Zen Shorts

by Jon J. Muth

Jon J. Muth's Zen Shorts

Children's book review by Steve Barancik

Ages 5-8

An introduction to Zen Buddhism for kids

Meet Stillwater, the neighborhood panda. Addy, Karl and Michael just did, when Stillwater's umbrella blew into their yard.

The kids are drawn to the big guy. Each, in turn, will visit him separately, and be treated to a Zen short - a short fable or meditation - meant to speak to where each child is, spiritually, at the given moment.

Addy, the eldest, who brings a gift, is treated to the story of Uncle Ry and the Moon.

Ry, in author Muth's imagining, is Stillwater's rather polar looking uncle, startled by a burglar. He corners the thief - a raccoon - and insists on giving him - the thief! - a gift.

After the thief's departure, Ry laments that he wasn't able to give the thief a grander gift - namely, the moon.

Addy doubts she could be that kind of generous.

Michael is made to ponder unknowability with Stillwater's story of The Farmer's Luck. If your horse runs away, it's bad luck, right? Well, what if the horse returns with two horse friends?


Karl, the youngest, is consumed with anger on the day of his visit with Stillwater. Stillwater tells him the story of A Heavy Load, featuring two monks. This Zen short is the most familiar to Western ears. It's the one in which the older monk says to the younger:

"I set the woman down hours ago. Why are YOU still carrying her?

Jon J. Muth's Zen Shorts

Muth took home a 2006 Caldecott Honor for his artwork here. The pages featuring Stillwater and the kids look like fine Japanese watercolor prints. The shorts themselves are done in comical black and white, featuring animal characters. Review continues.

Stillwater panda with umbrella

This is a great book for an era where empathy is depicted almost as a sign of weakness in our popular culture, and an alternative way of looking things is discouraged by our shallow, partisan politics. Zen Shorts is a nice way to inoculate your child against developing such constricted ways of looking at the world.

Webmaster's note: Also from Jon C. Muth in a similar vein: Zen Ties and Zen Ghosts.

More reviews of Caldecott books.

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