After having spent time with sundry plots to kill the Jews last column, traitors swinging from gallows and all the violence and deviousness which comprises the story of Esther and Purim, how nice instead to take reprieve with a more Eastern way of looking at spirituality, with the Giant Panda Stillwater, as beautifully rendered by Jon J. Muth.
I was familiar with Muth from his work on the comic book series Moonshadow, and was pleased to see the transition he had made to picture books. Zen Shorts is clearly a labor of intense love. Muth is not just telling a story. He has something to say.
“My work in children’s books really grew out of a desire to explore what I was feeling as a new father,” he writes. “At the time, I was working in comics — a natural forum for expressions of angst and questioning one’s place in the universe. With the births of my children, there was a kind of seismic shift in where my work seemed appropriate — it became important to say other things about the world.”
After a wonderful version of Tolstoy’s The Three Questions and an updated Stone Soup with a distinctly mystical flavor, Muth turned his attention to telling the story of Stillwater the Panda in 2005’s Zen Shorts.
“I’m sorry for arriving unannounced,” he says as we are first introduced to him, holding aloft a large, red umbrella in the backyard of three children: Addy, Michael and Karl. “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 speaks – the text tells us – with a slight panda accent.
We’re in the midst of what appears to be classic white-picket American suburbia. All of the children are Caucasian. It is these meetings with the impressionable children – who seem never to have ventured outside of their suburban universe – which form the framing device for the so-called Zen “shorts,” – stories within stories – told by Stillwater as teaching moments.
In “Uncle Ry and the Moon,” a robber (raccoon) breaks into an elder Panda’s home. The Panda gives all he has to the bewildered robber, then later laments that he could not have given him also “the wonderful moon.” In “The Farmer’s Luck,” two rabbit farmers examine the meaning of luck, as good fortune brings bad fortune, which in turn brings forth good fortune compounded by more bad fortune. Finally, “A Heavy Load,” tells the story of two rodent monks as they encounter a very haughty woman resting in a sedan chair, and how they deal with her insults.
“Zen Shorts are short meditations,” Muth writes. “Ideas to puzzle over – tools which home our ability to act with
intuition. They have no goal, but they often challenge us to re-examine our habits, desires, concepts and fears.”
Each story comes from Zen Buddhist and Taoist literature going back many centuries. For me, these stories are not the highlight of the book. I enjoyed the framing moments more, the watercolor images of the Giant Panda interacting with the children. He seems to grow and shrink from picture to picture. When he first meets the children, he hardly seems imposing, yet when young Karl wants to play, he becomes large enough to allow the boy to jump and bounce and leap, acting as silent listener to Karl’s diatribe.
“Your uncle sounds nice,” says Addy, after hearing the story of Uncle Ry and the Moon. “I don’t think I could have given away my only robe.”
“I know how that is,” answers Stillwater. “But there’s always the moon.”
Three years pass.
I’m a big fan of fictional characters who age naturally, and it’s a feat seldom attempted within children’s picture books (Mo Willems’ Knuffle Bunny series notwithstanding). In Zen Ties, the next volume of the series, Stillwater is unchanged, so far as we can tell, but the three children – Addy, Michael and Karl – are no longer as young as they once were.
We also meet Koo – Stillwater’s nephew – arriving by train as the story opens. So named such that a clever pun can be made exactly once, when he first arrives:
I didn’t get it the first time either, even after it quickly becomes apparent that Koo can only speak in the ancient form of poetry:
summer! I have arrived!
seeing you brings smiles.
In the afterward, Muth writes of the pun, “For me, it’s also a gentle reminder that we are all connected and interdependent whether we recognize our neighbor’s face or not. It is easy to believe we are each waves and forget we are also the ocean.”
I see that sentiment being a breakdown of the Other, and I see destroying that concept as being one of the key intents of Muth’s series. In the initial volume, Stillwater was himself the Other. Now that he has been fully integrated into the lives of the neighborhood children – as witnessed by a rousing session and beautiful two-page spread of Jump on Stillwater – the challenge is to integrate yet another Other. In this instance, the elderly Miss Whitaker.
“The Miss Whitaker who lives on our street?”
“That Miss Whitaker? She’s really old and she spits when she talks! Every time we walk past her house, she shouts at us.”
But Stillwater is gently unmoved by their protestations. “She isn’t feeling well and we must bring her something to eat. Miss Whitaker is a good friend. You will see.”
