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Showing posts with label Koo. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Koo. Show all posts

9.06.2011

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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