filled with extreme anger") with the leper. Was Jesus filled with compassion or extreme anger? Why was this verse changed through the ages? Does this help make sense of other confusing things Jesus said or did? In short, it matters.

In Six Days

How do you see religious/atheist relations? Is there a place for religion alongside reason and rationality?

I think that there will always part of me that wishes that it were possible. I mean, we all have our own hangups and magic feathers, be it religion, or phobias, or addictions, or daydreams. Some help us, some hurt us - often without our own consciousness, really.

But then you take a step back and look at a quote from a very smart scientist like Kurt Wise, who holds a PhD from Harvard. In his contribution to the book, In Six Days: Why 50 Scientists Choose to Believe in Creation, Wise writes:

"I am a young-age creationist because that is my understanding of the Scripture. As I shared with my professors years ago when I was in college, if all the evidence in the universe turns against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate. Here I must stand."

When someone admits that no matter what verifiable scientific evidence and verifiable physical proof show, he'll always believe the Bible first, well, that's not having religion co-exist with reason, but extinguish it. At that point, it's obviously a problem, one that impedes the progress of society.

Last question about the book itself. What is your relationship with the illustrator? How collaborative is the process?

The illustrator (working under the pen name Agnes Tickheathen) is a good friend of mine and we developed the original vibrantly whimsical style together, borrowing from various other styles we love. The workflow starts on my desk where I research the scriptures and historical context and writing the commentary first. Then I do my best to sketch out a rough pencil mockup for Agnes along with an itemized description of the scene that I want to see painted. She then creates her own (much better) pencil drawing first - I make any necessary tweaks and she starts painting.

The only challenge is that certain Bible stories have been too gruesome or sad for Agnes to feel comfortable painting.

Agnes Tickheathen

Part of our Conversations with Storytellers series.


Saint Francis and the Christmas Donkey (2000)

Retold and Illustrated by Robert Byrd

Dutton Children's Books

"...Francis was not simply a charming, eccentric lover of nature," writes Robert Byrd. "To see him only in that dimension trivializes his outlook on life."

I think Robert Byrd is an interesting illustrator. He really prefers to illustrate characters either head-on or in full profile, which gives the pages a simplistic tone, but at the same time he fills his backgrounds with so much wonderful detail it is almost overwhelming.

The opening page is of a verdant landscape, in which several types of trees are captured, receding into the distance, rocks and hills and distant birds, a thousand and one blades of grass, and there stands the saint, looking out at us with equanimity, a wolf to one side, a bunny to the other.

It reads to me as though Saint Francis is a stand-in for Adam, the first Man. We learn in Sunday School that Adam gave all of the animals their names, of course, but it is Saint Francis, we learn in this story, who called them his "little brothers" and reminded them of how precious they are, "from the tiniest mouse to the powerful great gray wolf."

It is while Francis ponders in his 'eden,' that he hears the loud, sad braying of the donkey, and asks why he should be so unhappy.

"You would cry out yourself, if your work was as hard as mine. Ever since the beginning of time, we donkeys have carried heavy loads on our small backs, and people and animals have made fun of the way we sound."

And so Saint Francis begins his tale, which begins at the dawn of creation...

It has the form of one of Kipling's Just-So stories, as we discover that the Donkey was at first an extremely proud animal, with short ears and a small tail, who spent these early days of Creation waltzing about and mocking the elephant, ridiculing the giraffe, for their extreme and comical features. Then a band of monkeys get together and decide to teach that Donkey a lesson, by pulling out his ears and tugging on his tail, and them finally - if that weren't bad enough - his is cursed by God Himself:

"...you shall always laugh, but your laugh will be an ugly sound. And when my creatures hear your loud, ridiculous 'Hee-haw! Hee-haw!' they all will laugh at you. You will always do the hardest work, carrying heavy loads for the rest of your days, wherever you go."

This does not cheer the Donkey up, to know of this long ago curse on he and his kin. But Saint Francis assures him, that is only the beginning of the story. There is redemption to be had, of a kind, and it is wrapped up in the Christmas story, as the donkey is called upon to carry a very important traveler through the desert.

Several times the donkey stumbled,
but he did not fall.
I love desert wildernesses, and Byrd does an exquisite job of rendering it is as much detail as he paid to those verdant pastures at the offset. The sands and the rocks of the desert are done with so many shapes and shades, it feels like a living place.

