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 ages—a 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?