Muth’s Zen Shorts is one of our favorite picture books. His accessible retelling of famous Zen stories packaged in a visually delightful format make this book a great way to encourage mindfulness in children and adults.
My boys were initially drawn in by the gorgeous illustrations. Muth’s beautifully rendered watercolors are full of color and light, and wonderfully express the humor and serenity of the points he’s trying to convey. The contrast between the expressions of the three children in the story and the expressions of Stillwater serve as poignant reminders of how we often respond to situations compared to how our ideal selves would like to respond. The lush watercolor pictures of Stillwater and his child neighbors sit wonderfully beside with the pen and ink drawings that illustrate the Zen shorts themselves.
A huggable-looking, extremely polite panda named Stillwater, who speaks “with a slight panda accent,” served as the initial draw for my child to want to read this story again and again. As my son grew older, he was able to appreciate the stories that Stillwater tells. And now, at 6-years-old, he can call up and apply this wisdom in various circumstances sometimes on his own, and other times with the aid of our suggestions. Stillwater’s tales provide wonderful touchstones to reflect back on when a particular lesson seems appropriate.
For example, when something discouraging happens, I can remind my son of the Good News/ Bad News story, and we can talk about how we might reinterpret the event. This tale encourages us to reshape our idea of luck from the cultural norm of an immediate good or bad, to simply accepting what comes because we never really know what might happen next, or how the current event might impact that.
Another story, told when a young boy spends much of what should be a fun time feeling angry with his older brother, discusses letting go of anger and the things that we cannot change.
A third (actually the first relayed in the book) talks of acting selflessly even towards the undeserving.
Unlike most morality tales for children, these stories don’t pander to specific moral outcomes; neither do they provide trite, preachy solutions. Instead, Stillwater quietly shares a story, and leaves it to those around him to consider its implications. True to the Zen philosophy he embodies, Stillwater doesn’t provide a direct answer, but subtly asks us to think. In our home, these stories have prompted further discussions about anger, forgiveness, generosity, self-awareness, wealth, sharing, how we should treat ourselves and others, as well as love and kindness.
Muth describes the stories as “short meditations – ideas to puzzle over – tools which hone our ability to act with intuition. They have no goal, but they often challenge us to reexamine our habits, desires, concepts, and fears.” This book absolutely accomplishes all of those goals, and it carries them out beautifully.
It would be lovely if we all had such a friendly, wise panda neighbor to help us grow and wonder. While it may not be as snuggly as curling up on a panda’s belly – as one of the children does in this book, reading this book to your child while he’s curled up in your lap can be an equally beautiful experience for both of you, and it can help all of us to live more in the present moment.