The quest is an epic one, pushing the beast of burden to the absolute limits of his abilities, but finally bringing Mary safely to Bethlehem, and is witness to the birth, to angelic encounters, to shepherds and wise men bearing gifts.

And in his own heart, in his very own way,
the donkey knew what he had done,
and he was happy.
"But the little donkey in the stable had no gift to give," said the Donkey sadly.

"Well," said Francis, "surely you can see that by carrying Mary and the baby Jesus, the Christmas donkey had truly given the most wonderful gift of all."


Letter on the Wind: A Chanukah Tale (2007)

Retold by Sarah Marwil Lamstein

Illustrated by Neil Waldmen

Pran watercolors and Micron archival inking pens on Arches cold-pressed watercolor paper

Boyds Mills Press

Tonight is the first night of Chanukah... not to mention the night before Thanksgiving and my son's birthday. There was some snow in the wind on the walk home from the train station, but it became mere rain - cold rain - as I finally approached our house.

I have several books on Purim reviewed on this blog, but none on Chanukah. I am trying to remedy that oversight. This story is a based on "A Letter to the Almighty," the author informs us, which was collected in the book Folktales of Israel published in 1963, edited by Dov Noy. But she doesn't stop there. "Meir Amrusi recorded the original tale," she continues, "as told by his Tunisian-born father."

It's been around for a long while.

Something which struck me as similiar to this as many of the other Jewish folktales I've reviewed on this blog, is that God does not make an appearance, nor is there anything supernatural about the proceedings. It all hinges on a grand misunderstanding. Hayim, the poorest man in his village, writes a letter to God, asking him to please provide the oil necessary for Chanukah, lest the entire village goes without their holiday for the season. The letter is carried off by the wind, and lands in the hands of Ger Yehudah, a wealthy merchant, who assumes the letter is from God... You see how these things happen.

The faith in God is what is important, to be a man of faith is what is most praised. The story charts the lives of both men, strangers to each other, and their eventual meeting, which is moving for both of them.

Perhaps  I was wrong when I said there was nothing supernatural:

From that time on in the village, there was never a year without Chanukah. The rain was a friend, the olive trees blossomed, and there was oil enough to light the menorahs.


The Beautiful Lady: Our Lady of Guadalupe (2012)

Written by Pat Mora

Illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher

Alfred A. Knopf

It's a funny thing that on the same day I read this book, I also read a chapter from The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan (my current man-crush) in which he talks about the psychological underpinnings behind visions of the Virgin Mary and attempts to tie them into the then-current alien abduction mania.

"[T]he criteria for recognizing a credible witness of an apparition [was] the willingness to accept advice from the political and religious hierarchy," he writes. "Thus anyone seeing a vision disturbing to those in power was ipso facto an unreliable witness and saints and virgins could be made to say whatever the authorities wanted to hear."

He goes on to write:

"Possible motives for inventing and accepting such stories are not hard to find: jobs for priests, notaries, carpenters and merchants... rousing public spirit against enemies... improving civility and obedience to canon law... confirming the faith of the pious."

So the church was just fine with people having visions of the Blessed Virgin, because it proved that the church was right! How convenient for them! However...

...beginning in the fifteenth century, the attitude of the Church changed. Those who reported an independent channel to Heaven were outflanking the Church's chain of command up to God.

In other words, if supernatural apparitions were just appearing to random people directly, then what did they need the Church for? And what if the visions actually suggested to their supplicants a change in the status-quo?

Ask Joan of Arc.

Speaking of Joan of Arc, did you know that the reason the Church chose burning its victims alive as its choice of execution was because of a canonical law which forbade them from spilling blood? It's kind of like when I tell Arlo to stop hitting me, and he says, "I'm not hitting you, I'm slapping you!" Hopefully he won't join the clergy.
Her cloak shone with stars. Her skin was brown and beautiful.

Anyway, The Demon-Haunted World is a pretty interesting book, and it's perhaps unfortunate that all that was swimming around in my head when I opened up this lovely picture book, featuring a young girl gazing doe-eyed at the statue of the Virgin Mary.

"One of Mexico's most loved stories is the miracle of Our Lady of Guadalupe," writes the author, Pat Mora. "Her image was carried in Mexico's War of Independence and is still carried today as a symbol of freedom and justice by groups struggling for their rights, such as farmworkers in the United States."

