Friday, April 1, 2011

Zen Shorts and Zen Ties by Jon J. Muth

"'I'm sorry for arriving unannounced,' said the bear. '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 spoke with a slight panda accent.'"

Jon J. Muth has done a fantastic job of bringing wisdom and creativity to a story of a very Zen panda bear and the friends he makes. Although these two Zen books are indeed picture books (again, beautiful large-scale watercolor pictures that spill over from page to page), I would place the reading level at upper-level elementary (think 3rd through 5th grade). The books are simple but their messages are anything but shallow.

Each story follows the main character, Stillwater, a panda bear who, in Zen Shorts, floats into the backyard belonging to 3 siblings when his red umbrella carries him off from his home. Stillwater spends time with each sibling, telling them stories of friendship, forgiveness, and kindness through little vignettes (or shorts--so clever). By the time Stillwater has gotten to know his new friends, each child has learned how to treat his/her siblings with love and respect, as friends should. In Zen Ties, we meet Stillwater's nephew Koo, who cleverly speaks in Muth's interpretation of Haiku. While Koo is visiting, he meets Stillwater's friends (the siblings from the previous story) and they forge friendships as well. Stillwater teaches Koo about the importance of not being wasteful, accepting yourself and doing your best in every situation (no matter how difficult), and being a generous person. Stillwater leads the children and Koo in assisting a disgruntled elderly woman, warming her heart to them as well as their hearts to her.

What I enjoy most about these two stories are the lessons taught--they are simple concepts that we strive to teach our children in order to teach them the value of people and relationships in every situation. Although the basis of the lessons is essentially based on the practice of Zen (a Buddhist school of thought), don't let that deter you from reading this to your children, whether you classify yourself to a particular religion or not. The ideas Muth presents reach the reader on an intrinsically human level and encourages children to think about the way they treat and view others. I did not feel in any way that the author was driving the reader to believe in Buddhism, and in fact he doesn't speak of Zen or Buddhism until the author's note at the end of each book.

5Q: As a teacher/librarian I appreciate the literary value of each of these books; the content is original and the author's use of language and different literary devices is impressive.
4P: I think the stories and pictures will interest children, but the lack of "excitement" or adventure throughout may lose their attention, especially if the concepts and lessons are not connected to real-life applications for the kiddos. I could see both books serving as a great tool is character education at the upper-elementary level.

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