While nowhere as amusing or exciting as the average picturebook fare, I think there’s something grounding about the wisdom offered up by old-fashioned fables and parables that everyone can benefit from, even — or especially — impressionable children. And if there’s anyone who can communicate zen philosophy to children effectively, it’s Stillwater, the gentle parable-spouting anthropomorphised giant panda who stars in Jon J. Muth’s beautifully rendered and unique Zen picture books.
I first read Zen Shorts — the first book in the series — to my son when he was around 4, but I think that the age he is at right now, 5 1/2, is just about right for these stories, which might be a tad too slow-moving and thoughtful for the average 3- or 4-year-old’s attention span and mindset.
Each book generally begins with a different premise, but they all involve the children freely interacting with Stillwater, mostly without the stifling presence of parents or other adults, which is appealing to kids. And, as a result, discovering these books is a bit like meeting an unobtrusive, unostentatious wise friend whom you can always rely on for some sensible, possibly life-changing words of advice.
Perfectly complementary to these stories are Muth’s masterful watercolour illustrations, which are both graceful and soothing to the eye. My favourite book in the series is Zen Socks, which happens to be the latest addition, but all four titles are definitely worth seeking out for their quiet wisdom and charm.