If at first you don't create the world's most philosophically sound picture book, try try again. When illustrator and sometime graphic novelist (though you wouldn't know it from his bookflaps) Jon J. Muth turned a Tolstoy short story into the picture book, "The Three Questions", response from professional journals was mixed. People liked the IDEA of making Tolstoy accessible to children but "The Three Questions" just didn't seem to cut it. When the book didn't get much in the way of attention, Muth could've abandoned the whole idea of bringing larger ideas to very young people. Instead, he came right back with a heaping plateful of Zen with panda. "Zen Shorts" is the result and remains perhaps the most beautiful picture to be published in the year of 2005. To call it classy doesn't even begin to cover it.
A panda appears in the backyard of three children. He is holding a large red umbrella (one that he holds over the three children as they talk) and is extraordinarily polite. The book notes that he, "spoke with a slight panda accent". With this initial meeting, the children slowly befriend their new neighbor, Stillwater. When Addy comes to his home with a housewarming gift, Stillwater returns the favor with the gift of a small story about his Uncle Ry. Michael visits the panda at the top of a tall tree. There they discuss, with the help of another story, what luck is and how a person can never really know what is going to happen to them next. Karl, the youngest of the three, brings too many toys to swim with in Stillwater's wading pool. At the end of the day, the two have had a good time, but Karl has wasted much of it by being mad at his older brother. On the way home, Stillwater tells a tale of letting go of what you cannot change. The final image is of Karl perched triumphantly on Stillwater's paw as Addy and Michael look on bemusedly. An Author's Note follows, wherein Mr. Muth defines "Zen" and explains that this book is a grouping of "Zen shorts". These stories are intended to, "hone our ability to act with intuition". Darn tooting.
I'm a praise lavisher by nature. I'm all too eager to say that this or that book is the best in its category. Last year I decided that Jeannie Baker's, "Home" was the most beautiful picture book of 2004. "Zen Shorts", by extension, is the most beautiful picture book of 2005. When I say this, though, I don't want my statement taken lightly. Jon J. Muth has balanced jaw-droppingly beautiful watercolors with a story that speaks with both humor and serenity. Had Mr. Muth preferred to create a book that talked about Zen principles for the preschool-set, he could have done so quite easily without bothering with visual or verbal humor. "Zen" in general is a pretty heady subject, eh? The kind of concept that many an American adult still scratches their head in wonder at. How much more impressive then that Stillwater becomes such an adorable and amusing friend. After telling Addy the story of his uncle, the two are next seen painting pictures of one another in ink, hands gripping their paintbrushes in the correct position. When the two move on to cake, Addy spears a piece for herself while Stillwater's pink tongue reaches out to the bamboo garnish. I especially enjoyed the moment where Karl and Stillwater fill his kiddie pool up with too many toys. Stillwater stands in his bathing suit, his face impassive. Heck, he doesn't even have distinguishable mouth or eyes in the shot! Next to him, Karl has crossed his arms in a huff of anger at his own mistake. These illustrations seem to be perfectly balanced between what is true and what you wish was true. I would love to lie on the stomach of a friendly and wise panda like Michael does. Many a child will feel the same way.
Muth's small zen shorts act as little stories within a story and compliment the larger action perfectly. The shorts are illustrated differently than the rest of the book so that, instead of watercolors, they are lined in thick black ink. Without drawing undue attention to himself, Muth is showing us that he can draw in completely different styles without so much as breaking a sweat. The stories themselves may be familiar to some adults. I particularly remembered "The Farmer's Luck", and love the final amusing image Muth chooses to close out this tale. Kids reading this book may be confused by the selflessness displayed in both the first and the third story towards the undeserving. Intelligent adults will find a way to use such parables towards furthering their kids' understanding of the wider world. The final tale ("A Heavy Load") may require some explanations to children when it comes to the (for lack of a better word) punchline. Otherwise, they are instantly understandable to young readers.
You would be wise to pair this book with Jack Prelutsky's, "If Not For the Cat" if you wanted a storytime tinged with East Asian influences. If you yourself are an adult and you are impressed by his visual style, you may wish to seek out his work on "Moonshadow", or other graphic novels that bear his hand. I, personally, would be amiss if I didn't also talk up his fabulous, "Gershon's Monster" by Eric Kimmel. To my mind, "Zen Shorts" is Muth's best picture book work thus far. This is possibly because it was written with his own words. If we can expect more books of this nature to come out with Muth's voice accompanying them, we can count ourselves lucky indeed. Again, I say that there is little doubt that this is the most beautiful picture book of 2005.