Well, how can a Woody Guthrie lover like me possibly argue with that? It's not an easy business, to parse supernatural apparitions, and decide: This is how I must feel about this. It's a story, and stories are alive and mean different things. Listen, here is the story:

Juan Diego hikes to the top of Tepeyac Hill, near what is now Mexico City. The year is 1531. There is a blinding light ahead. Removing his sombrero, he kneels before the floating Virgin, who asks him to build a church for her, there, on the hilltop, for all to see, so that all may find rest.

"Oh, Senora!" he gasped
The conflict of the story involves Juan Diego trying to convince the bishop that the apparition is true. The bishop demands a sign and so a sign is had. "In 2002," Mora writes, "the Catholic Church canonized Juan Diego as the first indigenous saint of the Americas."

I enjoyed this story very much, it's simple and magical, and the paintings evoke a Mexico long past. I love the attention to the rolling clouds, which compliments the rolling hills and landscapes, and even the texture of the fabrics worn by the people of the village. Everything seems to belong, it's all a part of one thing. The landscape, the clouds, the fabric... the apparition, the bishop, the architecture of the town... right on that edge between history and folktale.

I am glad for books like The Demon-Haunted World, and I am glad for books like this. They co-exist and hit different parts of my brain. It's all a part of one thing.


Going to Mecca (2011)

Written by Na'ima B. Robert

Illustrated by Valentina Cavallini

Collage and mixed media

Set in ITC Usherwood

Frances Lincoln Children's Books

Dress with a pilgrim as he stands barefoot.
A sheet round his shoulders, another round his waist.
Now he is the same as thousands of others.
No riches or status to tell them apart.

I thought that was a good and important way for the author to begin this book. It takes an alien experience and puts it in a light I can grasp, even admire. No riches or status to tell them apart. All religious expressions should be able to boast the same.

We see the family before the donning of the sheets. reading in their home, chasing taxis in the rain. But once the sheets are donned, the illustrator presents us with an amazing double-page spread with hundreds and hundreds of seemingly individually crafted people massing around the mysterious Black Stone. I don't know if it was digital trickery or if she actually cut out and arranged them all, but it is really amazing to see.

The following pages also present dozens and dozens of individual people, all different. She really spent a long time choosing skin-tones, it's hard to find any two people who have exactly the same shade of skin.

Stand with the pilgrims as they face the Ka'bah,
Head bare, feet in sandals,
With thousands of others.
Strangers, sisters,
Strangers, brothers
They stand and then move
Like a great swirling sea 

I like that repitition of the words "strangers" here. They are all strangers, all sisters, all strangers, all brothers. So much commonality, yet the Black Stone, sitting massive and silent, for me evokes the black monolith from 2001, and seems an impenetrably primal icon, yet it evokes such seeming joy from its adherents, not lessened as we follow them back home, back to their lives.


Noah's Cats and the Devil's Fire (1992)

Retold by Arielle North Olson

Illustrated by Barry Moser

Typeset in 16 point Trump Medieval

Transparent watercolor painted on paper handmade by Simon Green at The Hayle Mill

Orchard Books

This wonderfully dark retelling of Noah's Ark comes from Romania. What, a dark retelling of Noah's Ark? Surely there can be no such-a thing. But the black cat with the piercing green eyes adorning the cover begs to differ. This is a Barry Moser book. He doesn't take things lightly.

Within these pages, you will find the half-constructed Ark rising from the mud like an ancient castle from an Edgar Allen Poe story. You will find glowing red eyes and dark shapes moving about the ark. You will see the Devil himself, horned and scaly and ready to kill. Even the non-demonic animals appear sinister.

When the animals came aboard, two by two, a pair of fiery eyes peered out from under the lion's mane - the fiery red eyes of the devil who had turned himself into a mouse.

The Devil doesn't seem to be needing any rescuing, but rather wants to come aboard the ark to cause some mischief - Devil-as-trickster. He torments the other animals, ruins the feed, and finally attempts to sink the ark itself.

He takes on the guide of the most hideous rat I've ever seen in a children's book. And what is the natural predator of the rat? A quick glance back at the cover of the book should cue you in.

Did that red-hot demon leave a bit of fire inside her? Ever after, her fur made sparks when Noah petted her - and her eyes gleamed in the dark. And that's the way it is with cats to this very day.


Brother Sun, Sister Moon (2011)

Reimagined by Katherine Paterson

Illustrated by Pamela Dalton

Cut paper and watercolor.
God bless you!

