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Showing posts with label giant panda. Show all posts
Showing posts with label giant panda. 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!

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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