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Zen Ties is a disarming story of compassion and friendship that reaffirms the importance of our ties to one another.
- ISBN-13: 9780439634250
- ISBN-10: 0439634253
- Publisher: Scholastic Press
- Publish Date: February 2008
- Page Count: 1
- Reading Level: Ages 6-9
- Dimensions: 11.34 x 10.88 x 0.41 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.23 pounds
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 55.
- Review Date: 2007-11-19
- Reviewer: Staff
Stillwater, the giant panda who taught Zen parables to siblings Karl, Addy and Michael in Zen Shorts, continues to combine his slow-moving grace with genuine spiritual tranquility. This time, Michael faces a daunting spelling bee, and Stillwater, first seen wearing a necktie, introduces the three to Miss Whitaker, an elderly neighbor whose crabby outbursts have frightened them. Stillwater’s inward eye sees through her anger to her fear and loneliness. She turns out to be a marvelous spelling coach (“Just like plants, words have roots,” she tells Michael. “Roots of words can teach you to spell”), and when Michael wins a red ribbon, the pictures show the whole group sharing his victory with their own red ribbons—the “Zen ties” of the title. (Zentai is Japanese for “the whole” or “the entire,” as in “all of us together.”) A subplot featuring Koo, Stillwater’s nephew, drifts a bit; he’s a cute little panda who punctuates the action with Zen-influenced haiku (and allows Muth another pun: “Hi, Koo!”). Muth’s brush is as sure as ever; Stillwater’s big, blunt paws and hunched-over listening posture are irresistible, and Miss Whitaker’s delicate face and snow-white hair beautifully counterpoint the vignettes of youthful play. From a religious tradition that makes no theological demands and that will be unfamiliar to most readers, Stillwater offers a model of pure saintliness, and children will instantly respond to him. All ages. (Feb.)
The story behind the ties that bind
I still love to read picture books to my third-grade twin daughters, and Zen Ties is one of the best we've encountered lately, a real gem. It's simple enough for younger children, but offers depth to readers of all agesa feat accomplished by few books. This is a story with a variety of subtle lessons, worthy of rereading and discussing.
Zen Ties is a follow-up to Jon J. Muth's Caldecott Honor book, Zen Shorts. Both feature a giant panda named Stillwater who befriends three siblings: Addy, Michael and Karl. In their latest adventure, Stillwater's nephew Koo comes to visit, and he always addresses his uncle in haiku verse. ("Hi, Koo!" Stillwater says when he meets his nephew at the train station, and Muth begins a later author's note by explaining his love of wordplay.)
Young Michael is nervous about an upcoming spelling bee. Meanwhile, Stillwater takes the crew to visit an elderly woman named Miss Whitaker, who is depressed and doesn't feel well. The children aren't happy about the visit, because Miss Whitaker always shouts at them from her window and scares them. "Miss Whitaker is a good friend. You will see," Stillwater reassures them.
The children visit not once, but several times, and come to like her during a series of exchanges. Finally, Koo's visit comes to an end, framing the book in a simple, yet deft way.
Not only is the story superb, the artwork is equally exquisite. I was hooked from the introductory spread featuring Stillwater and Koo in a series of yoga-like poses. On each page Stillwater is a lovable, huggable teacher, while Miss Whitaker's expressions range from deep sadness to kindness in soft-hued watercolor-and-ink illustrations.
Muth sums up his own book well in that author's note. His story and pictures are a "gentle reminder that we are all connected and interdependent whether we recognize our neighbor's face or not."
My girls and I will no doubt enjoy this book many times, and read Muth's other books as well. Aren't we all in need of Zen Ties?
Alice Cary is a writer in Groton, Massachusetts.