Writer and illustrator Jon J. Muth is renowned for his incredible children’s books; his work Zen Shorts was a Caldecott Honor book, and he has received high praise for other books from the New York Times Book Review. Zen Ghosts, his most recent book, is no exception.
It’s Halloween, and Addy, Michael, and Karl are preparing their costumes when their friend Stillwater the panda shows up and tells them he has someone who can tell them a ghost story. They decide to meet up with Stillwater once trick-or-treating is finished to hear the story. The three children are led by the panda to his house, where they are greeted by another panda who looks startlingly similar to Stillwater; this new panda begins to draw them a story.
The story the new panda draws is not just any story, it is a koan, which are stories that Zen students contemplate along their journey to reach enlightenment. This particular koan is called Senjo and Her Soul Are Separated, and was first written down around the year 1200. It tells the story of a girl named Senjo, who falls in love with her best friend Ochu but is told she has to marry a man of money in their community when her father gets sick. Heartbroken, Ochu escapes to the river on a boat and soon sees Senjo running down the riverbanks. They run away together and marry. Senjo begins to miss her family deeply, so they return to their former village to face the consequences of their actions. Upon their return, Senjo’s father greets Ochu warmly; however, her father insisted that Senjo was ill and had never left her bed since Ochu left. Her father runs upstairs to tell her the news, and she gets out of bed and goes downstairs, where she sees Ochu and the other Senjo. The two Senjos become one.
After finishing the story, the three kids sit with Stillwater and then go home, satisfied with the “ghost story.” I absolutely loved this book. I think it’s rare to find something such a versatile story woven into a children’s book. The concept of duality and split souls is difficult to contemplate, not surprising considering Buddhist monks spent years thinking about topics such as this. However, the way Muth presents it makes it accessible to all levels; a parent reading it can comprehend the depth of the koan, while a child is fascinated by an interesting ghost story on Halloween. It really speaks to what we discussed in class on 2/3: children’s literature takes something from complex to more simple.
Last, but CERTAINLY not least are the gorgeous illustrations of this book. Muth is a fantastic artist, and he really brings to life all of his characters, especially those in the koan. Overall, this new book is not to be missed! I would also highly recommend Zen Shorts and Zen Ties, both of which feature Addy, Michael, Karl, and Stillwater and weave Buddhist culture seamlessly into beautiful stories.