SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm Scott Simon.

A panda befriends three children and teaches them life lessons between sips of tea and slices of bamboo cake. That's the unlikely setup for the series of children's books that are written and illustrated in watercolor by Jon J. Muth: "Zen Shorts," which received a Caldecott Honor, "Zen Ties," and the latest is "Zen Ghosts."

They combine the magic of a Zen tale, told by Jon J Muth, with a mysterious ghost story, a full moon, and in "Zen Ghosts," a Halloween night.

We're delighted to welcome Jon Muth to our studios.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. JON J. MUTH (Author, "Zen Ghosts"): Oh, thank you, Scott.

SIMON: And first, why dont we just introduce this panda. Let's read the first few pages of "Zen Shorts," if we could. His name is Stillwater.

Mr. MUTH: Right, it is. Here's "Zen Shorts."

SIMON: Okay, the little boy at the door.

Mr. MUTH: Thats Karl, right.

Michael, there's a bear outside, said Karl.

A what, called Michael?

A bear - he's really big and he's in the backyard.

Well, whats he doing? Michael asked.

He's sitting. He has an umbrella, said Karl.

An umbrella? By the time the boys got outside, their sister Addy was already talking with him.

Im sorry for arriving unannounced, said the bear. The wind carried my umbrella all the way from my backyard to your backyard. I thought I would retrieve it before it became a nuisance.

He spoke with a slight panda accent.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: So this is Stillwater.

Mr. MUTH: Yes.

SIMON: How did Stillwater come into your creative imagination?

Mr. MUTH: I had done a drawing of a panda wearing a very fat pair of pants and it made me laugh. I didnt know what to do with it. But I thought it was pretty funny, but I threw it into a drawer and I didnt think too much of it. And then I went on a little while longer - a little while later, rather, I went on tour - a book tour - and I got the chance to visit with children and to read some other books I'd written previously.

And through that tour I got the sense of who it was that was reading my books and what kinds of things I'd like to talk about. And then I began to wonder what would it be like to live, as I did, in the middle of the country, say, and to grow up a few doors down from a spiritual teacher. And what if it was a different kind of spiritual teacher? And I ran across that drawing and I said: What if it was this guy? And it's obvious that he would be a Zen teacher, you know, he's a panda. Thats sort of how Stillwater came about.

SIMON: I was rereading recently an interview with E.B. White, who I think is known by adults as one of the most masterful essayists ever in the English language. And, of course, many young readers know "Stuart Little," for example, "Charlotte's Web." And E.B. White says in the esteemed Paris Review interview series: You dont write down for children, you write up.

Mr. MUTH: Oh, I think thats absolutely true. I think children are completely capable of intuiting wisdom as readily as adults are. They just don't have the verbal ability to put it into words or to examine it the way we do as adults. But my experience has been that they get this stuff very quickly. And even the kids who come to the book because it has a giant panda or - tend to come back, because there's some itch that's set going in there, in their minds, or their hearts, to re-examine and re-examine what's going on.

And I've gotten letters from kids saying, you know: Well, why did you do this, and I dont quite understand that. And I think that may be the deepest way to get something from these stories.

SIMON: Let's talk about "Zen Ghosts," this new book. I love the illustrations. First one, taking a look here, is the street filled with trick or treaters on a Halloween night and a full Moon. Wonderful, wonderful little touches from the kids who are ghosts in sheets in the kind of middle distance. And then I just noticed you have a pumpkin seems to be running across the street under its own steam. Or is that just a very slender child?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Yeah, look at that - those little legs under there?

Mr. MUTH: Yeah, some of those ghosts dont have feet either, so who knows whats exactly happening there.

SIMON: Well, I thought I'd ask you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: And is that a chimpanzee dressed up as cowboy too?

Mr. MUTH: Yeah. I guess that - yes, that looks like a chimpanzee, doesnt it?

SIMON: Well, you would know. But yes, it sure does.

Mr. MUTH: You know, we go out trick or treating with the kids. And I seem to feel like Im catching out of the corner of my eye all kinds of things like this anyway. So Im just relaying what it is that I think is happening (unintelligible).

SIMON: What did you do before you wrote and illustrated your books?

Mr. MUTH: I worked in comics for about 20 years before I started doing children's books. And with the birth of my son I really wanted to start talking about different things than comic books had the room for at that time. So I did a little bit of work in Japan, which was a kind of interim time. And then started doing work that I could directly speak to kids in picture books here.

SIMON: So did you consciously begin writing for your son?

Mr. MUTH: I did the very first book that I wrote and illustrated. It was called "The Three Questions." And I had read the story by - its based on story by Leo Tolstoy.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MUTH: He's my favorite writer, and when I finished reading it, I'd read it once before, but when I finished reading it, it was right around the time of my son's birth and I thought I - I really want to give him the things that are the tools that are in this story, the wisdom that's in this story, but I dont 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 - and that's how that started. And I think writing it for him was what - the catalyst for continuing to write books and discovering what it is that I'm writing about.

SIMON: I'm guessing that publishers - have they ever tried to suggest where Stillwater goes next? Like, forgive me - oh, all right. Stillwater really should meet a vampire because that's got...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MUTH: No.

SIMON: ...that's got winner written all over it.

Mr. MUTH: No. And that was never - I never intended to do a second book. The first one I thought was the whole thing. But then I was visiting my grandmother and I bumped up against an idea that could really best be handled by Stillwater, who seemed to be standing over there waving to me, so I - that's how the second book came about.

SIMON: You would see a big panda waving at you, wouldnt you? Yeah.

Mr. MUTH: Yeah, that's...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Do you go through life seeing Stillwater?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MUTH: Well, when I'm least expecting it he's dancing on my porch. Yes, it's true.

SIMON: Most be a reinforced porch.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Jon J. Muth, his new book, "Zen Ghost." And to enjoy some of his remarkable images, or to hear one of our panda friend's own ghost stories, you can come to our website, npr.org.

Pleasure talking to you. Thanks so much.

Mr. MUTH: Oh, thank you, Scott.

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