The story starts with young Bruce Wayne out with his parents after watching a movie. Bruce, brave and inspired by the movie’s hero, walks with his parents down a terribly dark alley. In the darkness, Bruce hears two bangs and sees flashes of light before he smells smoke. When Bruce walks out of the alley, he does so alone. His parents are gone.
When Bruce returns to the Wayne mansion, he is terrified of the dark. With Alfred’s help he sets about lighting up the entire house to keep the shadows at bay. The lights work until Bruce falls through a hole into a pitch-black cave filled with bats. When Bruce is forced in this very physical way to face his fears, he learns to take control of the dark and vows that he will never be afraid again.
Then, as most readers will have guessed, this book closes with young Bruce Wayne’s transformation into Batman in Batman’s Dark Secret (2015) by Kelley Puckett, illustrated by Jon J. Muth.
Batman’s Dark Secret was originally published in 2000 as an easy reader. Scholastic is now reissuing the story as a picture book in advance of the newest Batman movie.
Batman’s Dark Secret is largely what you would expect from a version of Batman’s origin story meant for the hero’s youngest fans. Much of what makes Batman who he is ends up being sanitized to make the story palatable for small children. Gotham’s pervasive corruption is completely absent while the murder of Bruce’s parents is completely glossed over without their deaths ever being explicitly explained in the text.
Puckett’s text is child friendly and presented in smaller chunks on each page. Some of the pages read as a bit clunky largely because the source material is so out of sync with the age level of the text.
Muth’s illustrations work surprisingly well with this comic book hero. Striking watercolor illustrations make excellent use of light and dark to lend an appropriately noir feel to many spreads. The artwork also uses darkness to good effect conveying Bruce’s initial fear and how he ultimately comes to embrace the dark.
Obviously Batman’s Dark Secret has a rather niche audience. Truncated as it may be, this picture book is a good introduction to Batman for very young readers. Older readers, however, will likely prefer to get their Dark Knight fix in comics instead. A fun interpretation for committed fans and possibly an interesting picture book about overcoming fears /being afraid of the dark.
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.