Oooh-we! Didn't I feel clever buying Alex a book that introduces him to Eastern religious philosophy? Jon J Muth's Zen Shorts makes you feel clever, too, the way it wraps up three little Zen Buddhist nuggets of wisdom inside a simple little tale of three polite, well-behaved children visiting an amiable, mellow panda bear (why didn't the children go as a group to visit their new neighbor, Stillwater Bear? I have no idea.)
Still, the illustrations are beautiful, the cover art in particular, as you can see, and the lessons taught by Stillwater are inked with a flatter, more two-dimensional feel than the children and the bear. As with all well-illustrated children's books, the pictures tell their own entertaining tales not mentioned in the dialogue. For example when Addy goes to visit Stillwater, she brings along a piece of cake with a stick of bamboo atop it. Later, after they are shown painting black ink illustrations of each other, they share the cake; Addy with a forkful of frosting, Stillwater delicately licking the bamboo.
And the simple lessons imparted by Stillwater - value people over possessions, don't hold grudges, with good comes bad and vice versa - they are easily grasped (if not easily followed) by small children. The character of Stillwater is based on Zen artist/teacher Sengai Bibbon (1750-1838), who taught sometimes unorthodox lessons through humor and his drawings.
The narrative is told with a quiet, gentle wit that doesn't patronize:
"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.
While Zen is a teaching tool used to clear and calm the mind, I can't say Alex took the lessons to heart. While he enjoyed Zen Shorts very much, he mostly grooved on the fact that Stillwater was wearing what seemed to be boxer shorts on the cover. But I will not let his lack of wisdom bother me, no. Rather, my unagitated mind will be a pond unbroken by ripples of discontent. Cool, placid, tranquil. So very zen.
Zen Shorts is appropriate for ages 4-7.
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Tuesday, June 28, 2005