The American Library Association will hand out its annual Caldecott and Newbery medals for children’s books on Jan. 26, 2009. In the next month or two I’ll be focusing closely — but not exclusively — on books that, deservedly or not, are likely to receive serious consideration for those awards. Posts about these books will be labeled “Countdown to the 2009 Caldecott and Newbery Medals.” You may may also want to read the May 10 review of Pale Male, which I have retroactively tagged as part of this series www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/05/10/.
Stillwater the panda returns and gets a visit from his nephew who speaks only in haiku
Zen Ties. By John J. Muth. Scholastic, 40 pp., $17.99. Ages 3 and up.
By Janice Harayda
What would you say are the chances that any author would be equally good at prose, poetry and painting? If your answer is “close to zero,” you’ll have no trouble seeing the problem with this sequel to John J. Muth’s bestseller about a giant panda named Stillwater and the three Western children he befriends.
Muth’s beautiful watercolors give his Zen Ties a fresh and modern look. But the stuffy text is a New Age equivalent of one of the Victorian moral tales pushed aside decades ago by the work of pioneers like Margaret Wise Brown and Virginia Lee Burton and more recently by great author-illustrators like Maurice Sendak and Chris Van Allsburg.
In Muth’s new book, Stillwater has abandoned his boxer shorts and donned a red necktie for a visit from his nephew, Koo. You know you’re in for a slog when the gentle panda greets Koo, who speaks only in haiku, with, “Hi, Koo!” The problem with the greeting isn’t that children won’t get the pun — in good story, they wouldn’t need to — but that it’s cute instead of witty and typical of the weak writing in the book.
The becalmed plot befits a tale about a character named Stillwater. On a summer day in a well-kept American town, the panda decides to visit an ailing old lady who frightens children. He takes along four potential victims of that fear: Koo and young Karl, Addy and Michael. The children find that — surprise — Miss Whitaker is nice and helps Michael win a ribbon at a spelling bee. Why anybody would be taking part in a spelling bee in the summer, presumably at school, goes unexplained.
You might wonder if Zen Ties imparted worthy Buddhist teachings that would offset weaknesses in the writing. Not unless child-rearing experts like Penelope Leach and Michael Riera are Buddhists, because Stillwater dispenses advice that might have come straight from their books. And some of Muth’s implicit messages seem bizarrely anti-Buddhist. To entertain Koo, Addy invents a game called “Jump on Stillwater,” which looks sadistic. When she cleans Miss Whitaker’s house, she snaps at Karl, “Karl, hold the dustpan still!” No please, no apology for her rudeness.
Zen Ties does introduce children to haiku through the poems spoken by Koo. But haiku is a quiet verse form close to natural speech, so you wonder if they will even notice. And some of the poems in this book are poor examples of it. Near the end of his visit, Koo says, “Summer fading / new friends’ faces / lighten the way home.” “Lighten” is confusing here. It could mean “make less heavy” or “illuminate,” and because isn’t clear which one Koo intended, children will probably assume that he meant “illuminate.”
The fine watercolors in this book throw the deficiencies of the text into higher relief. And because pictures count for more than words in the Caldecott Awards, Zen Ties is likely be a serious contender for the next medal. You hope the judges will look hard for a book will allow the nation’s highest picture-book award to go to a work that is, on every level, of exceptional quality.
Best line/picture: The endpapers that show Stillwater and his nephew doing side-by-side t’ai chi movements.
Worst line/picture: Quoted above: “lighten the way home.”
Wish I’d written that: Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) wrote in the New York Times Book Review: “I had hopes that Zen Ties might veer closer to the Buddhist sources [than Zen Shorts did] , but the sequel contains no ancient tales at all …The weak story is a real shame, as Muth’s illustrations have the yearning gorgeousness displayed in the first volume.” Read Handler’s full review:
Furthermore: I will have more comments on the Caldecott and Newbery awards before and after the American Library Association www.ala.org hands them out at its midwinter meeting in January.
You may also want to read: A review of the 2008 Caldecott Medal winner, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and a reading group guide to it, posted on this site on Jan. 14, 2008. Click on this link and you will see both below the Orson Scott Card quote www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/01/14/.
Janice Harayda’s 2008 A-to-Z holiday gift-book list will appear soon. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing her recommendations for children and adults.
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.