Saturday, February 1, 2014

"Zen Ghosts" by Jon J. Muth

                When I read a picture book, I am almost always wearing two hats—my reader hat and my teacher hat.  For the most part, when I pick up a picture book, I read it as a reader and the back of my head is churning with teacherly thoughts.  With Zen Ghosts by Jon J. Muth (published 2010), however, I was initially so confused that I couldn’t even think about it as a teacher.  I desperately wanted to love this book.  In fact, I was already convinced that I loved this book without even reading it.  I saw Jon J. Muth at the National Book Festival in 2011, and the signed copy of this book has been sitting on my bookshelf, unread, for almost three years now.  I won’t say that I adore this book, because I feel there are some issues to it, but I will say that the more I read it, the more I appreciate what Jon J. Muth is attempting to do.

                Zen Ghosts is a story within a story.  Three children, Addy, Michael, and Karl, are getting ready for trick-or-treating when their Giant Panda/Zen master friend Stillwater arrives at their house.  He tells them that after trick-or-treating, he has a story for them.  He gathers the children after trick-or-treating and takes them to his house.  (Why do children never have parents in these stories?  I’d be a little concerned with a Giant Panda taking my kids off places to tell them a ghost story.)  When they arrive, they find another Panda that looks just like Stillwater.  This Panda begins to tell them a story.  The story is of a young couple who are in love and decide to run away when the girl, Senjo, told her she would have to marry someone other than her beloved Ochu.  They stay away for many years, returning when Senjo misses her family too much to stay away.  When they arrive back home, the father is in disbelief because he says Senjo has been lying in bed sick for many years.  The sick Senjo and the healthy Senjo meet up and become one.  The book ends when the storytelling Panda disappears, and Senjo is left sitting with the kids.

                After I read this book, I immediately had to reread it because I felt like I was missing something.  It is obvious that this book is not the first in the series, because the children in the beginning have a familiarity with Stillwater.  I don’t quite get the framework of the trick-or-treating escapades around the story of Senjo and Ochu.  I read the author’s note, and Jon J. Muth says that this story is an ancient koan.  Jon J. Muth says that “koans don’t’ have right or wrong answers as much as they have responses that show understanding.”  About half of the story is the children getting ready to trick-or-treat, going trick-or-treating, and then following Stillwater to the house.  If the point of the book is the koan, why make almost half of the book these mundane, boring (I’m so sorry Jon), pages?

                After reading the author’s note, I understand why he wanted to tell this story.  Jon J. Muth says that “at a very young age we discover questions about duality.”  He says that children begin to discover that they act different around their parents, their friends, their teachers, and others in their life.  The story of the two Senjos addresses that duality.  The author’s note helped me to understand the story somewhat better.  I think I am just a little bit frustrated because I feel like I shouldn’t have to read an author’s note just to “get” a story.  I reread the story several more times, and with each time that I read it, I felt like I began to understand it more.  Perhaps the author’s note would have been better if I had read it before, or if I had read his other books first.  Either way, I don’t think a child would randomly pick this book up and be able to have a deep level of understanding without some serious teacher guidance.  If I were to ever use this book, it would probably only be in an attempt to understand oral legends from other countries.  Koans are pretty interesting, and this is a good way to introduce them to younger children.

After I read this book to my sister and asked her if she liked it.
 Her response was, "It has a Giant Panda who talks.  Of course I liked it."
                The illustrations in this text are, as always, breathtaking.  The book is done in watercolor and ink, including the endpapers.  The illustrations feel Japanese, as he includes Giant Pandas wearing kimonos, and the living room of Stillwater’s house reminds me of pictures I’ve seen of Japanese homes.  The framing of the story, with Stillwater and the children, is full of every imaginable color.  Once we enter into the story of Senjo and Ochu, however, the illustrations take a different direction.  The illustrations are black, white, and gray, with only Senjo portrayed as having purple and blue butterflies.  The lines are much more defined than they are in the framing story, much more distinct.  When Senjo is a child, she has purple and blue butterflies.  When she runs away, she is only portrayed in blue butterflies.  When they return, the other Senjo only has purple butteflies, and the last illustration of the Senjo story shows the two girls coming together as one.  Jon J. Muth melds the two stories by having the framing story bleed into the Senjo story.

I tried really hard to find an official website for Jon J. Muth.  There’s obviously a story behind all of this—I really want to know where this American man gets all of these Japanese influences.  It seems, though, that he doesn’t have an official website.  I kind of find this baffling because he is an extremely popular and award winning illustrator and author behind works like Come On, Rain  (written by Karen Hesse), Stone Soup, and City Dog, Country Frog (written by Mo Willems.)  I was able to find this website that explained his inspiration for the first book where Stillwater appears.  He says that “Zen Shorts came from wondering, ‘What it would be like to live down the street from a Zen master... who happened to be a Giant Panda?’ My stories often come from questions, ‘Why is this so?’... ‘If this, then why not that?’... and of course, ‘What if...?’ Sometimes words come first and sometimes an image will prod a story out into the open. I might see a girl opening a door in my mind's eye but I can't see what she is looking at. When I consider these questions with careful attention -- without expectations -- they tend to open my eyes to the world in new ways."  This shines some clarity onto why he writes.  I still hold by my initial reaction to this text, however, that it is initially confusing and it would take a lot of scaffolding for an elementary school child to understand the text beyond the surface level.

Overall, I think that Zen Ghosts is not a book you should simply pick up and read to your children on Halloween.  In order to enjoy this, I think it is important for you to first read the author’s note and read his other Zen picturebooks.  One you have done that, I think that you and the children you know will be able to enjoy and appreciate Jon J. Muth’s masterful illustrations and his attempt to bring Japanese oral traditions to America’s youth.
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  1. I enjoyed reading your review! I read this book to my students a couple of years ago, and I agree that discussing Muth's rationale behind it would have made the experience much more meaningful for my students! I think they were a little confused! With your suggestion, I may try to read it again next fall! :)

  2. Your review makes me want to read the book myself, however I don't think my 2nd graders would get it more than the "talking Panda" and the "pretty picture".