Zen Shorts (2005) is a picture book written and illustrated by Jon J. Muth. But it’s also a short story collection. And it’s also a philosophy book. And it has a giant panda. Oh, and it is a Caldecott Honor book too.
The story starts when siblings Addy, Michael, and Karl meet Stillwater, a large Panda who wanders into their backyard to retrieve his umbrella. I love the opening scenes of the story. Karl, the youngest sibling, is looking out a window and telling Michael he sees a huge bear. Eventually all of the kids go out and say hello to Stillwater. Addy introduces Karl, who is “shy around bears he doesn’t know.” I find that phrase so enchanting. This kind of charm continues throughout the book.
The next day Addy meets Stillwater for tea. Then Michael and Stillwater hang out. Then Karl goes swimming with Stillwater.
Each outing is accompanied by an appropriate short story. The first is about a man (panda) who gives a gift to a robber. Another is about a man who knows that luck is a many-faceted thing. The final story is about a monk carrying an unnecessary burden. I’ll never explain the stories as well as Muth tells them, so you should just read the book.
The illustrations of Stillwater and the children are beautifully rendered watercolors. The coloring is subtle with quite intricate line work for the drawings. The stories between the “real” story are printed on pastel backgrounds and illustrated with silhouettes so that they have a clearly different look from the rest of the book.
When you’re finished you should also check out the afterward which explains the underlying philosophy for each story. (Muth has a lot of Buddhist/Taoist influences.)
This is a great book to read with older children because even if they don’t get the philosophy, the stories are approachable and they’ll get something from it. (Even youngsters will enjoy the pictures.) It’s a great introduction to philosophy, a fact that becomes clear after reading the afterward, for “students” of any age. Muth does an admirable job creating a picture book that children and grownups can enjoy together.