05 July 2006

Long life ahead for Zen Shorts

Over at Fuse #8, reader response has put Jon J. Muth's Zen Shorts close to the top of a purely unscientific list of the top American picture books of the past 25 years. I think this is a fine choice.

Muth's earlier book in the same mode, The Three Questions, struck me as ill-conceived from the start, on the other hand. It put abstract questions into the mouth of a young boy: "What is the best time to do things? Who is the most important one? What is the right thing to do?" Picture-book readers don't usually have trouble answering those questions. The most important person? Well, that would be me. The best time? How about NOW!

Of course little kids consider big ethical questions. But they consider them in concrete terms. They think about rules rather than philosophical principles. The Three Questions's Tolstoyan lessons on living in the present don't offer much enlightenment to children who are struggling to learn patience.

Zen Shorts works the other way: from the concrete (bringing too many bath toys to fit into the wading pool, for instance) to the abstract (worrying less about material things). The "real" story of three children getting to know their big new neighbor is augmented with that fellow's parables, illustrated in a different style to make them distinct.

And to humans, Stillwater the Panda will always be cuter than Leo the Turtle. Round furry creatures with what look like big eyes are inherently more appealing to our primate minds than wrinkly green lizards with sharp beaks.


fusenumber8 said...

I'm with you on this one. "The Three Questions", was an interesting experiment, but one that didn't really work. I consider it Muth's warm up trial run for his later "Zen Shorts". His graphic novels for adults, by the way, are well worth checking out.

mbpbooks said...

John! I love your blogs! I knew you'd be a fantastic addition to the blogobration of kid lit! I'll be checking in regularly.