Type set in Sonopa

Handprint Books

We come to sing a song of praise to you,
O God, the Lord of Heaven and Earth,
who by your power and out of your love have
created all things and called them good.

Arlo got this as a Christmas present last week from a friend. I had gotten it from the library myself a while back and meant to review it for the blog, but never did. Seeing it in his bag of Christmas Eve loot made me think the time was nigh.

  Most of the books I've reviewed on here will state on the title page that they are 'retold' by the author. This is the only one which is 'reimagined.' What Katherine Paterson has done is take the text of St. Francis' "Canticle of the Creatures' and rewritten it. It's not a new translation, it is, as the title page insists, a reimagining.

For example, the stanza I quoted above was originally:

Most high, all powerful, all good Lord!
All praise is yours, all glory, all honor, and all
blessing. To you, alone. Most High, do they belong.
No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce your name.

No one could confuse me with a God-fearin' man (God forbid), and I must say, phrases like, "No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce your name," bring to mind the recent images of weepy North Koreans wailing hysterical over the death of their former Master. It brings an ill taste, and I'm glad Paterson has jettisoned it. I think, if I'm reading her note at the back of the book correctly, that she was trying to reimagine the text as less of a worshipful comment on the divine supremacy of a magical man living in the sky, and more of a comment on the connection humans have with the natural world.

"It was such a wonderful exercise to see myself as close kin to all the rest of the natural world," she writes. "Sun, moon, stars, wind and weather - even to look death in the face and call her my sister."

I also noted that she excised a reference to, "Woe to those who die in mortal sin," completely. Good riddance!

The real show-stopper is the artwork, I must admit. Scherenschnitte it's called. Each illustration in the book was made from one continuous piece of paper which she painstakingly (I would imagine) cut and painted with watercolors. The harvest is represented during each season, every beet, every tomato, sheaves of wheat, new life and death, with detail which grows with each reading.

"For this life and the life to come, we sing our praise to you. I Lord, the Father and Mother of all creation," reads Paterson's version of the prayer, and I'm pretty sure St. Francis never explicitly stated the maternal aspect of God, but nevertheless, it is there, in this book, and in the nature which surrounds us. This is a beautiful book to own.


One Hand Clapping: Zen Stories for All Ages (1995)

Retold by Rafe Martin and Manuela Soares

Illustrated by Junko Morimoto

It’s terribly dated to quote an episode of Seinfeld, but lest we forget the episode in which Jerry’s dentist converts to Judaism ‘for the jokes.’ I find myself in a similar dilemma when presented with these wonderful picture books, the need to convert to Buddhism. For the stories.

Unlike the Biblical stories I've reviewed in the past, there is no pretense of these having been actual events. Thus, no need to leave my brain at the title page. Also, I do not need to be in the constant act of apology for an angry, jealous Supreme Being. Instead, I found myself doing just what Manuela Soares speaks of in his Editor's Note at the beginning:

"...these stories are meant to evoke questions, to elicit wonder and amusement, and encourage contemplation."

One Hand Clapping is a small anthology of stories, some only a few paragraphs in length, some several pages. It is no simple task to codify what makes up a Zen story. Page by page, I found myself surprised at what I found next. There are the classic Zen tales in here, that is, what you might imagine when you think of Zen. For example, The Sound of a Single Hand. (In the depths of the innermost self, more remote than the farthest mountain, and closet than close, lies the secret house of the sound of one hand. Enter!) That sounds pretty Zen, no?

But several of the stories are actually funny, and seemed patterned after jokes, with a setup, a reveal and a punch line. Like the Lion and the Tiger, which ends with the presumed lion seemingly about to kill the poor man dressed in the tiger outfit, but who instead whispers, “Not to worry. I’m the same as you.”
Ikkyu’s Poison almost seems patterned after a classic trickster tale, in which a clever child outwits his master. It is a funny, clever story, but it made me wonder, what is being taught? Should we not be looking to the Zen Master for wisdom? Instead, the story extols the child and his cleverness to get around the master’s rules.

In my last review, I looked at The Three Questions by Jon J. Muth. I was very pleased to find the same story contained within this collection as well, although with a slightly different title: The Three Answers.

This version seems more of a classic retelling. It is not a child and his talking animal friends to whom we are introduced, but rather, an emperor and a hermit. There are also no wounded panda bears, but rather a wounded soldier with a specific vendetta.

“During the last war you killed my brother and took away my lands,” says the soldier. “So I swore vengeance and vowed to kill you.”

