I first came upon Jon Muth’s work almost by accident.
My kid loves books, especially poems (two English professors for parents, go figure), so when she was little, we spent a lot of time at the library. One Saturday, we picked up A Family of Poems, edited by Caroline Kennedy.
If you don’t know this collection, it’s wonderful, a mix of classic and unexpected poems. (One of my favorites: “Falling in Love Is Like Owning a Dog.”) Even more wonderful are the illustrations, watercolors by Jon Muth. My favorite is the breathtakingly beautiful illustration to Blake’s “Tyger,” but all of them are beautiful – so beautiful that I at once began hunting for other books illustrated by Jon Muth.
This is how I found some amazing children’s books.
First, the Zen books: Zen Shorts, Zen Ties, and Zen Ghosts. These three books tell the story of a giant panda named Stillwater who is friends with a set of siblings, two brothers and a sister, in what seems to be a small Midwestern town.
Stillwater lives near Addy, Michael, and Karl, in a lovely Craftsman home. The children first meet him, in Zen Shorts, when his umbrella blows into their yard. Karl, the youngest, sees Stillwater retrieving it, and alerts the others with the news that a bear is in the yard. (I must warn you that this might be my favorite opening to any children’s book ever.)
“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.
Michael introduced himself. Then Addy introduced Karl because Karl was shy around bears he didn’t know.
The children visit Stillwater frequently, having simple adventures (swimming, tree-climbing, picnics), during which Stillwater tells them stories, which are actually Zen koans. For instance, one of the first is of his Uncle Ry (an allusion to the poet Ryokan Taigu) who, when a thief breaks into his house, instead of attacking him, freely gives him his only possession, his ragged robe. The story ends with Ry sitting in the moonlight, thinking, “Poor man. All I had to give him was my tattered robe. If only I could have given him this wonderful moon.”
I love these books in part because they’re wisdom literature — and Jon Muth recognizes that even very young children hunger for wisdom — and in part because of the wonderful writing, and even more for the wonderful art.
You will love Stillwater and these kids. So will your toddler. So will your ten year old.
Also highly recommended is Jon Muth’s Three Questions, based on Leo Tolstoy’s short story of the same name. Again, this is wisdom literature written for four to six year olds. And the art is stunning.
Muth has another book about Stillwater coming out soon; and he has illustrated a second book of poems. If there is any complaint I have about him, it’s that he just doesn’t write fast enough.
(Art by Jon Muth)