Zen Shorts was written and illustrated by Jon J. Muth and was released by Scholastic Press on March 1, 2005. The first installment in the Stillwater trilogy, Zen Shorts is continued as
Born on July 29, 1960 in Cincinnati, Ohio, Jon J Muth has established a firm fan base for his artistry both as a comic book artist and as a children’s book illustrator. Professional recognition of Jon’s talents includes the Will Eisner Comic Industry Award in 1995 for Best Painter/Multimedia Artist, a Gold Medal in 1999 from the Society of Illustrators for Jon’s first picture book, Come On, Rain!, authored by Karen Hesse (born August 29, 1952), and Caldecott Honor Book Award for Zen Shorts in 2006.
Zen Shorts begins with Karl’s announcement to his older brother Michael that a bear is sitting with an umbrella in their back yard. When the two boys arrive outdoors, their sister Addy has already befriended the bear, which is actually a giant panda. Stillwater speaks with “a slight panda accent”. The black-and-white cuddly giant apologizes for his impromptu visit, which was occasioned by the wind catching his umbrella and transporting him to the trio’s yard.
The next day when Addy visits Stillwater, she finds him in his back yard. Robed in a white kimono tied with a blue-gray obi (waistband), Stillwater is kneeling in a bright yellow tent, which is a present from his Uncle Ry in celebration of Uncle Ry’s birthday.
Addy gifts Stillwater with a white cake decorated with a bamboo stalk. In return, Stillwater offers her a story as a gift for Uncle Ry’s birthday.
The tale, “Uncle Ry and the Moon”, concerns the value of material goods versus that of nature, as exemplified in Uncle Ry’s generous gift of the kimono off his back to an intruder, a robber, depicted as a raccoon. It is a gift which, nevertheless, Uncle Ry considers poor in comparison to the beauty of the moon and the silent, beautiful panorama of its silvery light, which Uncle Ry freely enjoys.
The following day Michael visits Stillwater, who is sitting atop a tree.
Joining the graceful panda, Michael ponders a series of what-if scenarios which might be beneficial or harmful.
For Michael’s edification, Stillwater relates the tale of “The Farmer’s Luck”, which zigzags back and forth between good and bad luck over the course of four days as the seeming bad luck of a runaway horse ends with the good luck of a broken leg excluding a farming rabbit’s son from military enlistment.
Michael understands the message of the tale as the gray area between good and bad so that something that may seem to be detrimental may, when it has run its course, actually be beneficial.
On the third day Karl, the youngest sibling, appears at Stillwater’s inflatable wading pool with all of his pool toys in defiance of Michael’s orders, which have enraged the little boy. When all of the toys are unloaded into the pool, Karl realizes that now there is no room for him and Stillwater but persists in peppering their playtime with anti-Michael complaints. Later Stillwater observes to Karl that his anger against Michael detracted from the fun which had pervaded their playtime.
With Karl and all his toys on his broad back as Stillwater steers a red wagon, he heads toward Karl’s home while telling the tale of “A Heavy Load”.
Traveling monks, depicted as mice, reach a puddle where a female mouse is prevented from exiting from her sedan chair by the inability of her overloaded, mouse attendants to carry her. Placing the unpleasant woman on his back, the older mouse monk transports her to the other side, where she ungratefully pushed him aside.
Several hours later the younger mouse monk fumed over the woman’s rude selfishness after being so kindly carried. The older monk observed that the cargo which he had set down long ago was still being carried by the younger monk.
Stillwater then pointedly asked whether Karl’s anger had been carried long enough. Karl understands the message that anger hurts most the person who holds onto it for too long.
Thus begins a friendship which is continued in two successive installments of this trilogy.
In his Author’s Note, Jon Muth explains the meaning of Zen in the title as a Japanese word for meditation, which is influenced by teachings of the Buddha designed to calm the mind in order to perceive truth with clarity. Zen shorts are short meditations which are designed to enhance intuition through new views on concepts, emotions, habits, and situations.
Jon also explains that Stillwater’s name is derived from the concept of the true, clear reflection of the moon in still waters and that Stillwater’s character is influenced by Zen artist and teacher Sengai Gibon (1750-1838), whose black ink wash paintings conveyed complex concepts. Stillwater’s Uncle Ry is based on Ryokan Taigu (1758-1831), a hermetic monk renowned for his skilled expression of Zen essentials in his calligraphy and his poetry.
Zen Shorts wonderfully presents desirable character traits by way of endearing characters. This inspirational tale is clearly written and features irresistible illustrations. A brilliant touch is the transition to a traditional style of Japanese brush paintings for the three tales within the story.
Copyright: Thursday, June 21, 2012, by Stessily.