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Enlightened Panda Imparts Wisdom In 'Zen Ghosts'

Several years ago, children's author and illustrator Jon J. Muth drew a picture of a big panda in a very large pair of pants. It made him laugh, but he didn't think much of it, and he put the sketch away in a drawer.

It was while he was on a book tour that Muth dreamed up a crazy idea: what if, as a child, you grew up a few doors down from a kindhearted spiritual teacher?  And what if that teacher was a panda wearing a very large pair of pants?


Armed with a doodle and a big idea, Muth penned a series of picture books starring a wise panda named Stillwater. The panda befriends three children and teaches them life lessons between sips of tea and slices of bamboo cake. The first book in the series, Zen Shorts, received a Caldecott honor.

Stillwater imparts his latest teachings in Zen Ghosts, a story of magic and mystery on Halloween night. Muth discusses his third panda picture book with NPR's Scott Simon.

'You Don't Write Down For Children. You Write Up.'

Muth illustrates his books in vibrant watercolors, and his prose is sprinkled with witty asides (Stillwater speaks "with a slight panda accent"). If you look past the panda in pants, however, Stillwater's parables are surprisingly sophisticated. Most of them were inspired by Zen teachings.

"It's obvious that he would be a Zen teacher," Muth says of Stillwater. "You know, he's a panda."

In an interview with the Paris Review, essayist and children's writer E.B. White once said, "You don't write down for children. You write up." Muth wholeheartedly agrees.

"I think that children are completely capable of intuiting wisdom as readily as adults are," Muth says."They just don't have the verbal ability to put it into words ... [but] they get this stuff very quickly. Even the kids who come to the book because it has this giant panda tend to come back because there's some itch that's set off -- in their minds or their hearts -- to re-examine what's going on."

Zen Ghosts combines the simplicity and elegance of a Zen teaching with the magic and mystery of a full-moon Halloween ghost story. It also demonstrates Muth's careful balance between worldly advice and a playful attention to detail.

In one festive illustration (you can see it at the top of this page) a horde of trick-or-treaters makes its way down Stillwater's street. There are kids holding pumpkins, dressed as ghosts, wizards and football players. If you look closely, a large pumpkin is fleeing across the street of its own accord. Several of the trick-or-treating ghosts do not have feet. A chimpanzee dressed up as a cowboy is there too -- something that even surprises Muth.

"I guess -- yes, that looks like a chimpanzee, doesn't it?" he says, laughing. "You know, we go out trick-or-treating with the kids, and I seem to feel like I'm catching all kinds of things out of the corner of my eye like this."

Speaking Directly To Children

Muth worked in comics for 20 years before he started writing children's books; he was first inspired to start writing for a young audience after the birth of his son.

"I really wanted to start talking about different things than comic books had the room for at that time," Muth explains. After working in Japan for a while, he turned his attention to books that would speak directly to young children.

Muth's first children's book, The Three Questions, was based on a story by Leo Tolstoy -- his favorite writer -- and written directly to his son.

"When I finished reading it," Muth recalls, "I thought, 'I really want to give [my son] the tools that are in this story, the wisdom that is in this story, but I don't want him to have to wait until he can understand czarist Russia.' So I sat down and decided to write it for kids -- and for myself."

Muth never intended to write a second Stillwater book. He expected to resist what he calls the "culture of sequels." But while visiting his grandmother, he bumped up against an idea that could best be handled by Stillwater, who "seemed to be standing over there waving at me." Stillwater has now starred in three books -- and counting. Muth just can't seem to get the wise panda bear out of his mind.

"When I'm least expecting it," Muth says, "he's dancing on my porch."

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