This version definitely ups the stakes, and speaks a further truth about forgiveness.

Last time, I posed the questions the narrator asks, but I did not reveal the answers. This time I thought I would not give the questions, but instead list the hermit’s answers:

The present moment is the only moment.

The most important person is always the person you are with.

And the most important pursuit is making the person standing at your side happy.

That is not to say there are no anthropomorphic animals here. In The Fish in the Sea, two fish are trying to unravel the great mystery: What is the sea? In fact, Rafe Martin gives a nice insight into this anthropomorphic practice in his introduction:

"In folktales and fairy tales ravens, bees and ants talk, clods of earth, raindrops, pebbles, and trees converse freely. We might discover that during the depths of the night the stars can answer the flowing streams. In such folk stories the universe itself is revealed to be one great ongoing conversation in which everyone and everything participates equally."

I'm going to remember that the next time I watch an old Disney cartoon with my son.

The story which for me spoke most directly, was Mountains and Rivers.

“Before I grasped Zen,” says an old woman to her grandson, “the mountains were only mountains and the rivers were only rivers. When I got into Zen, the mountains were no longer mountains and the rivers were no longer rivers. But when I understood  Zen, the mountains were mountains and the rivers were rivers.”

This made perfect sense to me – I think – but the child doesn’t seem interested. “The river’s right here and it’s a hot day,” he says. “Can’t we go swimming?”

“Of course! Just jump right in!”

This will have to serve as the conclusion of my series of Zen Picture Books. To see all of the books I’ve reviewed in this category, please click here.

It’s a topic I went to explore further - I didn't even get to any of the picture books about the life of the Buddha himself - but for now, my favorite holiday is quickly approaching! Stay tuned!


The Three Questions (2002)

Written and Illustrated by Jon J. Muth

Based on a story by Leo Tolstoy

Text set in Hoefler Requiem Fire

Scholastic Press

This book is next because I'm following the watercolor trail left by Jon Muth, and it seems to me a perfect extension of his Zen... series - thematically and certainly artistically. However, I wasn't certain if it constituted a Buddhist story or not. After all, the byline reads, "Based on a story by Leo Tolstoy."

In the Author's Note (and I love that he always includes an Author's Note), Muth writes that he first heard the tale from Thich Nhat Hanh. As I am currently reading Hanh's Living Buddha, Living Christ, that was good enough for me.

Not that I'm a stickler for such definitions. A story is a story, after all. But I am trying to remain on-theme.

Coincidentally, I found another version of the same story in Rafe Martin's collection, One Hand Clapping: Zen Stories for All Ages. That sealed the deal.

The eponymous three questions are these:

When is the best time to do things?
Who is the most important one?
What is the right thing to do?

In this version of the story, they are formulated and pondered by a young Kite-wielding protagonist named Nikolai. He shares an early morning beach-stroll with his talking dog, Pushkin, a monkey and a heron. They are all themselves philosophers, and very ready with their own answers.

If that sounds like an absurd premise for a story, then that is the beauty of Muth’s watercolors. I’ve read this story about a dozen times now, and it did not occur to me until just now, writing it out, how patently absurd it seems, these three mismatched talking animals, sharing a kite and deep- if not unwieldy – philosophical eschewment. But it's all crafted so perfectly that it seems no more absurd than a giant Panda bear taking up residence in a suburban neighborhood. It just is what it is. A story is a story, after all.

"To know the best time to do things, one must plan in advance," says Sonia the heron.

"You will know when to do things if you pay close attention," answers Gogol the monkey.

Pushkin the dog offers this: "You can’t pay attention to everything yourself. You need a pack to keep watch and help you decide when to do things."

Though well-meant, these answers do little to satiate the ponderance of poor Nikolai, who then asks the second of the three questions. Who is the most important one? His animal friends are eager to offer their advice:

"Those who are closest to heaven."

"Those who know how to heal the sick."

"Those who make the rules."

There is most assuredly a classic fairy-tale structure at work, with the number three being so integral. Three questions asked and three answers for each question.

When it comes for the next series of answers, I felt resigned, as though I were already one step ahead of the game.

What is the right thing to do?


"Having fun all the time!"


Then the story takes a drastic turn. We suddenly leave the familiarity of the classic story-form, as Nikolai goes on a quest to find Leo the wise turtle, and to pose to him the three questions which haunt him so. With nary a hello, he shouts to the turtle,“When is the best time to do things? Who is the most important one? What is the right thing to do?”

