Beauty and Mysticism in Jon J Muth's Zen Shorts

  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2

Scholastic editor Dianne Hess discusses her experience working with Jon J Muth on his masterpiece, Zen Shorts.

Delicate. Magical. Mystical. These are the words I use to describe Jon J Muth’s extraordinary new picture book, Zen Shorts.

On first sight, you will recognize this as a book with animals and children and appealing stories that can be read over and over again. And, of course Jon’s magnificent watercolors will transfix you from the moment you set your eyes on them. But subtly and delicately hidden in the folds of his words and pictures that dance together with grace and elegance — are messages so profound, they will resonate with readers young and old for the rest of their lives.

What amazes me the most about Jon Muth is the way he can handle seemingly sophisticated and esoteric material and turn it into something simple enough to be enjoyed by young children, and profound enough to keep adults coming back to him for more. With Jon, even a child can hear the sound of one hand clapping.

Jon has been my Zen teacher as he, David Saylor, and I have gone through the journeys of helping him to create his books. Zen is a Japanese word that means meditation. As Jon describes so beautifully this in the book, “When you look into a pool of water, and if the water is still, you can see the moon reflected. If the water is agitated, the moon is fragmented and scattered. It is harder to see the true moon. Our minds are like that. If we consider the world — and our minds are agitated — we cannot see the true world…"

In a world that is so filled with distractions and daily over scheduling and overstimulation, Jon's books are more important than ever in reminding us to be centered and focused. But what these stories also do is they make us think. They make us stretch our thoughts beyond the boundaries of each story in ways we aren't used to in Western literature and thinking. Jon also introduced me to "koans". A koan is a Zen meditation — for example, the sound of one hand clapping. What does that mean? It's a question with no concrete answer. But if you meditate on it, you will derive deep meaning from it. And that is what you do with these stories.

As Zen Shorts begins, Stillwater, a giant panda has suddenly appeared in Addy, Michael, and Karl’s backyard. But he isn’t your average panda. As the children get to know him, they soon learn that he tells them most amazing stories. Each of these stories within the main story is a very short, centuries-old Zen tale that relates personally to each child.

The first story is about giving presents, and the meaning behind “true” giving. The second focuses on “luck,” and how events are connected, and how we can never really judge luck as good or bad. The last story deals with anger, and holding on to it, and what it means to let go of old pain and be in the moment. Truly, these are all stories about being alive, and living in the moment. Like with his previous book, The Three Questions, (which The New York Times called “quietly life changing”) the meaning of these stories continue to resonate with you long after you have put the book down.

In his artwork, Jon alternates between his brilliant watercolors for the scenes of the children and the panda, to monochromatic, spontaneous Chinese-style ink and brush illustrations for the Zen stories. The simple lines in his stories feel very spontaneous, but Jon actually repaints each picture — over and over and over again — until he feels it is exactly right!

How privileged we are to be publishing Jon Muth’s extraordinary work here at Scholastic Press. And how lucky we are to be able to enjoy these rich and satisfying stories.

  • Subjects:
    Literature, Literature Appreciation