Every now and then, a picture book comes along that you immediately fall in love with. A few weeks ago, I was visiting a friend with a young daughter around bedtime. As expected, the little girl demanded her favorite story be read to her. She brought me a copy of Zen Ties, by Jon J Muth, and within a few short pages I was mesmerized.
Zen Ties follows the story of Stillwater, an enormously friendly Panda Bear, and his nephew Koo, as they play with three neighborhood children that Stillwater helps teach valuable lessons about judgment and compassion. Although the story itself is gorgeous, the most immediately striking aspect of the book is the illustrations, which are expansive and vibrant watercolors. Each image, in some way, borders on the absurd, while at the same time stunning in its composition, and beautifully rendered. As we turned each page, it dawned on me that this was one of those exceptional picture books that truly makes you want to frame each and every illustration to hang on the wall of your bedroom.
The story begins with Koo, the small panda bear, arriving at the train station to visit his Uncle Stillwater. If not already apparent from the title, Buddhist philosophies run subtly through the undercurrent of the narrative. Stillwater helps Koo and the three neighborhood children to forge a relationship with the unkindly neighbor, Miss Whitaker—who in turn they discover not to be as scary as they had assumed. Although delightfully interspersed with word play and Haiku poetry, the book is not any kind of overt lesson in eastern thought, as much as a simple story about extending kindness to those who may not always seem, at least on the rough exterior, to be returning the favor.
Zen Ties is a pleasure for both the eyes and the spirit. With a playful yet sincere message, and radiant illustrations, this is the type of picture book that you won’t mind reading over and over to the child in your life, or, at the very least, just one more time before bed.
Kelly McNerney is a writer, educator and bookseller from San Francisco, California. Kelly holds an MFA in Creative Writing, and served as the Poetry Editor and Editor-in-Chief of Fourteen Hills Literary Review. She has also worked with independent bookstores and the City Arts and Lectures alliance, writing reviews, and helping organizing author events in the Bay Area. While she really enjoys reading and reviewing big-kid books, she has a special weakness for children’s books.
Photo: Kelly McNerney