With Muth’s watercolors, it has all the tenor of an epic quest though the wilds of the world, a trip to the wise man on top of the mountain, though still with his red kite in hand. Instead of an answer, the old turtle instead resumes his gardening. Then the sky darkens and there is a sudden rain storm, a cry for help. Nikolai runs off through the wind-swept panorama.

We are now in a very different sort of story. It’s hard to say where this is all going, and I found myself reading with quickened pace, resignation absent.

Nikolai’s quest will take him deep into the darkened woods, rescuing not only a mother, but her young child as well, who lay helpless beneath fallen branches, scared and alone. They are both brought to Leo’s dwelling, and nursed back to health.

Within these actions lie the answers to Nikolai’s three questions. I would hate to ruin the final reveal, but I’ll just say that they are answers which are at once immutable and transitory. They lift young Nikolai with their simple profundity, and he leaves Leo’s mountaintop promontory in the company of his good friends.

“For these are the answers to what is most important in the world," says Leo the Wise. The final page reads: "That is why we are here."

For more stories on Zen Buddhism, click here!


Zen Ghosts (2010)

Written and Illustrated by Jon J. Muth
Watercolor and Ink
17-point Monotype Fournier
Scholastic Press

This is the third - and so far, the last - book in Muth's Zen... series. I suppose that makes it a trilogy, but I hope to be wrong. This is by far my favorite entry, and might be a contender for my favorite picture book ever. It combines my new found interest with Zen Buddhism with what is clearly the greatest holiday of all time - Halloween. (For proof of my Halloween-love, please take a moment to read my Tales and Their Tellers column from last year.)

I really feel like he has captured Halloween perfectly, I've never seen it rendered so sensually. The familiar tropes are represented - trick-or-treating, Jack o' Lanterns, costumes - but it does not rely on those tropes in order to tell the story. The story lies elsewhere.

We begin in the bright, midday sunshine, gorgeous, vibrant fall foliage, and the exclamation: "Michael! There's a ghost outside!"

But it's no ghost, it's only Stillwater, standing as a lumbering, silent supernatural apparition.

The children are preparing for the evening's festivities, making costumes and last minute changes. Michael cannot choose between an owl or a pirate, leading Stillwater to propose, "Perhaps you will be an Owl-Pirate."

"There is no such thing!" Karl retorts. "He has to be one thing!"

I swear I've read this story a dozen times now, yet the significance of that line only now came to me, as I sit here writing this.

"He has to be one thing!"

Not so.

And I see now yet another clue to the story's core on the opposing page. It brings me a moment of gratification, as though the entire intent of this blog of mine were worth it, so that I may find these little treasures hidden within Muth's watercolors. As Addy unrolls the long, white fabric, asking, "Do you like my costume?" I can see the blue and purple geometric pattern growing in vibrancy the closer to the edge we get.

They do look like tiny butterflies, do they not? Indeed, two of them seem to magically fly off the fabric and flutter above Stillwater, one blue, one purple.

"After trick-or-treating, meet me by the big stone wall," says Stillwater, bidding them adieu, "And I will take you to the storyteller."

That evening, it is a perfect Halloween night. They sky is a deep blue, autumn leaves are blowing, children cast long shadows. How beautiful Addy looks, kneeling on the old stone with the long fabric of her costume flowing behind her, her blond hair obscuring her face, and I am again reminded of the passing of years within the universe of the story.

Stillwater leads them to his house, holding out spherical, paper lantern to lead the way on such a misty evening. His home, generally so suburban, now takes on the property of a haunted abode, straight from classic Halloween arcana. Inside, he introduces the children to another Giant Panda who looks exactly like Stillwater. In fact, it is Stillwater...Isn't it? The children are confused. The reader of the story is confused. After all, he has to be one thing...

Not so.

This Stillwater-who-is-not-Stillwater sits cross-legged on the floor before burning candles, produces a long, thick brush.

"I am going to draw you a story," he says, and it is with Stillwater's voice with which he speaks.

The story which he tells, Senjo and Her Soul Are Separated, was first written down in the 13th Century by Wu-men Hui-hai in a collection of koans called The Gateless Gate. It is a very, very old story, and Muth does a wonderful job charting the path of its existence - Sensei to Sensei - in a note at the end of Zen Ghosts.

"It's not an abstract, historic event that happened 1,000 years ago," he writes. "It's very much about you and me today."