I had thought perhaps that Miss Whitaker would represent another element of suburban Enlightenment, perhaps a former Buddhist teacher herself. But she is presented as an elderly woman living alone in a dirty, bare house, as crotchety as her reputation.
“Why on earth did you bring these children here?” she demands.
Stillwater is unfazed as always. “You look well today. We’ve brought you some nice soup.”
I was disappointed that the character of Koo remains silent during the heart of the story, taking a narrative back seat as Mrs. Whitaker and the children discover the ties which connect them. We last see him standing at the train station platform, hands folded and head bowed before his uncle. Stillwater tells him he can dispose of the paper cup which he has drank from for the entire duration of his visit.
“Nearing my visit’s end,” replies Koo with perfect pentameter, “summer now tastes of apple tea. I will keep my cup.”
Zen Ghosts is the third – and so far, the final book – in Muth’s series. I suppose that makes it a trilogy, but I hope to be wrong. This is by far my favorite entry, and might be a contender for my favorite picture book ever. It combines my interest with Zen Buddhism with what is clearly the greatest holiday of all time – Halloween. (For proof of my Halloween-love, please take a moment to read my Tales and Their Tellers column from last year.)
I really feel like he has captured Halloween perfectly, I’ve never seen it rendered so sensually. The familiar tropes are represented – trick-or-treating, Jack o’ Lanterns, costumes – but it does not rely on those tropes in order to tell the story. The story lies elsewhere.
We begin in the bright, midday sunshine, gorgeous, vibrant fall foliage, and the exclamation: “Michael! There’s a ghost outside!”
But it’s no ghost, it’s only Stillwater, standing as a lumbering, silent supernatural apparition.
The children are preparing for the evening’s festivities, making costumes and last minute changes. Michael cannot choose between an owl or a pirate, leading Stillwater to propose, “Perhaps you will be an Owl-Pirate.”
“There is no such thing!” Karl retorts. “He has to be one thing!”
There is another clue to the story’s core on the opposing page. As Addy unrolls the long, white fabric, asking, “Do you like my costume?” I can see the blue and purple geometric pattern growing in vibrancy the closer to the edge we get.
They do look like tiny butterflies, do they not? Indeed, two of them seem to magically fly off the fabric and flutter above Stillwater, one blue, one purple.
“After trick-or-treating, meet me by the big stone wall,” says Stillwater, bidding them adieu, “And I will take you to the storyteller.”
That evening, it is a perfect Halloween night. They sky is a deep blue, autumn leaves are blowing, children cast long shadows. How beautiful Addy looks, kneeling on the old stone with the long fabric of her costume flowing behind her, her blond hair obscuring her face, and I am again reminded of the passing of years within the universe of the story. She is a far cry from the very young girl we were first introduced to.
Stillwater leads them to his house, holding out a spherical, paper lantern to lead the way on such a misty evening. His home, generally so suburban, now takes on the property of a haunted abode, straight from classic Halloween arcana. Inside, he introduces the children to another Giant Panda who looks exactly like Stillwater. In fact, it is Stillwater…Isn’t it? The children are confused. The reader of the story is confused. After all, he has to be one thing…
This Stillwater-who-is-not-Stillwater sits cross-legged on the floor before burning candles, produces a long, thick brush.
“I am going to draw you a story,” he says, and it is with Stillwater’s voice with which he speaks.
The story which he tells, Senjo and Her Soul Are Separated, was first written in the 13th Century by Wu-men Hui-hai in a collection of koans called The Gateless Gate. It is a very, very old story, and Muth does a wonderful job charting the path of its existence – Sensei to Sensei – in a note at the end of Zen Ghosts.
“It’s not an abstract, historic event that happened 1,000 years ago,” he writes. “It’s very much about you and me today.”
I won’t tell you the story itself – but it is extremely beautiful and eerie and involves ghosts and mysterious happening. It is truly haunting. But which is the ghost? When the story is over, only one Stillwater remains, and it is not the Stillwater from the beginning of the tale. There is no explanation given as to this seeming contradiction.
“In Zen Buddhism,” Muth writes, “the teacher who gives you a koan is looking to see if you truly have digested the question. And if you have, the answer becomes your own.”
For more reviews of Picture Books, please visit the aptly named Picture Books Review.