As most of you know, Mina and I have our little routine: around 10 a.m. we head down to Starbucks, grab a coffee and sample soymilk, head to the bookstore and plunk our bottoms down in the same corner. We are slowly making our way through most of the books on the shelves right next to us.
A few weeks ago, we came across a couple of books that actually made me “sit up and listen” to their message. We have been reading John Muth’s Zen Ties and Zen Shorts. We began with Zen Ties because it was a little less dense than Zen Shorts. Once Mina got used to the writing style, we moved into Zen Shorts.
They are stories about three children and their friendship with a Panda named Stillwater. Through his stories and example, he quietly and gently teaches them many lessons. The combination of beautiful artwork and magical lessons is seamless. The pages are done in watercolor and he executes the brush marvelously. The high contrast between some colors and shadows that he achieves with watercolor is impressive. He gets the effect of oils but with a softer edge, making it a bit more accessible for the kids.
It was in the book Zen Shorts that I felt that the author was also talking to the parents as well as the children. The books is divided into three sections, and each section has a story with a child and then shifts to a fable done in black and white Asian brushwork. These fables seem to be almost meant for the parent or for a slightly older child. The fable that really hit home for me was about releasing and letting go. It is about two monks, one younger and one older, who come upon a haughty princess in her carriage. She needs to get across a big puddle. The older monk lifts her, carries her across and puts her down and goes on his way. She doesn’t say thank you and pushes him out of the way. The younger monk, broods over this all day long and says as much to the older monk. To which the monk answers: I put her down hours ago, why are YOU still carying her?
That really hit home for me because I am a thinker and a brooder. The more I read that story the more I realized that, sometimes, I just need to let go. The watercolor version of the story with the little boy captures this fable perfectly and brings it down to a child’s level of understanding.
Zen Ties is the second book. Stillwater returns, but this time his nephew Koo comes to visit. I love that Koo only speaks in haiku! It is wonderful to have this literary technique interspersed in a children’s story. This time, Stillwater has the children help an old women in the neighborhood. In doing so, they gain a greater appreciation of how much you can learn from the older generation and vice versa. The story begins with the children being scared of the old lady who yells at them to get off her yard and play in the street. Then after becoming friends, the old lady is yelling at them again, to get out of the street and play in HER yard.
We don’t have the graphic contrast of images as in the first story, but the watercolors are still beautiful and the essence of the scene is captured in the minutest detail. I haven’t seen someone capture the soul of a character in watercolor before. When you look into the old woman’s eyes, you can see how she has changed over the course of the book. Her eyes tell the story.
I can’t wait to see the next installment of Stillwater and what he has in store for the children!