I won't tell you the story itself - but it is extremely beautiful and eerie and involves ghosts. But which is the ghost? Suffice it to say, when the story is over, only one Stillwater remains, and it is not the Stillwater from the beginning of the tale. There is no explanation given as to this seeming contradiction.

"In Zen Buddhism," Muth writes, "the teacher who gives you a koan is looking to see if you truly have digested the question. And if you have, the answer becomes your own."

For more stories on Zen Buddhism, click here!


Prayer, by Jon J. Muth. A Buddhist reflection on 9-11?

I found this panting by Jon J. Muth while I was searching for information on him. He is the author/illustrator of the Zen... books I've been going through, starring Stillwater the Giant Panda. I've found his storytelling and his watercolors very moving, but they pale compared to this painting and the words which accompany it.
It's entitled Prayer.  Here is the text:
i am the son whose mother is lighting a candle beneath a photograph of a new york city firehouse
i am the daughter of a man who hijacked a plane in the name of allah
i am the palestinian boy whose father was killed by israeli gunfire
i am the soldier who shot him
i am the jewish girl whose brother was killed by a palestinain while eating pizza in a mall
i am the father in america who must protect this great country and this great way of life
i am the father in iraq who is watching his children starve
i am the daughter who jumped from the burning world trade center holding my friend's hand
i am the orphaned afghani boy who lives in a refugee camp
i am the woman who led the pre-schoolers away from fire and falling buildings
i am the firefighter who saved your wife
these are the ten thousand reasons to kiss your parents each day, to kiss your children, to hold dear the one you are with
you are the ocean and each of its waves
when i reach out to touch your face i touch my own


Zen Ties (2008)

Written and Illustrated by Jon J. Muth

Watercolor and ink

Text set in 17-point Monotype Fournier
Scholastic Press

Three years have passed since Stillwater's last outing, both within the story and without. I'm a big fan of fictional characters who age naturally, and its a feat seldom attempted within children's picture books (Mo Willems' Knuffle Bunny series notwithstanding). Stillwater is unchanged, so far as we can tell, but the three children - Addy, Michael and Karl - are no longer as young as they once were.

We also meet Koo - Stillwater's nephew - arriving by train as the story opens. So named such that a clever pun can be made exactly once, when he first arrives:

"Hi, Koo!"

I didn't get it the first time either, even after it quickly becomes apparent that Koo can only speak in the ancient form of poetry:

Uncle Stillwater!
summer! I have arrived!
seeing you brings smiles.

Koo is a panda as well, of course, much smaller than Stillwater and wearing a small, red bow tie, in contrast with Stillwater's red neck tie which he sports. Thus, "Zen Ties." Another pun.

In the afterward, Muth writes of the pun, "For me, it's also a gentle reminder that we are all connected and interdependent whether we recognize our neighbor's face or not. It is easy to believe we are each waves and forget we are also the ocean."

I see that sentiment being a breakdown of the Other, and I see destroying that concept as being one of the key intents of Muth's series. In the initial volume, Stillwater was himself the Other. Now that he has been fully integrated into the lives of the neighborhood children - as witnessed by a rousing session and beautiful two-page spread of Jump on Stillwater - the challenge is to integrate yet another Other. In this instance, the elderly Miss Whitaker.

"The Miss Whitaker who lives on our street?"

"That Miss Whitaker? She's really old and she spits when she talks! Every time we walk past her house, she shouts at us."

But Stillwater is  gently unmoved by their protestations. "She isn't feeling well and we must bring her something to eat. Miss Whitaker is a good friend. You will see."

I had thought perhaps that Miss Whitaker would represent another element of suburban Enlightenment, perhaps a former Buddhist teacher herself. But she is presented as an elderly woman living alone in a dirty, bare house, as crotchety as her reputation.

"Why on earth did you bring these children here?"

Stillwater is unfazed as always. "You look well today. We've brought you some nice soup."

I was disappointed that the character of Koo remains silent during the heart of the story, taking a narrative back seat as Mrs. Whitaker and the children each discover the ties which connect them. We last see him standing at the train station platform, hands folded and head bowed before his uncle. Stillwater tells him he can dispose of the paper cup which he has drank from for the entire duration of his visit.

"Nearing my visit's end," replies Koo with perfect pentameter, "summer now tastes of apple tea. I will keep my cup."

For more stories about Zen Buddhism, please click here!
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